7 Habits of Highly Effective Sleuths

Cognitive science yields tips for best mental practices.

Posted Mar 07, 2015

 Katherine Ramsland
Source: Credit: Katherine Ramsland

I was recently at the 67th annual meetings of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, where I gave a talk about cognitive influences on decision-making. I decided to post some tips here:

Habit #1: Retain I-Contact

Our decisions are influenced by personal factors, many of which elude our awareness, so it’s important to know your tendencies and then to remind yourself of them during investigations. Your emotional state, for example, can affect your judgment; that’s called the congruency effect.

Also, if you have a strong need for closure, you might jump to conclusions and possibly miss crucial items. You’d like the idea that “some truth is better than indefinite doubt” but this notion can derail a full investigation. You’ll benefit from I-contact, i.e., reminding yourself that this tendency leaves you vulnerable to error.

Habit #2: Protect mental energy

Most of our everyday encounters involve diffuse awareness of things that we pass by, sit on or automatically use for some task. Psychologist Stephen Wolinksy calls this a trance state; it’s filled with personal concerns that preoccupy us and blunt our senses. Attention is limited, and when it’s split among several tasks at once, we become less effective with each task.

Top sleuths make their time and effort count. They prioritize, organize, and figure out how best to achieve their goals. Their focus is single-minded and channeled toward what most matters.

Paying attention is motivated from within. It’s initiated and fueled with a sense of purpose. It’s about craftsmanship—caring about what you’re doing.

Habit #3: Develop vigilance

From focus to alertness, this is where we get productive.

Our brain’s default mode is lazy; it prefers the path of least resistance. Those who remain ready and who steer their attention with a sense of purpose will spot opportunities for solutions and innovations. They also have more aha! moments.

When I was researching for Snap: Seizing Your Aha Moments, I came across Dr. Joel Katz, a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, who’d devised a unique way to help students develop observations skills. He was aware that such skills among new doctors had declined, because they relied on tests and technology. However, without regular practice, observational skills remain superficial.

Katz had formerly been a graphic designer. He understood that art and the practice of medicine were both inherently ambiguous, often forcing observers to make judgments from incomplete data sets. So, he developed a unique curriculum that took med students to an art museum. As they learned how to observe art, their new skills transferred into their medical practice. They learned to value vigilance for detail.

Habit #4: Test yourself

We know from cognitive psychology that we aren’t aware of the limits of our knowledge, so we don’t test them. Research subjects were asked if they could remember how a bicycle looked well enough to draw one. Most were confident they could. But when put to the test, many who were sure they could do this simple task made fundamental errors.

It’s good to remind yourself that your awareness does not automatically assess its own limitations.

Habit #5: Be mentally flexible

In one case that I describe, two adult women and two children were missing from a home. The lead detective told me that when they discovered that the estranged boyfriend seemed unconcerned, they focused on him as a solid suspect. According to their experience, this made sense and they began to work up a case.

But one crime scene processor noticed a small item in a bag in the house that was inconsistent with the homeowner’s habits, so the team decided to follow this clue. It broke the case. It wasn't the boyfriend.

Had this processor accepted him as the one and only suspect, his brain would have turned off the “vigilance” function and started looking at items that supported the hypothesis. Once an idea forms, that's the brain's natural path.

A good way to stay flexible is to form and analyze competing hypotheses. Use a devil’s advocate approach.

Habit #6: Update

Many behavioral interpretations rely on research, and new discoveries can shift even the most fundamental notions. The art of reading people, for example, follows guidelines based in behavior and anatomy, but theories in this field have evolved. Behavioral analysts who seek to excel in this skill practice a lot and watch people in many different situations. They also keep up on the latest research, because ideas change, behavioral evidence can mutate, and humans can always surprise us!

Habit #7: Create opportunity

Howard Teten has been called the “godfather” of behavioral profiling. He acquired this title, in part, because he created his own methods. To compile a collection of crime scenes for analysis and comparison, Teten reviewed homicides from several police agencies. Then, he set up an experiment.

“When I received the information,” he said, “I would examine all the data and prepare a tentative description of the perpetrator. Then I would look at the individual found to have committed the crime and compare the perpetrator to my description.”

To check himself on specific psychological disorders, he consulted with two psychiatrists. When he joined the FBI, he brought with him a solid database for developing a course, and this became the foundation for today’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. 

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