Interoception and Navigating High-Stress Decision-Making in Law-Enforcement

Making quick decisions is crucial in law enforcement and military ops. Interoceptive awareness can improve decision-making by regulating stress levels.


Rapid decision-making in law enforcement and military operations can mean the difference between life and death. Interoception, the perception of internal bodily sensations, has emerged as a game-changer. Recent scientific discoveries have illuminated the profound influence of heightened interoceptive awareness on regulating physiological responses to stress and enhancing decision-making. In this exploration, based on the work of neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett1 and law enforcement, we delve into the fascinating world of interoception, uncovering its pivotal role in how we perceive and respond to emotions and its profound implications for guiding judgments and decisions in high-pressure scenarios.

Background: Emotions and Decision-Making

Traditionally, decision models have painted humans as rational beings with limitless cognitive resources capable of making decisions based on maximising expected utility. However, the dynamic environments of law enforcement professionals force us to re-evaluate these models. Herbert Simon's concept of "bounded rationality" recognised the cognitive limits inherent in decision-making and hinted at the role of emotions in guiding our choices. As our understanding evolved, the groundbreaking work of Kahneman and Tversky2 challenged the notion of human rationality, revealing the prevalence of heuristic-based decision-making driven by emotions.

These "fast and frugal" heuristics, often called "gut feelings," emerged as critical tools for navigating uncertainty effectively. This paradigm shift highlighted the undeniable influence of emotions, aligning with dual processing theory, which acknowledges that "system one" engages in automatic, emotion-guided decision-making. This shift raises critical questions about how heuristics and the accompanying emotions influence the decision-making process in high-stress, high-stakes scenarios, such as those faced by law enforcement officers.

Stress Potentiates Cognitive Biases and Impairs Decision-Making

The high-stress landscape of law enforcement exposes individuals to chronic stress, which can erode cognitive functions like implicit memory and information processing3. It can also skew intuition and promote automatic processing. Chronic stress makes individuals susceptible to fast, automatic thinking, bypassing slow, analytical reasoning and increasing the likelihood of biases and judgment errors.

Routine and high-risk deployments expose officers to rapidly evolving situations that can escalate into life-threatening encounters. Neuroimaging studies have unveiled a shift in decision-making under stress, with reduced activity in the prefrontal executive control regions and heightened activity in subcortical emotion centres4. This shift from analytical reasoning to intuitive processing creates fertile ground for emotional influence on perception and decision-making.

Research5 has shown that acute emotional signals in high-stress situations can alter how individuals perceive threat-related information, potentially leading to misidentifications and biased judgments. During a gun detection task, the induction of anger in participants led to misidentifications of unarmed individuals as armed, showcasing the pronounced influence of emotions on perception and decision-making. Moreover, officers may succumb to recency bias in the field, carrying over the emotional impact of previous encounters to subsequent interactions, potentially distorting their judgment. Access to information about hostile individuals, often abundant in the media and law enforcement records, can further bias officers' perceptions and decisions.

Implicit biases, a prevalent issue in law enforcement, arise from subconscious associations between certain groups and stereotypes, such as linking males and minorities to danger and hostility, further compound these challenges, especially when fatigue and stress converge, highlighting the urgent need to address the influence of emotions on implicit biases in law enforcement. These biases can covertly impact officers' perceptions and decisions, especially in high-stress situations. Research6 indicates that fatigue and stress contribute to racial bias in police shootings, highlighting the need to address the influence of emotions on implicit biases.

The Role of Interoception and Emotion Detection

Recent attention has turned to the intersection of emotions and physiological responses in the context of risk perception and decision-making. Our bodies are believed to react instinctively to information, often preceding conscious awareness. Interoception, which allows access to these internal bodily signals, can serve as a guiding force, warning us when suboptimal choices are on the horizon.

Antonio Damasio's somatic markers hypothesis posits that emotions are expressed through various bodily states, providing decision-makers with critical information about expected rewards or punishments. Studies utilising the Iowa gambling task consistently demonstrate that individuals with heightened cardiac perception and increased skin conductance, both physiological stress indicators, exhibit superior decision-making. Patients with frontal lobe lesions lack the physiological response seen in healthy individuals and struggle with decision-making.

Heart-Rate-Variability Training for Enhanced Interoception

In law enforcement, research7 has shown a connection between interoception and years of experience. Experienced law enforcement agents often exhibit a heightened interoceptive awareness that enables them to rely more on their emotions and intuition in decision-making. This heightened interoceptive awareness is instrumental in navigating uncertain environments where incomplete information abounds.

However, for less experienced law enforcement agents, harnessing the power of emotions and intuition can be challenging, especially in high-stress situations like responses to suspected armed crimes. This is where training in heart-rate variability (HRV), a measure of variation in heartbeat intervals, can play a pivotal role. Studies8 have demonstrated substantial reductions in lethal force errors during simulated decision tasks through HRV training sessions. By focusing on HRV, inexperienced agents can learn to regulate their physiological responses, enabling them to maintain composure and make more accurate assessments during high-pressure encounters.

Accordingly, interoceptive awareness directly influences decision-making9. Their studies showed that individuals with greater interoceptive accuracy make decisions aligning more closely with normative models. Therefore, incorporating HRV training into the curriculum for less experienced law enforcement agents can enhance their interoceptive awareness and, subsequently, their ability to make effective decisions under stress, ultimately contributing to safer and more efficient law enforcement practice.

HRV Biofeedback: A Path to Emotional Regulation and Interoceptive Awareness

Anticipating and managing stress is paramount for agents seeking to thrive in high-stress environments. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the foundation of the stress-response system, and HRV is a reliable biomarker of ANS balance and physiological stress. An extensive body of research has linked HRV to stress and health, establishing the connection between work-related stress and reduced HRV. Conversely, increased HRV is associated with enhanced emotional regulation.

HRV biofeedback (HRV-BF) is a well-established tool in clinical settings for managing anxiety and offers a promising path to augment interoceptive awareness. Through real-time feedback and self-regulation techniques, participants can learn to alter their physiological states, enhancing their understanding of bodily sensations10. By targeting the temporal variability between successive heartbeats, HRV-BF offers a potent means to regulate emotional responses stemming from physiological stimulation. This technique directly exercises the body's physiological control mechanisms, ultimately increasing HRV. The skills acquired through HRV-BF can be transferred to various stressful situations without additional training. HRV-BF also acts as a dependable quantitative biomarker of autonomic balance and physiological stress, analogous to cortisol release during stress responses.

Research indicates that participants trained in HRV-BF exhibited reduced cortisol levels and increased HRV, indicative of enhanced parasympathetic activity and improved self-regulation. High resting HRV has been associated with superior neural functioning and cognitive performance across diverse tasks. It fortifies emotional regulatory capacity, reducing the impact of negative emotions during chronic stress. Although HRV-BF's application in reducing workplace stress is emerging, exploring its potential among law enforcement agents can shed light on the complex relationship between stress and performance.


Recognising and harnessing interoceptive awareness is a powerful tool for enhancing decision-making in uncertain and stressful environments. By bridging the gap between emotional responses and rational choices, interoception training offers a promising avenue for improving the effectiveness of law enforcement and, more broadly, advancing our understanding of how emotions shape human cognition and behaviour. Wearable devices, such as smartwatches, have made physiological data collection more accessible, enabling the real-time measurement of stress levels and daily activities among law enforcement professionals or professionals in other high-stress environments such as the military and firefighting.

The interdisciplinary convergence of emotional regulation, interoception, and decision-making holds immense promise, particularly for individuals navigating high-pressure workplaces where ignoring our physiological signals in such demanding environments can lead to costly errors while harnessing them has the potential to enhance performance and save lives. As we unravel the enigmatic connection between the mind and body, we may discover that the path to better decisions lies within the sensations coursing through our bodies.




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