Psychology Weekends: What Makes A Police Officer Tick?

I went trawling around this afternoon through a variety of psychology journals to see if there was anything worth writing about. Lo and behold, I came across a brand new, intriguing article by two researchers in France about the psychological motivations of police officers. For this weekend’s post, I thought I’d take some time to review their work and give my thoughts on it.

The study by Gatto & Dambrun, entitled “Authoritarianism, Social Dominance, and Prejudice Among Junior Police Officers,” attempts to explain more or less why police exhibit observed social psychological traits such as Social Dominance Orientation and Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Before we dig in to the current study, let’s take a quick look at what those two traits are. Social Dominance Orientation refers to “the degree to which individuals desire and support the group-based hierarchy and the domination of ‘inferior’ groups by ‘superior’ groups.” (Gatto & Dambrun, 2012: 61 (quoting Sidanius & Pratto (1999)). The authors do a poorer job of defining Right-Wing Authoritarianism though they note that it is a construct made up of three subcategories: aggression, submission, and conventionalism. I don’t want to get too hung up on defining the constructs because it’s not critical to understanding the study’s design or results. I will just note, however, that a little bit more time defining the constructs on the authors’ part would not have been time wasted.

At any rate, the authors note previous studies showing that officer tend to score high in these two traits…meaning that they strongly exhibit characteristics of Social Dominance Orientation and Right-Wing Authoritarianism. But why? What is it that makes a police officer exhibit these traits? That’s the question these researchers set out to solve. In essence, they put forward to possible hypotheses: (1) group socialization, or (2) social projection. That is, perhaps officers tended to adopt these traits as a result of becoming socialized by their fellow officers or maybe they started exhibiting traits they perceived were important in the group to fit in.

So how did they test their hypotheses? The researches administered a survey to newly hired police officers about to begin training with questions assessing traits for the two constructs and also with questions measuring what they thought the desirable traits were among their peers and others in their organization. Finally, the participants answered questions designed to measure prejudice toward “disadvantaged groups.”

To determine the results, the authors examined descriptive data then ran the data through “EQS Structural Equation Program.” They found significant correlations between the two constructs and they also found that each construct showed a strong, positive correlation with bias against disadvantaged groups. More to the heart of the matter, the authors found statistical support for their theory that expected group norms drive individuals’ personality traits in the police context.

Okay. So here are my thoughts on the paper. First and foremost, I was a little dissatisfied with the reliance solely on a self-report measure. I am no opponent of using surveys; I think they can be particularly effective when used correctly. But here,  I don’t think they were. It’s not really enough to analyze survey-item response correlation by itself absent some sort of experimental manipulations. The authors in this study didn’t have any “experimental” or “control” that might have allowed for some causal inferences to be drawn. Why not run this same survey with civilians who have no connection to law enforcement then compare those civilians scoring similarly high on these two constructs with their police counterparts?

Another complaint with methodology is the reliance on “Structural Equations.” I know a fair amount about statistics in general and the statistical methods in the social sciences in particular…and I hadn’t ever heard of this term. It turns out to be a generic one that can refer to a variety of modeling techniques such as ANOVA, ordinary least squares regression, and the like. I would have preferred a little bit more detail regarding the specific tests being run…I certainly see familiar symbols like chi-square statistics but I am not entirely sure what to make of the data without a more descriptive explanation of the statistical models involved.

But perhaps the largest problem I see with the study is that it isn’t all that helpful in explaining or even investigating what the authors wanted to examine. In other words, if we’re interested in knowing why police tend to be so hierarchical and authoritarian, we’re no closer to knowing now than before the study was conducted. First of all, we’re facing a chicken and egg problem: do people high in these constructs tend to be come police and thus the role reinforces previously-existing character traits or does the job actually change a person’s affect? Secondly, it might be fine to say that groups of other officers tend to amplify or drive a new officer’s character traits but then you have to turn around and ask what caused those other officers to act they way they act. Again, this study is no help in answering that.

All in all, I found this research a little disappointing. I had hopes when I started to read through it that we might have some pretty interesting insights into why police have the observed character traits that we often see (e.g. strong on authoritarianism, big on hierarchy, etc…). Regrettably, this study only took some baby steps toward answering that mystery. Perhaps next week, I can share some research that’s a little bit more insightful.

-Zachary Cloud


Gatto, J. & Dambrun, M. (2012). Authoritarianism, Social Dominance, and Prejudice Among Junior Police Officers. Social Psychology, 43, 61-66.

Sidanius, J. & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierary and oppression. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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