Anyone who has ever taken a polygraph knows how most citizens are feeling when a police officer approaches. A stress response is normal in almost everyone hooked up to the instrument. A stress response to any police contact is also certain.
Some officers, in a well intentioned effort to reduce the stress of the subject in a contact, will be exceptionally friendly. I am sad to report that this happy attitude can be fatal. Here are four reasons why:
Dissonance and congruence.
The brain wants to match every sensory input with a pre-existing pattern. It wants the world to be congruent with its expectations. When something doesn't fit, there is dissonance. Dissonance, like three sour notes played together on a keyboard, creates tension. Tension lights the fuse of the fight, flight, or freeze response.
What does a motorist or pedestrian expect from a police contact? The template in most minds is one of efficiency, stern alertness, and authority. We may not like that persona, but that's the role that society has assigned to us. When an officer is casually friendly it breaks the mold of that expectation. Rather than reducing tension, that smile and friendliness may trigger that dissonance in the citizen's brain, creating more nervousness, fear, or even anger than the expected standard professional greeting officers are taught in the academy.
Smiling Makes You Happy and Careless.
Research shows that when a person clenches a pencil horizontally between the teeth, the resulting lip posture mimics the muscles associated with smiling. This artificial grin actually tells the brain that you are happy. A happy brain is one that is all right with the world, therefore increasing lag time to recognize and respond to danger cues. Conversely, frowning is associated with making the brain think harder.
A person who thinks they can smile genuinely while pondering the possibility of a sudden attack will find the incongruity of those attitudes projected on their face. This conflict can be perceived by the citizen and likely interpreted as not really friendly, ratcheting up their stress response.
The Guilty Will Use Your Good Mood Against You.
Contact with a subject who is actually guilty poses the greatest threat to the overly-friendly police officer. The dissonance is amplified. For the offender who does not respond in kind with some socially acceptable friendliness behavior to the friendly officer, the emotion gap gets more pronounced. The officer will either increase efforts to be friendly, or suddenly turn stern in response to the guilty offender's stoic or silent response. Aggression can result.
The happy police officer tends to be more talkative, trying to evoke a sense of calm in the subject while accomplishing just the opposite. A silent offender is more dangerous than a talkative offender. Plots and plans for attack and evasion are on the mind of the silent offender. If the guilty subject believes he can use the officer's lack of awareness as an opportunity, he will. Humans are not wired to be cautious and happy at the same time.
Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last?
FBI interviews with cop killers finds that these killers often report a subjective feeling that their victim was vulnerable. A recent set of experiments by Dr. Bill Lewinski on traffic stops resulted in an informal report by the role playing driver. Told to fire on an approaching officer on a simulated traffic stop that driver also had a subjective sense of who would be vulnerable to attack. As a matter of statistical reality, the number of officer murders relative to the number of police contacts is so small that the randomness of police killings defies efforts to find patterns to the murders. However, these two well respected sources raise a red flag about the importance of an officer's professional and authoritative presence that cannot be ignored.
Polite and Professional Wins
Nothing in this article should encourage an officer to be surly, impolite, officious, authoritarian, or paranoid. Use the standard greeting that you learned in the academy. Be professional, polite, and alert. And smile a lot - when you get home.