Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors (PhD)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences


Paul Ward


In many complex and dynamic domains, the ability to generate and then select the appropriate course of action is based on the decision maker's "reading" of the situation--in other words, their ability to assess the situation and predict how it will evolve over the next few seconds. Current theories regarding option generation during the situation assessment and response phases of decision making offer contrasting views on the cognitive mechanisms that support superior performance. The Recognition-Primed Decision-making model (RPD; Klein, 1989) and Take-The-First heuristic (TTF; Johnson & Raab, 2003) suggest that superior decisions are made by generating few options, and then selecting the first option as the final one. Long-Term Working Memory theory (LTWM; Ericsson & Kintsch, 1995), on the other hand, posits that skilled decision makers construct rich, detailed situation models, and that as a result, skilled performers should have the ability to generate more of the available task-relevant options.

The main goal of this dissertation was to use these theories about option generation as a way to further the understanding of how police officers anticipate a perpetrator's actions, and make decisions about how to respond, during dynamic law enforcement situations. An additional goal was to gather information that can be used, in the future, to design training based on the anticipation skills, decision strategies, and processes of experienced officers. Two studies were conducted to achieve these goals. Study 1 identified video-based law enforcement scenarios that could be used to discriminate between experienced and less-experienced police officers, in terms of their ability to anticipate the outcome. The discriminating scenarios were used as the stimuli in Study 2; 23 experienced and 26 less-experienced police officers observed temporally-occluded versions of the scenarios, and then completed assessment and response option-generation tasks.

The results provided mixed support for the nature of option generation in these situations. Consistent with RPD and TTF, participants typically selected the first-generated option as their final one, and did so during both the assessment and response phases of decision making. Consistent with LTWM theory, participants--regardless of experience level--generated more task-relevant assessment options than task-irrelevant options. However, an expected interaction between experience level and option-relevance was not observed.

Collectively, the two studies provide a deeper understanding of how police officers make decisions in dynamic situations. The methods developed and employed in the studies can be used to investigate anticipation and decision making in other critical domains (e.g., nursing, military). The results are discussed in relation to how they can inform future studies of option-generation performance, and how they could be applied to develop training for law enforcement officers.