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Cognitive Training Can Reduce Civilian Casualties in a Simulated Shooting Environment


Abstract and Figures

Shooting a firearm involves a complex series of cognitive abilities. For example, locating an item or a person of interest requires visual search, and firing the weapon (or withholding a trigger squeeze) involves response execution (or inhibition). The present study used a simulated shooting environment to establish a relationship between a particular cognitive ability and a critical shooting error-response inhibition and firing on civilians, respectively. Individual-difference measures demonstrated, perhaps counterintuitively, that simulated civilian casualties were not related to motor impulsivity (i.e., an itchy trigger finger) but rather to an individual's cognitive ability to withhold an already initiated response (i.e., an itchy brain). Furthermore, active-response-inhibition training reduced simulated civilian casualties, which revealed a causal relationship. This study therefore illustrates the potential of using cognitive training to possibly improve shooting performance, which might ultimately provide insight for military and law-enforcement personnel. © The Author(s) 2015.
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Psychological Science
2015, Vol. 26(8) 1164 –1176
© The Author(s) 2015
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DOI: 10.1177/0956797615579274
Research Article
Shooting a firearm involves a complex cascade of actions,
and each action can be linked to a specific cognitive abil-
ity. For example, finding appropriate targets involves
visual search, determining whether someone is a friend
or foe involves decision-making processes, taking aim
involves perceptual estimations of distance and motion,
and squeezing the trigger (or withholding the shot)
involves response execution (or inhibition). Given this
hypothesized series of cognitive functions, shooting
behaviors provide an excellent opportunity to examine
the links between action and cognition. However, there
is little existing evidence linking shooting performance
and cognition, which is why, in the current study, we
attempted to support this larger concept by providing
initial evidence to tie a particular shooting error to a par-
ticular cognitive ability.
The present investigation focused on one potential
relationship between shooting and cognition—civilian
casualties and response inhibition. Civilian casualties
occur when shooters hit noncombatants with weapons
fire (Kahl, 2007; Wright, 2003; cf. friendly-fire incidents,
in which an ally is hit with weapons fire; Webb & Hewett,
2010), and this critical shooting error can have dramatic
psychological, ethical, economic, and practical implica-
tions. Thus, every effort should be made to minimize
these occurrences. In the current project, we looked to
understand and provide potential insight into reducing
civilian casualties by comparing performance in a simu-
lated shooting environment with response inhibition—
the ability to stop performing an already initiated behavior
(Eagle et al., 2008; Logan, 1994; Logan, Schachar, &
Tannock, 1997; Menon, Adleman, White, Glover, & Reiss,
2001; Verbruggen & Logan, 2008). For example, when
579274PSSXXX10.1177/0956797615579274Biggs et al.Reducing Civilian Casualties
Corresponding Author:
Adam T. Biggs, Duke University, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience,
B203 Levine Science Research Center, Box 90999, Durham, NC 27708
Cognitive Training Can Reduce Civilian
Casualties in a Simulated Shooting
Adam T. Biggs1, Matthew S. Cain2, and Stephen R. Mitroff1
1Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, and 2U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research,
Development, & Engineering Center, Natick, Massachusetts
Shooting a firearm involves a complex series of cognitive abilities. For example, locating an item or a person of interest
requires visual search, and firing the weapon (or withholding a trigger squeeze) involves response execution (or
inhibition). The present study used a simulated shooting environment to establish a relationship between a particular
cognitive ability and a critical shooting error—response inhibition and firing on civilians, respectively. Individual-
difference measures demonstrated, perhaps counterintuitively, that simulated civilian casualties were not related to
motor impulsivity (i.e., an itchy trigger finger) but rather to an individual’s cognitive ability to withhold an already
initiated response (i.e., an itchy brain). Furthermore, active-response-inhibition training reduced simulated civilian
casualties, which revealed a causal relationship. This study therefore illustrates the potential of using cognitive training
to possibly improve shooting performance, which might ultimately provide insight for military and law-enforcement
shooting cognition, guns, attention, response inhibition, cognitive training, civilian casualties
Received 10/12/14; Revision accepted 3/5/15
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Reducing Civilian Casualties 1165
you start to hit the “send” button on an e-mail, you might
suddenly realize that it is addressed to the wrong person.
Sometimes you abort the button-press behavior (i.e., suc-
cessful response inhibition), but sometimes you do not
(i.e., failed response inhibition). Initiated responses can
be successfully withheld despite very brief time windows
between the decision to respond and the response-
inhibition signal (Bissett & Logan, 2011; Chikazoe etal.,
2009; Leotti & Wager, 2010), although this process can be
cognitively challenging. When applying the logic of
response inhibition to shooting a firearm, consider the
situation in which shooters initiate the process to fire the
weapon—but then realize that their target is a civilian. In
this case, the shooters must rely on response-inhibition
skills to successfully inhibit a trigger squeeze.
Exploring this particular relationship between shoot-
ing and cognition can offer numerous practical benefits.
First, the action-cognition links between shooting and
cognitive abilities could help identify individuals well-
suited for performing specific shooting tasks—or con-
versely, individuals who are most likely to make
particular types of errors. For example, if the proposed
relationship between civilian casualties and response
inhibition exists, the individuals most likely to inflict
civilian casualties could be identified before being sent
into combat. Second, if specific cognitive abilities can
predict specific aspects of shooting performance, then
individualized training could be developed to help indi-
viduals avoid the particular errors to which they are pre-
disposed. Ultimately, these combined efforts could
potentially inform military and law-enforcement efforts
in performance, training, and evaluation. Such new
training methods are particularly important given recent
evidence that deliberate practice alone may not be as
influential for performance in professional tasks as once
believed (Macnamara, Hambrick, & Oswald, 2014). That
said, new training methods do not dismiss the impor-
tance of practice in improving performance; rather, they
highlight the potential in improving performance beyond
practice alone.
The present study contained three components to test
this proposed relationship: baseline participants to assess
relationships between attentional abilities and simulated
civilian casualties, a response-inhibition training (RIT)
group to assess the efficacy of training, and an active con-
trol training group (visual search training, or VST). Baseline
measurements consisted of shooting performance, cogni-
tive abilities, and self-report surveys to examine whether
simulated civilian casualties were related to individual dif-
ferences in response inhibition, attentional deficits, or
impulsivity. RIT consisted of three sessions with a 30-min
computer-based stop-signal reaction time (SSRT) task and
a 30-min iPad-based go/no-go task. VST consisted of three
sessions with a 1-hr, computer-based visual search task
designed to enhance search consistency (Biggs, Cain,
Clark, Darling, & Mitroff, 2013; Biggs & Mitroff, 2014).
Both training groups completed a 5-day protocol: a 2-hr
pretraining session on Day 1, a 1-hr cognitive-training
session on Days 2 through 4, and a 2-hr posttraining ses-
sion on Day 5.
The key dependent variable was civilian casualties
within a simulated shooting environment that contained
both intended targets (i.e., hostile individuals) and unin-
tended targets (i.e., civilians; see Fig. 1). This simulated
shooting scenario was designed to model the key compo-
nents of realistic shooting, including squeezing a trigger
to fire and moving the mock firearm in real space to aim.
We hypothesized that response inhibition would be
related to the number of simulated civilian casualties
inflicted, and therefore training response-inhibition abili-
ties would reduce these unintended casualties. Notably,
cognitive-training designs can be subject to various meth-
odological concerns, such as placebo effects (Boot,
Simons, Stothart, & Stutts, 2013; Green, Strobach, &
Schubert, 2014; Stothart, Simons, Boot, & Kramer, 2014),
which is why we used an experimental protocol with two
active training groups. Visual search, while possibly
related to overall shooting performance, is not conceptu-
ally related to this particular shooting error. As such, VST
should not reduce simulated civilian casualties, but this
active training reduces methodological concerns about
placebo effects because both groups are actively training—
albeit through conceptually different procedures.
All participants (N = 88; mean age = 24.92 years, SD =
7.48; 52 female, 36 male) completed the baseline session.
A subset (n = 57) was randomly assigned to either the
RIT (28 participants) or VST (29 participants) condition.
The number of participants was determined prior to col-
lecting data and was based on a reasonable number for
individual-difference analyses (approximately 30 per
training group and more than 80 participants for baseline
analyses). We stopped collecting data when we reached
participant numbers that satisfied these criteria.
All participants completed a 2-hr baseline (pretraining)
session on Day 1, in which they played the shooting
game and completed five surveys and four computer-
based tasks. In addition, the two training groups com-
pleted a 1-hr cognitive-training session on Days 2 through
4 and a 2-hr posttraining session on Day 5, in which they
again played the shooting game.
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1166 Biggs et al.
Fig. 1. Sample screen shots and equipment from the video game Reload: Target Down for the Nintendo
Wii (Mastiff, 2013; reprinted with permission). The top row provides examples of (a) an instructional
screen showing which civilian targets to avoid, (b) a remote used to simulate firing a weapon during the
experiment, and (c) an instructional screen showing which hostile targets to shoot. The two experimental
scenarios—(d) “Embassy Training” and (e) “Apartment Training”—included both unarmed civilians and
hostile individuals pointing weapons.
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Reducing Civilian Casualties 1167
Baseline session
Surveys. Five self-report surveys were administered
to participants. The Jasper-Goldberg Adult ADD Ques-
tionnaire (Jasper & Goldberg, 1993) assesses attention-
deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms, with
higher scores indicating more symptoms. The Barratt
Impulsivity Scale (Barratt, 1959; Patton, Stanford, & Bar-
ratt, 1995) uses three subscales to measure various forms
of impulsivity: attentional impulsivity, motor impulsiv-
ity, and nonplanning impulsivity. The Autism-Spectrum
Quotient (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Skinner, Mar-
tin, & Clubley, 2001) measures autism symptoms, with
higher scores indicating more symptoms. The Maximiza-
tion Scale (Schwartz etal., 2002) assesses an individual’s
desire to maximize outcomes. Finally, we administered
a video-game questionnaire constructed in the Duke
Visual Cognition Lab (see Appelbaum, Cain, Darling, &
Mitroff, 2013), which measured self-reported expertise,
preferences, and extent of video-game playing. Note that
survey data were excluded only if participants did not
complete all questions for that particular scale.
Simulated shooting scenarios. All shooting scenarios
were completed on the Nintendo Wii game Reload: Tar-
get Down (Mastiff, 2013). Participants stood 1.75 meters
away from a 28-in. LCD television screen. A black Wii
Motion Plus remote was placed into a black plastic holder
designed to resemble a more realistic weapon (see Fig.
1b). Participants simulated shooting a firearm by squeez-
ing the trigger, which caused the remote control to vibrate
as identification that the shot had been fired. A targeting
reticle appeared on screen to indicate precisely where
the gun was aimed, and a shot would land precisely at
the center of the crosshairs after a trigger squeeze. This
aspect of game play provided the opportunity to explore
shooting cognition while minimizing concerns about
whether the participant could accurately aim.
All participants began with a practice round (on a sim-
ulated shooting range) to become accustomed to game
play. The simulated weapon for the entire round was a
semiautomatic pistol. Different targets appeared (e.g.,
paper bull’s-eyes, silhouettes, bottles), and the game
slowly introduced various elements to participants (e.g.,
the timer indicating how much time remained in the
round). Each shot could earn a maximum of 100 points
depending on how accurately the participant hit each
simulated target. Targets burst apart on being shot, and a
number appeared in white above the target to indicate
how many points had been earned. Some targets in later
practice rounds required a “double tap” to destroy, which
required that participants hit the target twice in rapid
succession—a procedure that helped participants become
accustomed to firing multiple shots in short order. Points
could also be earned by completing a round (i.e.,
destroying all targets) with time remaining; 100 points
were awarded for every second remaining on the timer.
This encouraged participants to shoot all targets as
quickly as possible in addition to as accurately as possi-
ble. Participants were instructed to gain as many points
as they could during the round, although no participant
was allowed to advance beyond the practice round with-
out successfully destroying 100 targets. Five out of 88
participants failed to meet this 100-target minimum, but
reached at least the minimum after two practice rounds.
The rounds used for experimental data were the sce-
narios entitled “Embassy Training” and “Apartment
Training.” Each scenario presented the same mix of
intended targets (i.e., “bad guys”) and unintended targets
(i.e., “civilians”). Participants were instructed to clear
individual rooms by shooting hostile targets without hit-
ting civilians. Each scenario continued until the partici-
pant had gone through all rooms or failed the scenario.
A participant failed by shooting five civilians, whereupon
the game exited the scenario to a screen that said “You
failed! You have shot too many civilians. You must be
more careful next time.”
Both scenarios presented the same set of four possible
hostile targets and four possible civilians. Individual
rooms in each scenario presented a randomized set of
hostile targets and civilians in a predetermined arrange-
ment of possible positions. All rooms contained at least
one civilian and at least three hostile targets, with a maxi-
mum of five civilians and nine hostile targets. The key
difference between scenarios was the rate of fire for the
weapon (Embassy Training was completed with a semi-
automatic handgun and Apartment Training with a fully
automatic M16 rifle).
All targets were simulated cardboard cutouts that burst
apart when shot. Hostile targets were armed and pointing
weapons at the participant, whereas civilian targets were
unarmed. Points varied based on where the hostile target
had been shot: in the head (100), torso (~80), or legs
(~50). A number in white appeared above the target to
indicate how many points had been earned. Participants
lost 1,000 points for shooting a civilian target, and “−1000”
appeared over the target in red along with an audio mes-
sage (e.g., “Stop shooting hostages!” or “Watch out for
Participants completed six scenarios counterbalanced
by type to limit any memorization of target positions
(e.g., if the participant went through Embassy Training
first, then the order would be Embassy, Apartment,
Embassy, Apartment, Embassy, Apartment). The first pass
through each scenario was treated as practice as it was
the first experience with the fully automatic rate of fire,
the first experience with hostile and civilian targets, or
potentially both. The first pass-through thus familiarized
participants with an automatic weapon and helped the
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1168 Biggs et al.
participant dissociate between hostile targets and
civilians— the game heavily reinforced that civilians
should not be shot (the penalty was 10 times larger than
the maximum points earned for shooting a bad guy,
shooters failed the round if they hit five civilians, and the
audio message exhorted shooters not to hit civilians).
Additionally, the first pass yielded the score to beat for
each individual. This gamelike feature provided an incen-
tive and an attainable goal for each subsequent round to
ensure effortful performance (cf. Miranda & Palmer,
2014). The experimental data were drawn from the final
four rounds: Our civilian-casualties measure used
throughout this study was the sum of civilian targets hit
during these four rounds.
Computer-based tasks. Participants completed four
computer-based tasks at baseline: a go/no-go task, an
SSRT task, a Stroop interference task, and a visual search
task (see Fig. 2). Participants completed the computer-
based tasks on Dell Vostro 260 computers with 23.6-in.
widescreen LCD monitors. Stimuli were presented and
responses collected with MATLAB software (The Math-
Works, Natick, MA) and the Psychophysics Toolbox
(Version 3.0.8; Brainard, 1997; Kleiner, Brainard, & Pelli,
2007; Pelli, 1997). Participants were seated approximately
57 cm from the screen without head restraint.
In the go/no-go task, blue and orange squares (1.32°×
1.32°) appeared one at a time against a gray background.
Participants pressed the space bar if one color appeared
(the go signal) and withheld a response if the other color
appeared (the no-go signal). The go-signal color was
counterbalanced across participants. The colors of the go
and no-go signals were reversed at posttraining for par-
ticipants in the two training conditions (e.g., someone
with a blue go signal at pretraining had an orange go
signal at posttraining). Each trial began with a fixation
circle that appeared for a randomly determined time
between 0.5 s and 1.5 s before the stimulus appeared.
The colored square then appeared for up to 2 s at fixa-
tion before the computer proceeded to the next trial. The
200 experimental trials were preceded by 20 practice tri-
als with 80% go signals and 20% no-go signals. No-go
Go/No-Go Task
Stroop Task Visual Search Task
Stop-Signal Reaction Time Task
Fixation Display
(0.5–1.5 s)
Go Signal or No-Go Signal
(Up to 2 s)
Fixation Display
(1.25–1.625 s)
Go Signal Until Response but
Could Change Into Stop Signal
on 1/3 of Trials
Letter String Presented in Green, Red, or Blue
Fixation Display
(0.5 s)
Fig. 2. The four tasks completed in the baseline session. In the go/no-go task, participants pressed the space bar when one of two colors
appeared and withheld response when the other color appeared. The stop-signal reaction time task was similar, except that the trial always
began with a go signal that would sometimes change into a no-go signal. On the Stroop interference task, participants had to identify the font
color of letter strings that contradicted, did not contradict, or had no relation to that color. On the visual search task, participants identified
whether a target was present or absent among distractors in an array.
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Reducing Civilian Casualties 1169
signal accuracy for experimental trials was measured as
the percentage of trials in which the participant correctly
withheld a response.
The SSRT task was similar to the go/no-go task in
structure, but it assessed a different aspect of response-
inhibition abilities: the ability to withhold an already initi-
ated response. Participants responded as quickly as
possible when they saw a go signal, yet some trials
included a change—the go signal turned into a no-go
signal. The task required participants to withhold a
response when they saw the signal change.
Green and purple squares (3.18° × 3.18°) appeared on
screen one at a time against a black background.
Participants were instructed to press the space bar if one
color appeared (the go signal) but withhold a response if
the other color appeared (the stop signal). The go-signal
color was counterbalanced across participants. Each trial
began with a fixation circle that appeared for a randomly
determined time between 1.25 s and 1.625 s. On go trials,
a go signal appeared and remained on screen until
response. On stop trials, a go signal appeared initially,
but the color switched to the stop signal during the trial
and remained on screen for 1 s afterward. Two-thirds of
trials were go trials, and one third were stop trials.
Participants completed a first block of 90 trials as practice
(discarded from analyses) and then experimental trials
until reaching 312 trials or a maximum of 16 min spent
completing the task. Only 1 participant out of 88 reached
the time limit. In the experimental blocks, participants
received a warning beep from the computer if their go-
signal response time (RT) exceeded their mean go-signal
RT from the practice block by more than 2 standard
Performance was primarily determined by the stop-
signal delay (SSD)—the time difference between the
appearance of the go signal and its change into a no-go
signal. The SSD was altered on the basis of an individu-
al’s performance by utilizing a one-up/one-down stair-
case procedure. If participants correctly withheld the
response when a stop signal appeared, the SSD increased
by 33 ms to make stopping more difficult. If participants
did not withhold the response when a stop signal
appeared, the SSD was reduced by 33 ms to make stop-
ping easier. The time needed to respond to a go signal
was calculated as the median RT for correct responses on
go-signal trials (no response or hitting a key other than
the space bar would have been an incorrect response).
However, stopping time could not be directly measured,
because no overt response was to be made.
The staircase procedure was designed to produce
50% accuracy on stop-signal trials. Final SSRT for each
participant was calculated using the integration method
(Verbruggen, Aron, Stevens, & Chambers, 2010; Ver-
bruggen, Chambers, & Logan, 2013). This approach uses
the go-signal RT on the nth trial minus the average SSD
to calculate the SSRT, for which the nth trial is calculated
by rank-ordering the correct go-signal RTs and using the
trial that corresponded to the probability of responding
on a stop-signal trial (i.e., failing to withhold a response).
For example, a participant might see 150 go-signal trials
during the experiment and respond accurately on 56%
of the stop-signal trials (i.e., successfully withhold a
response), which would indicate that the nth trial con-
tained the 66th fastest correct go-signal response. SSRT
was calculated for all trials across the experiment.
The experiment-wide SSRT integration-method calcu-
lation could be errant if there is gradual slowing across
the experiment (Verbruggen etal., 2013). However, the
correct go-signal RTs revealed no systematic effect of
slowing (Block 1: M = 473 ms, SD = 161 ms; Block 2: M =
465 ms, SD = 165 ms; Block 3: M = 470 ms, SD = 207 ms).
Note that data from 4 participants were removed: 2 par-
ticipants who had stop-signal accuracy more than 2.5
standard deviations below the group mean and 2 partici-
pants who had average go-signal RTs more than 2.5 stan-
dard deviations above the group mean.
In the Stroop interference task, participants viewed
words printed in red, green, or blue font and were
required to identify the font color of the word. Each letter
was approximately 1.22° × 1.03°. Incompatible trials pre-
sented a printed word that contradicted the font color
(e.g., the word “RED” written in blue font), neutral trials
presented a string of three to five “X”s in any color (i.e.,
red, green, or blue), and compatible trials presented a
word that matched the font (e.g., the word “RED” appear-
ing in red font).
Each trial began with a dot appearing at fixation for
0.5 s. A letter string then appeared, and participants iden-
tified the font color by pressing the left arrow key to
signify red font, the down arrow key to signify green
font, and the right arrow key to signify blue font.
Participants completed 30 practice trials before 180
experimental trials, which were divided between incom-
patible (20%), neutral (20%), and compatible (60%).
Stroop interference effects were measured by taking the
RT for incompatible trials with correct responses and
subtracting the RT for neutral trials with correct responses.
In the visual search task, participants searched among
a display of 32 items for a prespecified target item and
indicated whether the target was present or absent (for
details about the stimuli, see Biggs, Cain, etal., 2013).
Target-absent trials consisted of all “L”-shaped distractors,
whereas target-present trials contained a target “T” among
the distractors. Each trial began with a fixation cross for
250 ms. The cross then disappeared, and the search array
appeared until response. Target-present and target-absent
judgments were made using one of two assigned keys
(“z” and “/”; counterbalanced across participants). Ten
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1170 Biggs et al.
practice trials preceded 100 experimental trials. Both
practice and experimental trials were divided among
equal numbers of target-present and target-absent trials.
Accuracy feedback was provided for practice trials but
not for experimental trials. Search arrays disappeared
after a response, and the next trial began automatically.
Participants were given the opportunity to rest every 25
experimental trials. Search accuracy was calculated as the
number of trials in which the participant correctly
responded that the target was present (i.e., a hit) or that
the target was absent (i.e., a correct rejection).
Response-inhibition training (RIT). Participants in
the RIT condition completed three 1-hr training sessions.
Each session consisted of two tasks: an SSRT task and an
interactive go/no-go task (see Table 1). Each task took
approximately 30 min, and task difficulty adapted to indi-
vidual performance—that is, the task became more diffi-
cult as the participant performed better.
RIT SSRT task. Previous evidence has demonstrated
that inhibitory control could be trained through stop-
signal tasks (Berkman, Kahn, & Merchant, 2014; Manuel,
Bernasconi, & Spierer, 2013), and so a stop-signal task
was included in RIT. Stimuli were left- or right-pointing
arrows (4.3° × 3.7°) presented at the center of the screen
(see Fig. 3). The same stimulus colors (green and purple)
were used here as in the baseline task, and the go-signal
versus stop-signal color was counterbalanced across par-
ticipants and across training sessions. Many aspects of the
design were similar to the baseline SSRT task, including
the one-up/one-down staircase procedure used to alter
the SSD. However, participants now responded by indi-
cating the direction of the arrow (left or right) as opposed
to simply hitting the space bar for the go signal. A fixa-
tion dot appeared for 1.25 s before being replaced by
the arrow (see Fig. 3). The task ended when participants
completed five blocks of trials with 104 trials per block
or they reached a 30-min time limit (forced ceiling). In
the experimental blocks, participants received a warning
beep from the computer if their go-signal RT exceeded
their mean go-signal RT from the practice block by more
than 2 standard deviations.
On Training Day 1 (Day 2 of the study), participants
responded via pressing either the left or right arrow on
the keyboard with their dominant hand only (i.e., if they
squeezed the trigger with their right hand for the shoot-
ing assessments, then only the right hand could be used
to respond on Training Day 1). On Training Days 2 and
3 (Days 3 and 4 of the study), participants were required
to use both hands to respond (pressing the “z” key for a
left-pointing arrow and the “/” key for a right-pointing
arrow). The one-up/one-down staircase was calculated
separately for each hand as only the left hand was used
to respond to left-pointing arrows, and only the right
hand was used to respond to right-pointing arrows.
Interactive go/no-go task. Participants in the RIT con-
dition also played the iPad game Smack That Gugl! Par-
ticipants smacked puttylike figures (“gugls”) by tapping
the screen. Some gugls required only one tap, some
required two, certain gugls could split from one into two
when tapped (and then participants had to tap the two
new gugls), and some had spikes or red bumps to indi-
cate that they should not be tapped (i.e., they required
response inhibition).
Participants began each level with five lives. A life was
lost if participants failed to tap gugls quickly enough or if
they tapped a gugl with spikes or red bumps. Participants
began each training session at Level 1 and proceeded
until they lost five lives. During the training portion of
each day, participants began at the highest level they had
previously completed and continued until losing five
more lives. Participants advanced to a new level by
smashing 100 gugls (e.g., participants went from Level 2
to Level 3 after smashing 200 gugls and would restart
Table 1. Description of the Two Training Conditions
Response-inhibition training (RIT)
Visual search trainingRIT SSRT task Smack That Gugl! game
Task goal Avoiding civilian casualties Avoiding civilian casualties Detecting targets
Duration 30 min 30 min 1 hr
Task medium Computer Handheld tablet Computer
Stimuli Green and purple arrows Claylike blobs Rotated “C”s
Purpose Learn to withhold an initiated
Learn to avoid certain stimuli while
performing quickly
Learn to consistently perform a
visual search
Difficulty Increased with correct responses Increased with accuracy Increased by training day
Task Respond to the go color, withhold
the response for the stop color
“Smash” blobs with finger taps,
avoid smashing some blobs
Make a present or absent judgment
about a reversed “C”
Note: SSRT = stop-signal reaction time.
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Reducing Civilian Casualties 1171
from Level 3 after losing five lives). Each training day
ended with a final round in which participants again
began from Level 1 and proceeded as far into the game
as they could before losing five lives.
Visual search training (VST). Participants in the VST
condition completed three training sessions designed to
enhance search consistency with a particular search strat-
egy. Each session increased the difficulty for consistent
search: Session 1 (on Training Day 2) presented perfectly
aligned grid displays, Session 2 (on Training Day 3) intro-
duced spatial jitter, and Session 3 (on Training Day 4)
introduced spatial jitter and gaps between items (see
Table 1).
Each display item was a circle (0.6° in diameter) with a
portion removed to make it resemble the letter “C” (see
Fig. 3). Targets were perfectly reversed “C”s (i.e., rotated
180°), and distractors were drawn from a pool of “C” stim-
uli rotated in increments of 5° (5°, 10°, 15°, etc., except for
175° and 185°). Each training day included three parts. In
Part 1, full displays were presented, and participants were
required to make one target present/absent response per
display. In Part 2, each display was presented one line at
a time starting from the top, and participants were required
to make a target present/absent decision about each line
of the display before it disappeared and the next line
appeared. Part 3 was identical to Part 1.
On all training days, participants were instructed to
search left to right, starting at the top left as though “read-
ing from a book.” On Training Day 1, search displays
were presented with 56 items perfectly aligned in an 8
(horizontal) × 7 (vertical) grid during Part 1 and with 8
items per line during Part 2. On Training Day 2, search
displays were presented with 56 total display items
aligned in an 8 × 7 grid during Part 1 and with 8 items
per line during Part 2, but randomized spatial jitter was
applied to prevent perfect grid alignment. On Training
Day 3, search displays were presented with the same
Training Day 1 Display Training Day 2 Display Training Day 3 Display
Visual Search Training
Response-Inhibition Training
Fixation Display
(1.25 s)
Go Signal Until Response but Could Change
Into Stop Signal on 1/3 of Trials
Fig. 3. Sample displays from the (a) stop-signal reaction time task in the response-inhibition training condition
and (b) search task in Part 1 of the visual search training condition. In the stop-signal reaction time task, partici-
pants had to indicate the direction in which the go arrow was pointing and make no response for the no-go arrow.
However, the go arrow turned into the no-go arrow on one third of the trials. Visual search training differed across
the 3 training days: On Day 1, perfectly aligned grid displays were presented. On Day 2, spatial jitter was intro-
duced, and on Day 3, there was spatial jitter and gaps between items. On each day, participants had to identify
whether a target (a “C”) was present or absent.
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1172 Biggs et al.
randomized spatial jitter as on Training Day 2, but with 35
total items (5 per line during Part 2). This design allowed
participants to volitionally use the search strategy (Parts 1
and 3) but also provided a more targeted training oppor-
tunity with the provided visual search strategy (Part 2). We
increased the difficulty of using the left-to-right strategy
each day by making the search grid less symmetrical.
Baseline differences
All baseline measures were compared with the number
of civilian casualties in the Reload: Target Down game.
Table 2 presents the correlation and significance values.
Note that participant counts vary by measure because of
data filtering for behavioral performance (i.e., values
more than 3 standard deviations below the group mean
were removed as outliers) and because not all partici-
pants answered all questions in a particular survey.
Performance on the SSRT task, which measured an indi-
vidual’s ability to withhold an initiated response, was sig-
nificantly related to the number of simulated civilian
casualties at baseline, r(82) = .25, p = .02, with poorer
SSRT performance related to greater simulated civilian
casualties. Two self-report scales were significantly
related to the number of simulated civilian casualties at
baseline: More simulated civilian casualties were related
to higher ADHD scores, r(84) = .21, p < .05, and greater
attentional impulsivity, r(82) = .24, p < .05. Simulated
civilian casualties were not related to self-reported motor
impulsivity, r(83) = .12, p = .27, nor the total number of
shots fired in the simulated shooting task—a behavioral
measure of motor impulsivity, r(86) = .08, p = .44.
Training effects
Simulated civilian casualties were significantly reduced
from pretraining to posttraining for the RIT group but not
for the VST group, F(1, 55) = 4.10, p < .05, ηp2 = .07 (Fig.
4). This reduction could not be explained by a group dif-
ference in simulated civilian casualties at pretraining,
t(55) = 0.69, p = .49, nor by a reduction in the number of
intended targets hit, as RIT participants improved more
than VST participants in number of targets correctly shot,
F(1, 55) = 3.87, p = .05, ηp2 = .07. Finally, more self-
reported ADHD symptoms were associated with a larger
reduction in civilian casualties from pretraining to post-
training for the RIT group but not the VST group (Fig. 5).
General Discussion
The current study revealed several possible links between
civilian casualties in a simulated shooting environment
and the cognitive ability of response inhibition. First,
individuals with lower inhibitory control and higher
attentional impulsivity were more likely to shoot civilians
in the simulated scenarios. Second, significant relation-
ships between simulated civilian casualties and atten-
tional measures, but not between civilian casualties and
motor-impulsivity measures, suggest a cognitive under-
pinning of the relationship—an itchy brain more so than
an itchy trigger finger. Third, response-inhibition training
offers exciting potential to inform future training proce-
dures, which might ultimately reduce unintended casual-
ties. Finally, individuals who self-reported high levels of
ADHD symptoms benefited most from the response-inhi-
bition training—which suggests not only that some peo-
ple benefit more from training than others, but also that
such individuals could be identified prior to training.
These findings provide some enticing preliminary evi-
dence that shooting performance could be linked to cog-
nitive abilities and—potentially—that cognitive training
could enhance shooting performance.
These results add to the mounting evidence that inhib-
itory control can be improved through cognitive training
(e.g., Guerrieri, Nederkoorn, & Jansen, 2012; Thorell,
Lindqvist, Bergman, Bohlin, & Klingberg, 2009; for a
review, see Spierer, Chavan, & Manuel, 2013). Some pre-
vious efforts have demonstrated stimulus-specific
response-inhibition training by reducing alcohol con-
sumption via enhanced response inhibition for alcohol-
related stimuli (Houben, Havermans, Nederkoorn, &
Jansen, 2012; Houben, Nederkoorn, Wiers, & Jansen,
2011), or more generalized response-inhibition training
by demonstrating reduced risk taking in gambling after
Table 2. Behavioral and Survey Results From the Baseline
Psychological measure Statistical comparison
Behavioral tasks
Go/no-go r(86) = –.18, p = .09
Stop-signal reaction time r(82) = .25, p = .02
Stroop interference r(86) = .06, p = .58
Visual search r(86) = –.07, p = .52
General surveys
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder r(84) = .21, p < .05
Autism r(75) = .01, p = .93
Maximization r(84) = .17, p = .12
Video-game expertise r(86) = .10, p = .35
Attentional r(82) = .24, p = .03
Motor r(83) = .12, p = .27
Nonplanning r(81) = –.03, p = .79
Note: Each measure was compared with the number of civilian
casualties inflicted during the video game played in the baseline
session (pretraining session for the two training groups).
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Reducing Civilian Casualties 1173
Response Inhibition
Visual Search Training
Civilian Casualties
Before Training
After Training
Response Inhibition
Visual Search Training
Intended Targets Hit
* *
Fig. 4. Mean number of (a) civilian casualties and (b) intended targets hit as a function of training condition and time of test. Asterisks
indicate a significant difference between testing occasions or training conditions (*p < .05). Error bars show standard errors of the mean.
020406080 100
Change in Civilian Casualties
ADHD Score
020406080 100
Change in Civilian Casualties
ADHD Score
Response Inhibition Training
r(26) = .40
p = .03
Visual Search Training
r(27) = –.08
p = .68
Fig. 5. Scatter plots (with best-fitting regression lines) showing the change in the number of civilian casualties (pretraining minus posttrain-
ing) as a function of the number of self-reported attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms, separately for the (a) response-
inhibition training group and (b) visual search training group. On the y-axes, higher values equal lower civilian casualties.
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1174 Biggs et al.
inhibitory training (Verbruggen, Adams, & Chambers,
2012). The current findings suggest another potential
area to which response-inhibition training could be
applied—shooting a firearm. Namely, squeezing the trig-
ger or not squeezing the trigger is akin to a go/no-go
task, albeit one with more complicated lead-up processes
than in standard laboratory tasks. Cognitive training can
improve response-inhibition abilities, which could like-
wise potentially reduce shooting errors due to response-
inhibition failures. The present study provides initial
insight into this relationship by comparing performance
on laboratory-based, response-inhibition tasks with a
simulation designed to mimic the basic response proce-
dure of shooting a firearm. This link will need to be fur-
ther supported by additional evidence, although the
present study provides enticing preliminary results.
The current study also adds to a growing literature
linking gun presence and gun use to cognitive abilities.
For example, previous research has revealed a weapon-
focus effect—individuals remember fewer details about
the perpetrator of a crime if the perpetrator was armed
than if the perpetrator was unarmed (Loftus, Loftus, &
Messo, 1987; for a recent review, see Fawcett, Russell,
Peace, & Christie, 2013). The weapon-focus effect involves
situations in which someone else is holding a weapon,
though recent evidence has demonstrated that wielding a
gun also affects cognition. For example, a person holding
a gun was more biased to see a gun in the hands of oth-
ers (Witt & Brockmole, 2012), and wielding a gun altered
where an individual looked in a scene (Biggs, Brockmole,
& Witt, 2013). The present study extends the previous
research by providing preliminary evidence to link shoot-
ing performance and cognitive abilities, and, more impor-
tant, supports the possibility that shooting performance
could be improved through cognitive training. Here, we
focused on civilian casualties and response inhibition,
but there are many possible action-cognition links
involved in shooting to explore in future research.
From a practical perspective, the current findings sug-
gest potential promise for improving shooting perfor-
mance for a wide range of individuals, including military
and law-enforcement personnel. Similar training efforts
could yield further targeted training regimens so that the
most effective training can be implemented for any given
scenario. For example, competitive sports shooters might
want to enhance their ability to pick up potential targets
through visual search, whereas soldiers might want to
enhance their ability to avoid hitting unintended targets.
Finally, given that this project serves as an initial step
in relating shooting abilities to cognition, there are sev-
eral limitations. First, the current study demonstrated a
significant training benefit, but it remains unclear which
aspect of the training was the primary influence. The
benefit could be due to the stop-signal training task, the
interactive go/no-go training task, or a combination of
the two. The critical point is that training occurred, but
future work will be needed to elucidate the primary
mechanisms. Second, the current design used two active
training groups (rather than an active training and control
group), which limited placebo effects. However, it is pos-
sible that participants expected certain benefits from the
training (e.g., Boot, Blakely, & Simons, 2011; but see
Green etal., 2014), and these expectations could, in the-
ory, have influenced their performance.
It is also important to highlight that the shooting simu-
lation implemented here may or may not adequately
compare with performance among the associated profes-
sional populations (e.g., military and law-enforcement
personnel). Several aspects of the shooting scenarios
were specifically chosen for implementation with an
untrained population (e.g., a targeting reticle helped the
novice participants aim), but additional scenarios are
required to better assess performance among trained
populations. Additionally, the present study isolated a
particular, simulated situation in which civilian casualties
might be inflicted. Participants knew precisely which tar-
gets were hostile and which targets were not—yet civil-
ian casualties were still inflicted. There are numerous
other situations, depending on the rules of engagement,
that could lead to civilians being hit with weapons fire.
Inhibitory control may or may not be important for reduc-
ing civilian casualties across all circumstances. The pres-
ent study demonstrates an initial, basic research
instantiation of a potential link between inhibitory con-
trol and simulated civilian casualties, but future work is
needed to expand this result before it is proper to make
policy suggestions.
In conclusion, the present study represents an impor-
tant step forward in the exciting prospect of better
understanding both shooting and cognition by studying
them in unison. The current evidence was obtained
using a simulated environment to link a particular shoot-
ing error—civilian casualties—to a particular cognitive
ability— response inhibition. This link demonstrates the
potential benefit of predicting shooting performance
through cognitive abilities, but it also highlights the
opportunity to potentially improve shooting performance
through cognitive-training methods. Future work can
examine additional stops along the shooting-cognition
continuum (e.g., target identification and object recogni-
tion) to offer additional insight into shooting performance,
cognitive processes, and the link between the two.
Author Contributions
A. T. Biggs, M. S. Cain, and S. R. Mitroff designed the study.
A.T. Biggs collected and analyzed the data. A. T. Biggs, M. S.
Cain, and S. R. Mitroff discussed the results and helped prepare
the manuscript.
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Reducing Civilian Casualties 1175
The authors would like to thank Corporal Ian Seely (U.S. Marine
Corps), Sergeant Anthony Allen (U.S. Army), and Specialist
Sterling Williams (U.S. Army) for volunteering their time to dis-
cuss firearms operations and procedures.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
This research was funded by the Army Research Office under
Contract No. W911NF-13-1-0480.
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... These physical limitations, a lack of attention, anxiety, inexperience, and other factors may seriously hamper threat assessment in law enforcement situations. Taking this into consideration, it becomes apparent how important awareness and practical training are (Ho, 1994;Dewhurst and Crundall, 2008;Oudejans, 2010, 2011;Biggs et al., 2015Donner and Popovich, 2019). Therefore, it is essential to teach law enforcement officers what to expect, what to focus on (both gaze and attention), and what factors to base shoot decisions on. ...
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... There is the obvious parallel between a go/no-go task and shoot/don't-shoot decisions, but cognitive training studies have also documented how targeted response inhibition training could reduce lethal force errors. (Biggs et al., 2015;Hamilton et al., 2019). For a more theoretical link, the independent horse race model of inhibitory control (Logan and Cowan, 1984) posits independent go and stop processes; the first to finish becomes the executed response. ...
Despite the importance of being both fast and accurate in lethal force decisions, there is little empirical evidence to identify how speed impacts threat-related decisions and perception. Two experiments used speeded and unspeeded manipulations to determine how the speed imperative impacted threat assessments. Experiment 1 used drift diffusion modeling to quantify decision parameters, including rate of information processing, decision threshold, bias, and non-decisional processes. Speeded conditions reduced the information threshold needed to make decisions and shortened non-decisional processes, yet this manipulation had no impact on the rate of information processing or starting bias. Experiment 2 explored perceptual differences in threat assessment. Participants confidently made threat assessments despite only 30 ms exposure to stimuli with little impact on their subjective threat ratings based on exposure duration. Taken together, these results document the influence of speed on decision-making parameters of threat assessments while demonstrating little impact on threat perception.
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... For example, laboratory-based paradigms do not regularly impose consequences after making a poor decision. Shooting tasks rarely impose any penalty for firing upon an unarmed person, and when they do, the consequence is more likely to be a pointbased deduction (Biggs, Cain, & Mitroff, 2015). Experiments normally just proceed to the next trial, whereas these real-world errors are followed by detailed officer-involved shooting investigations and sometimes criminal punishment. ...
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We endorse Cesario's call for more research into the complexities of “real-world” decisions and the comparative power of different causes of group disparities. Unfortunately, these reasonable suggestions are overshadowed by a barrage of non sequiturs, misdirected criticisms of methodology, and unsubstantiated claims about the assumptions and inferences of social psychologists.
... For example, laboratory-based paradigms do not regularly impose consequences after making a poor decision. Shooting tasks rarely impose any penalty for firing upon an unarmed person, and when they do, the consequence is more likely to be a pointbased deduction (Biggs, Cain, & Mitroff, 2015). Experiments normally just proceed to the next trial, whereas these real-world errors are followed by detailed officer-involved shooting investigations and sometimes criminal punishment. ...
In psychology, causal inference – both the transport from lab estimates to the real world and estimation on the basis of observational data – is often pursued in a casual manner. Underlying assumptions remain unarticulated; potential pitfalls are compiled in post-hoc lists of flaws. The field should move on to coherent frameworks of causal inference and generalizability that have been developed elsewhere.
... IC is defined as the active suppression of interference or prepotent responses and consists of response inhibition and conflict inhibition. Poor IC in healthy individuals is inversely correlated with the performance of important tasks, such as military actions (Biggs et al., 2015;Brunyé et al., 2020) and driving and flighting in traffic accidents (Mäntylä et al., 2009;Dismukes et al., 2018;Hamilton et al., 2019;Yan et al., 2021). Furthermore, deficits in IC are commonly observed in patients with neurological disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Re et al., 2015;Scionti et al., 2019;Einziger et al., 2021), autism spectrum disorder (Yuk et al., 2020), and mild cognitive impairment (Rabi et al., 2020;Yuk et al., 2020). ...
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Inhibitory control training (ICT) is a promising method to improve individual performance of inhibitory control (IC). Recent studies have suggested transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) as a novel approach to affect cognitive function owing to its ability to modulate the locus coeruleus-noradrenaline system. To examine the synergistic effects of combining ICT with tVNS, 58 young males in college were randomly assigned to four groups: ICT + tVNS, ICT + sham tVNS, sham ICT + tVNS, and sham ICT + sham tVNS. Participants were instructed to complete three sessions that comprised pre-training tests, a training session, and post-training tests sequentially. Results showed that the ICT + tVNS group significantly improved training and near-transfer effects on the stop-signal and Go/No-go tasks, and these effects were larger than those of the other groups. However, none of the groups exhibited the far-transfer effect on the color-word Stroop task. These results suggest that tVNS augments the intervention effects of training and similar inhibition tasks to achieve the synergistic effect; however, it does not modulate the effects of non-training tasks and obtain the far-transfer effect. ICT combined with tVNS may be a valuable intervention for improving IC in healthy individuals in certain industries and offers novel research ideas for using tVNS for cognitive improvement.
... One study demonstrated the potential of using cognitive training to improve marksmanship. Correct response training reduced the number of simulated civilian casualties 40 . ...
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Combat tasks involving special units often put a mental and physical strain on the soldiers. During the military operation, soldiers may struggle with multiple difficulties such as extreme physical effort, sleep deprivation, weather conditions, limited access to food and stress. These circumstances require a high level of cognitive ability (including psychomotor abilities) to overcome the physiological stress response and to be able to quickly and efficiently make decisions under stressful situations, especially in combat. The aim of the study was to assess the level of the psychomotor abilities of candidates for the Polish Special Forces. The study comprised 48 candidates for the Polish Special Forces (age: 30.06±2.87), 40 athletes (age: 27.93±3.91) and 40 non-athletes (age: 24). The study was performed using Test2Drive software. Four computer-based tests were used to assess the following psychomotor abilities: simple reaction time, choice reaction time, hand-eye coordination and two-dimensional visuomotor coordination/spatial orientation test (SPANT). The analysis demonstrated statistically significant differences in reaction time and motor time between the study groups. The shortest reaction time in each test was observed in athletes, while the shortest motor time was observed in soldiers. All the psychomotor tests, except for the number of correct answers in SPANT, demonstrated statistically significant differences between the studied groups. It was also found that military training had a positive effect on the motor time in every psychomotor test. As regards the reaction time, it was observed that the athletes were characterised with better reaction times than the special forces candidates. The study has confirmed that military training and sports training have a positive effect on the level of psychomotor abilities, especially motor time.
... Indeed, the ongoing modernisation of warfare places additional demands on soldiers' capacity to monitor and respond to multiple sources of information (Kerick and Allender, 2004;Spivak et al., 2019;Bequette et al., 2020). Executive functions of inhibition, shifting and updating appear to be especially and increasingly relevant to the military context (Blacker et al., 2019) and efforts to improve executive functioning translate to improved performance in simulated, military-relevant tasks (Biggs et al., 2015). However, it should be noted that military personnel perform diverse tasks that engage a range of cognitive domains (Blacker et al., 2019), such that what is essential in one role (e.g., artillery operator) may not apply in another (e.g., air traffic controller). ...
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Military personnel often perform complex cognitive operations under unique conditions of intense stress. This requirement to perform diverse physical and mental tasks under stress, often with high stakes, has led to recognition of the term ‘tactical athlete’ for these performers. Impaired cognitive performance as a result of this stress may have serious implications for the success of military operations and the well-being of military service men and women, particularly in combat scenarios. Therefore, understanding the nature of the stress experienced by military personnel and the resilience of cognitive functioning to this stress is of great importance. This review synthesises the current state of the literature regarding cognitive resilience to psychological stress in tactical athletes. The experience of psychological stress in military personnel is considered through the lens of the Transactional Theory of stress, while offering contemporary updates and new insights. Models of the effects of stress on cognitive performance are then reviewed to highlight the complexity of this interaction before considering recent advancements in the preparation of military personnel for the enhancement of cognitive resilience. Several areas for future research are identified throughout the review, emphasising the need for the wider use of self-report measures and mixed methods approaches to better reflect the subjective experience of stress and its impact on the performance of cognitive operations.
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Decisions are affected by the potential consequences as much as any factor during the decision-making process. This prospective influence represents another flaw overlooked by most experiments that raises questions about the use of certain laboratory paradigms. Lethal force encounters are a prime example of this problem, where negative consequences of slow decisions and wrong decisions should be considered alongside behavior.
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The purpose of the present study was to revise the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale Version 10 (BIS-10), identify the factor structure of the items among normals, and compare their scores on the revised form (BIS-11) with psychiatric inpatients and prison inmates. The scale was administered to 412 college undergraduates, 248 psychiatric inpatients, and 73 male prison inmates. Exploratory principal components analysis of the items identified six primary factors and three second-order factors. The three second-order factors were labeled Attentional Impulsiveness, Motor Impulsiveness, and Nonplanning Impulsiveness. Two of the three second-order factors identified in the BIS-11 were consistent with those proposed by Barratt (1985), but no cognitive impulsiveness component was identified per se. The results of the present study suggest that the total score of the BIS-11 is an internally consistent measure of impulsiveness and has potential clinical utility for measuring impulsiveness among selected patient and inmate populations.
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A number of studies and meta-analyses conclude that aerobic fitness (walking) interventions improve cognition. Such interventions typically compare improvements from these interventions to an active control group in which participants engage in non-aerobic activities (typically stretching and toning) for an equivalent amount of time. However, in the absence of a double-blind design, the presence of an active control group does not necessarily control for placebo effects; participants might expect different amounts of improvement for the treatment and control interventions [1]. We conducted a large survey to explore whether people expect greater cognitive benefits from an aerobic exercise intervention compared to a control intervention. If participants expect greater improvement following aerobic exercise, then the benefits of such interventions might be due in part to a placebo effect. In general, expectations did not differ between aerobic and non-aerobic interventions. If anything, some of the results suggest the opposite (e.g., respondents expected the control, non-aerobic intervention to yield bigger memory gains). These results provide the first evidence that cognitive improvements following aerobic fitness training are not due to differential expectations.
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Examined the phenomenon of "weapon focus," which is the concentration of a crime witness's attention on a weapon and the resultant reduction in ability to remember other details of the crime. S-witnesses were presented with a series of slides depicting an event in a fast-food restaurant. Half of the Ss saw a customer point a gun at the cashier; the other half saw him hand the cashier a check. In Exp I, using 36 university students (aged 18–31 yrs), eye movements were recorded while S viewed the slides. Results show that Ss made more eye fixations on the weapon than on the check, and fixations on the weapon were of a longer duration than fixations on the check. In Exp II, using 80 undergraduates, the memory of Ss in the weapon condition was poorer than the memory of Ss in the check condition. It is suggested that results provide direct empirical support for weapon focus. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved)
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More than 20 years ago, researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice, which was defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain. This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing-but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.
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Despite extensive research on inhibitory control (IC) and its neural systems, the questions of whether IC can be improved with training and how the associated neural systems change are understudied. Behavioral evidence suggests that performance on IC tasks improves with training but that these gains do not transfer to other tasks, and almost nothing is known about how activation in IC-related brain regions changes with training. Human participants were randomly assigned to receive IC training (N = 30) on an adaptive version of the stop-signal task (SST) or an active sham-training (N = 30) during 10 sessions across 3 weeks. Neural activation during the SST before and after training was assessed in both groups using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Performance on the SST improved significantly more in the training group than in the control group. The pattern of neuroimaging results was consistent with a proactive control model such that activity in key parts of the IC network shifted earlier in time within the trial, becoming associated with cues that anticipated the upcoming need for IC. Specifically, activity in the inferior frontal gyrus decreased during the implementation of control (i.e., stopping) and increased during cues that preceded the implementation of IC from pretraining to post-training. Also, steeper behavioral improvement in the training group correlated with activation increases during the cue phase and decreases during implementation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These results are the first to uncover the neural pathways for training-related improvements in IC and can explain previous null findings of IC training transfer.
The past two decades have seen a tremendous surge in scientific interest in the extent to which certain types of training-be it aerobic, athletic, musical, video game, or brain trainer-can result in general enhancements in cognitive function. While there are certainly active debates regarding the results in these domains, what is perhaps more pressing is the fact that key aspects of methodology remain unsettled. Here we discuss a few of these areas including expectation effects, test-retest effects, the size of the cognitive test battery, the selection of control groups, group assignment methods, difficulties in comparing results across studies, and in interpreting null results. Specifically, our goal is to highlight points of contention as well as areas where the most commonly utilized methods could be improved upon. Furthermore, because each of the sub-areas above (aerobic training through brain training) share strong similarities in goal, theoretical framework, and experimental approach, we seek to discuss these issues from a general perspective that considers each as members of the same broad "training" domain.