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How We Process Under Pressure: Thinking to Lose

Under stress, our patterns of thought and speech can prove very maladaptive.

Key points

  • High levels of psychological stress are frequently characterized by dissociative thinking and intrusive thoughts.
  • Maladaptive thought and speech patterns can strongly work to one's disadvantage in a relationship or career setting.
  • Specific, feature-intensive awareness of these tendencies may help to keep one out of trouble in high-stress environments.
Matthew J. Sharps
Source: Matthew J. Sharps

As we’ve seen previously in The Forensic View, law enforcement personnel may make mistakes under intense psychological pressure that they would not otherwise make. The same is true of other emergency workers, and the consequences of such errors can be devastatingly severe.

These types of newsworthy errors may overshadow an important fact: that all the rest of us, under stress, tend to make mistakes too. Everyday mistakes don’t make the news as often, but screaming incoherently at a spouse can end a marriage, and the same type of screaming at a boss or important client can end a career.

This seems to make no sense; after all, we are, as human beings, Homo sapiens sapiens. This may be rendered into English as the wise, wise person; we’re so wise that we apparently named ourselves twice.

So with all that wisdom kicking around, why do we do so many stupid things under pressure? Why do we do things that are completely at odds with own our best interests, and with the nature of reality as we know it to be?

Is it possible that, sometimes and under stress, we may not be perceiving reality at all?

As we’ve seen in previous posts (e.g., 12/17/21), when we enter states of high stress, the blood-borne resources available to our prefrontal cortex, essentially our center of judgment and thoughtful action, are dramatically reduced. So, under stress, we may simply not be as bright as usual—but would that all by itself lead to the spectacular errors of judgment that can end a life, a marriage, or a career?


Artwohl and Christensen (1997) have shown that a relatively common consequence of high stress may be dissociation, in which the world around us may seem less real and more ephemeral, more likely to be infused with weird or unlikely possibilities. There are individual differences in tendencies toward dissociation, and they can lead to significant consequences on perception and belief. In studies in my laboratory (e.g., Forensic View 6/19/20, 11/13/20; Sharps, 2022), we found that more dissociated individuals were not only more likely to believe in such things as alien spacecraft, Bigfoot, and ghosts, but were also more likely to see them: Where others saw helicopter landing lights in the dark, the dissociated saw an alien spaceship. For those prone to dissociation, a teenager in a Halloween gorilla suit was perceived as Bigfoot himself.

Those prone to dissociation, then, may tend to believe in or even see things that aren’t actually there; but the critical point here, based on the forensic psychological research discussed above, is that anybody can tend toward dissociation if stressed enough. A first responder, under enough stress, may develop an essentially unreal mental picture of a situation, one in which the hazards presented by armed assailants or forest fires are completely misinterpreted. The rest of us may suddenly develop an unreal picture of what remarks a boss will tolerate from employees, or what overly candid communication a spouse may tolerate in a relationship.

Whether the consequences of bad decisions can kill us, or destroy our careers and relationships instead, it is critically important that our minds paint for us logically coherent pictures of local reality. That’s exactly what the consequences of stress-related dissociation prevent.

And then it gets worse; we feel somehow compelled to blurt out whatever we’re thinking at the stress-filled moment, no matter the consequences, as our innermost and potentially unflattering thoughts are made public.

Homo sapiens sapiens. Why in the world would we do that?

Intrusive speech

Intrusive speech, another consequence of high stress, is when distracting thoughts occur to us and bubble their way to the surface in an amazingly compelling way. Under high stress, we may verbalize, publicly, our belief that our boss has the mental acuity of a garden vegetable, or that our spouse’s family bears an amazing resemblance to a herd of musk ox; and things generally go downhill from there.

This is also what happens whenever law enforcement officers, or emergency fire or medical personnel, start talking about everyday affairs or even sports in the midst of a ghastly accident scene; the media may paint these first responders as callous, but, like everybody else, the responders would prefer not to wallow in the gory images around them more than necessary. A bit of situational dissociation, and a momentary focus on talking about something else, may preserve both sanity and field effectiveness. The responders aren’t callous; they’ve been there before, and a moment’s thought concerning football, instead of the forcibly expelled vital organs on the pavement, may prove quite beneficial for the given first responder in the long run.

So, intrusive speech and even elements of dissociation may have benign or even beneficial effects under some circumstances; but in other situations, these factors can have disastrous consequences. Is there any way to refrain from this type of thinking to lose?

The importance of feature-intensive analyses

In a recent study (Sharps et al., 2020), we showed that a context associated with paranormal thinking can result in stronger beliefs, in normal people, in paranormal phenomena that are very unlikely to exist in real life. However, when we asked people questions about these phenomena in ways that forced them to think in linear, feature-intensive terms about paranormal elements, they were significantly less likely to endorse beliefs in those phenomena.

Self-imposed, feature-intensive analyses may help us to see stressful situations in a more realistic light; and if those analyses are conducted prior to a stressful encounter with a spouse or boss, so much the better for a positive outcome.

How can training and practice in such analytical habits benefit the first responder moving into harm’s way? More research is needed; but for first responders, calm, feature-intensive analyses under stress might very well prevent loss of life. For the rest of us, such styles of thinking, as we enter stressful situations, might very well prevent the loss of relationships and careers. Feature-intensive forethought can be a powerful ally in any stressful situation.


Artwohl, A., & Christensen, L. (1997). Deadly Force Encounters: What Cops Need to Know to Mentally and Physically Prepare For and Survive a Gunfight. Boulder: Paladin Press.

Sharps, M.J. (2022). Processing Under Pressure: Stress, Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement. Flushing, NY: Looseleaf.

Sharps, M.J., Nagra, S., Hurd, S., & Humphrey, A. (2020). Magic in the House of Rain: Cognitive Bases of UFO "Observations" in the Southwest Desert. Skeptical Inquirer, 44 (5), 46-49.

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