TV Show Reveals Eye Contact is Top Cop Tactic

Stranger Danger: ‘Shocking’ TV Test Flawed

Cops might want to put down the billy club and forget about psychology, new research suggests. An analysis of the TV show "COPS" reveals that the best way for police to calm down hysterical citizens is to look them straight in the eyes.

Gaze is important to everyday face-to-face interactions, and eye contact can be even more critical for police officers trying to gain compliance and calm hysterical individuals, said researcher Mardi Kidwell of the University of New Hampshire. ?

"A great deal of police work involves encountering people who are in crisis, people who are distraught, agitated and sometimes hysterical over the circumstances that have necessitated a police response," Kidwell said.

Her past research showed that when children refuse to obey adults they tend to avert their gaze, while adults attempting to get children to comply will try to get kids to look at them. Police officers, as well, interpret a person's looking away as a sign of resistance and will continue to pursue the individual's gaze to gain compliance.?

Eye contact also indicates level of engagement. "Gaze is one of the principal indicators by which participants assess that they are being taken into consideration by another," Kidwell states in the article detailing the research, published in the December 2006 issue of the journal Discourse Studies.

Kidwell examined more than 35 hours of footage from Fox's "COPS," a reality series that follows officers during patrols and other police work. She used "COPS" shows for her data because most research on police-citizen interaction does not rely on a real-time unfolding of events. And police departments are reluctant to provide on-the-job footage.

During one six-minute segment that Kidwell studied, two police officers try to calm down a hysterical woman whose grandson has been shot.

The officers ask the woman to calm down and try to hold her gaze. Finally, one officer touches the woman's face and turns it toward him. When they hold eye contact with her for long enough, she calms down and regains normal breathing.

Kidwell also analyzed other episodes in which police interacted with distraught and/or disorderly individuals. She found that police rely on a steady gaze to calm individuals in many situations, including getting them to cooperate during questioning and arrests, and keeping them from interfering with emergency workers.

"There is another, perhaps less institutionally obvious responsibility that the officers are undertaking in this case," Kidwell said. "This is a responsibility that has to do with being a 'helper,' here, specifically with emotional work."

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.