What Should Alice Be Watching For In That Looking Glass? Context in Threat Identification and Assessment

Threat Identification and Assessment - Through the Looking Glass

You will ask your officers to work in a variety of locations, some of which may be unfamiliar.  Whatever their mission, they will need to conduct threat identification and assessment to protect themselves and the public.  We want them to be able to spot active shooters, criminals, and terrorists, but how do they do this in new or unfamiliar locations? 

Let’s take a moment and watch this video. Some of these locations might be familiar to you, others not so much. These locations include a mall in Southeast Asia, a ferry crossing in West Africa, an open-air market in the northeast US, a market in Turkey, and an outdoor location in the western United States. 

Is what you saw in one location relevant to the other?

Not really. These are five very different places. While people may be shopping, there is a lot of variation in clothing, goals, and behavior.

What they have in common is that they are different. Sounds strange, huh? There is a pattern of “normal” behavior with people behaving in similar ways at each location.

Now, let’s drop the term “normal” because it is subjective. Instead, let us think about these locations in terms of patterns of consistent behavior

Patterns of Behavior and Threat Identification and Assessment

Getting back to that video, each of the five locations has a pattern of consistent behavior; people may carry similar objects, walk in the same areas, move at a similar pace, or be engaged in completing similar tasks. In our active threat identification and assessment process, we call this a behavioral baseline.

The baseline must be assessed systematically at any location being observed and is relevant to the time and place of observation. We know patterns of movement can change by the hour, so we can’t assume the behavioral baseline that what we observed yesterday will still hold true today.

When observing in any location, the first thing your officers  should do is systematically assess a behavioral baseline (from a safe location of course). With this baseline, they can more quickly identify behavioral deviations; deviations are behaviors inconsistent with the baseline. These deviations may be associated with active threats. Without this baseline, it will be more difficult to detect these active threats. We will get more into why later.

There are multiple fields of study that use the concept of a baseline as a way of evaluating behavior. Psychology and related fields focus on establishing baselines for specific individuals with a high degree of analytical precision. Your officers routinely, and perhaps unintentionally, establish baselines during their duties. They come to recognize the pattern of everyday life on the streets they patrol. This baseline helps them to identify things that just don’t look right and to identify active threats.

Each location, at any given time, will have its own pattern of consistent behavior this is driven by many factors, including shared experiences and culture. I know it might get a bit dense here, but it is important to realize there is a research base for assessing a baseline of consistent behavior in threat identification and assessment. 

Environmental Context: The Shared Experience of Place

Any person at a location has a reason for being there; an objective. People in a given location will behave, based on their objective, physical features, and the behavior and objectives of people around them. Any given location also has boundaries, entry and exit points, and features which will impact movement and how people meet their own objectives.


Let’s take a concert. Some people may be there to watch the concert. Others may be working and selling concessions or providing security. There are entry and exit points. People will move based on where others are standing. Most will be watching the concert or, perhaps, going to the restroom or buying concessions. Going to the concert impacts how people behave. There will be a behavioral baseline specific to this concert.

This shared experience and identity is associated with the Elaborated Social Identity Model (ESIM), behavioral norms shared by members of a crowd are a result of their shared “social identity.” According to this model, behavioral norms are dynamic and determined by deliberate shared thought processes on the part of members of the crowd. They will change if the situation changes, or if the underlying purpose and obstacles faced by one individual vary from those faced by others.  (Stott, Adang, Livingstone, & Schreiber, 2008)

As the ESIM model describes, purpose is often shared; persons with a similar purpose are likely to behave in the same way. Someone who has a different purpose may behave differently.

Remember when I mentioned deviations from the baseline earlier in this post? Behavioral deviations may be linked to someone’s objective. While most deviations, in the end, are not indicative of a threat they might lead to the identification of someone with an objective that is criminal or or one that is harmful to others.

Culture and Behavior: A Complex Interaction

Anyone who has traveled or visited other place has probably noticed that there are different patterns and standards of behavior in different cultures. Culture is really an all-encompassing term. It can refer to a specific cultural group (i.e., Americans) or particular subgroups within a nation (i.e., Navajo, Caribbean Americans, Bostonians, etc.). The renowned social psychologist Geert Hofstede (2011) defines culture as “a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others” (p. 3), this can include the beliefs, ways of life, thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.

Threat Identification and Assessment - The Impact of Culture

We all see people of different cultures behave differently. Research from a variety of domains also supports the idea that culture can have a significant impact on behavior.

  1. Researchers have identified cultural differences in how a stimulus is detected and then processed (Park & Huang, 2010; Nisbett, 2003; Ames & Fiske, 2010; Masuda & Nisbett, 2006; Boduroglu, Shah, and Nisbett, 2009).

  2. Neuroimaging studies suggest there are neurological differences between people of different cultures when processing and reacting to stimuli (Gutchess, Welsh, Boduroglu, and Park, 2006; Chiao et al., 2008).

  3. Anthropological research indicates that there are variations in the way cultures deal with the distribution of power, aggressiveness, displays of emotion, and dealing with uncertain situations (Basabe & Ros, 2005; Hofstede, 1983; Hofstede, 2011; Boeree, 2007; Fujita, 2002);

Culture impacts behavior and could influence verbal and visual behaviors of deceit, fear of detection, threat, and the carrying of contraband – all behaviors involved in threat identification and assessment.

The impact of culture on behavior is complex, and there are volumes of literature on the topic. Thankfully for our purposes, it is not necessary to delve any deeper into it. Combined with our understanding of context, this research is enough for us to know that we can’t expect people in one location to behave the same as in another and that we need law enforcement to observe in any environment.

An additional Benefit: Reducing Subjectivity & Establishing Reasonable Suspicion

A goal of systematic observation and baselining is to reduce subjectivity. As observers, your officer’s knowledge and experience will have an impact on their observations. The goal of our active threat assessment process is to help your officers more systematically observe their environment. Systematic observation will enhance their ability to identify a person of interest (POI) and assess the extent this POI is a threat.

An additional benefit to systematic observation is that it will help your officers articulate reasonable suspicion – why they focused on a specific individual to the exclusion of all others. This is especially important during and after encounters when someone is stopped, detained, or arrested.

How Can Baselining Help Your Officers?

When your officers are working at any location where there are people, an assessment of the behavioral baseline will help them to identify active threats. Identifying these threats will allow them to protect themselves and the public. It will inform their decision-making during an interdiction and help them articulate their decisions in written reports and courtroom testimony.

A Case Study About Threat Identification and Assessment

Do you want to learn more about the active threat identification and assessment and the baselining process?

Contact us or take a look at the “Shots Fired” case study - a testimonial from a Second Sight trainee about baselining and active threat assessment.  

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 Ames, D. L., & Fiske, S. T. (2010). Cultural neuroscience. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13(2), 72-82.

 Basabe, N., & Ros, M. (2005). Cultural dimensions and social behavior correlates: Individualism Collectivism and Power Distance. International Review of Social Psychology, 18(1), 189-225.

 Boeree, C. G. (2007). Culture "Personalities". Retrieved April 9, 2014, from http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/culturepersonalities.html.

Boduroglu, A., Shah, P., & Nisbett, R. E. (2009). Cultural differences in allocation of attention in visual information processing. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 40(3), 349-360.

 Chiao, J. Y., Iidaka, T., Gordon, H. L., Nogawa, J., Bar, M., Aminoff, E., ... & Ambady, N.  (2008). Cultural specificity in amygdala response to fear faces. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(12), 2167-2174.

 Fujita, H. (2002, October). The Reproduction of Hofstede Model. ABAS: Annals of Business Administrative Science, 1(3), 47-56. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from http://www.gbrc.jp/journal/abas/pdf/ABAS1-3-2.pdf

 Gutchess, A. H., Welsh, R. C., Boduroglu, A. & Park, D. C. (2006). Cultural differences in neural function associated with object processing. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 6, 102–109.

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Park, D. C., & Huang, C. M. (2010). Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4), 391-400.

Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R. E. (2006). Culture and change blindness. Cognitive Science, 30(2), 381-399.

Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why. New York: Free Press.

Stott, C., Adang, O., Livingstone, A., & Schreiber, M. (2008). Tackling Football Hooliganism. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law , 14 (2), 115-141.