Dr Sara Waring is a lecturer in investigative and forensic psychology at the University of Liverpool. She is the research director for the Critical and Major Incident Psychology Research Group, and her PhD thesis examined the impact of accountability on police judgments and decisions within critical incident contexts.

Sara appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss decision making, communication and leadership in high risk, dynamic environments such as major emergency and terrorist incidents.


5 things to understand about extreme decision-making

  1. Appropriate decisions cannot be made immediately
    When a major incident breaks out, such as the 2014 terrorist shootings at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, the first job for the agencies involved is to start to organise and understand any available information.

    “The only piece of information that might be available in the very early phases of an incident is there being a loud blast,” says Sara. She points out that a loud blast could be several things including a car backfiring, an accidental explosion, a bomb detonating, or a firearms incident.

    From that very limited start, she says, agencies must work to generate several potential scenarios and then use the incoming flow of information to narrow those down.
  2. First, the credibility of information needs to be assessed
    As more and more information becomes available, the next step is to determine which information is reliable – and which isn’t.

    Sara admits: “That’s a very difficult process. It tends to be a process of having to invest resources to identify how reliable information is.”

    If, for example, the same information is coming from multiple sources, then more credibility gets attached to that information. But decision-makers must also factor in the stress levels of those involved or at the scene.
  3. The impact of high levels of stress must also be overcome
    The average human being, according to Sara, can process seven pieces of information at any single moment. “What we’re able to pay attention to is actually quite limited,” she says.

    But in major incidents, the stress placed on those involved can have a significant impact. Sara explains: “Stress actually reduces our capacity to process information even further. It’s like with horses… with blinkers… It narrows their focus. Stress has the same impact on the way we process information. It reduces the amount of information we’re able to process.”
  4. Extreme decision-making becomes a battle against our human instincts
    In times of high stress, most people revert to “their most well-learned response”, says Sara. This means that they draw on previous experiences to bring familiarity to their current situation.

    “But actually, in very dynamic situations […] that you haven’t dealt with previously, reverting back to the most habitual response might not be the best strategy.”

    Instead, Sara suggests that those dealing with the situation need to be consciously trained to be flexible and able to adapt, thereby avoiding the trap of unthinkingly reverting to habitual responses.
  5. Working together is key to arriving at the best decisions
    With so many agencies involved in major incidents, communication becomes key to providing a positive and effective response.

    Each emergency service, for example, might have its own acronyms and spoken shorthand. Sara insists that creating a shared model for collecting and structuring information is the best way to develop an accurate assessment of the situation.

    Creating a shared language ensures information can get to those who need it, when they need it.

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).



Interested in learning more about the University of Liverpool’s online psychology programmes? Find out more about the MSc in Psychology and our other psychology programmes.

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