06/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Can Police Officers Learn From Positive Psychology?

Let me know if this comes close to describing police officers in your neighborhood:

Idle on the side of the road is a lone police officer with a laser gun pointing to an endless parade of cars. Their task is simple. Look at the gun and determine if someone is speeding excessively and also be on the look-out for reckless drivers.

Any rational person would be bored senseless. But that's not my major concern. Negative emotions can influence our behavior in powerful, pernicious ways. When we experience negative emotions our attention narrows such that we are less open to new information, less willing to compromise, and more likely to rigidly adhere to initial reactions and stereotypes. When in a negative mood, we tend to judge people more harshly. When in a negative mood, we are particularly aggressive towards people that are different from us (what we might call our "out-group") which may be based on age, education, gender, race, political orientation, or religion. Our biases are bigger, badder, and stronger when we are in a funk.

Are police officers aware of how boredom impacts their decisions? Are police officers aware of which citizens fall into their "in-group" and "out-group?" And don't respond with a statement that they are trained not to show biases. Everyone has biases. If you want to fear anyone, fear the person who denies biases while claiming that they respect and care for everyone equally. Return to this column in 150 years when a gay atheist makes it to a presidential primary.

We know that being in a positive mood tends to widen the array of thoughts, behaviors, and executive functioning capacities at our disposal. Positive emotions ensure that we remain attentive and open when interacting with other people, with sufficient stamina to exploit rewarding opportunities. Yet, the United States opts for a highway patrol program where police officers are susceptible to being in a negative mood at the least opportune time- right before they are about to make moral judgments.

Here is my brief suggestion: allow police officers small personalized strategies to put themselves in a good mood. Let them listen to soothing, melodic sounds of their own choosing (commercials and channel switching on the radio is often more frustrating than pleasurable). Let them spend some time outside of their car where they can physically stretch. Let them stand in the sunlight so that they can increase their serotonin levels while observing their surroundings. When police officers are in a good mood, they are more perceptive, think more clearly, and show greater kindness and compassion.

The aim is not to make police officers happy, the aim is to create the optimal environment for them to serve and protect the community. It is far too easy to overlook how our mental content and environment influences our ability to do this.

If you think this research on emotions is only relevant to police officers, you are mistaken. How about courtroom judges who feel fatigued after listening to dozens of cases in a row? How about overwhelmed stay-at-home parents who are expected to be attentive, accommodating lovers when their partner returns from the office?

Know thyself.
If you want to accelerate the process, learn about and apply the latest advances in psychological science.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. For more about his speaking engagements, books, and research, go to or Research Laboratory