Auditory Exclusion is Real

But do we train enough in understanding & mitigating stress on the job?

By Crawford Coates  |   Aug 24, 2017

Last week I wrote a piece that elicited an overwhelming response from this readership. And the conclusion: Auditory exclusion most certainly does exist. And not just for cops. I heard from firefighters, EMTs, hunters, and researchers, and every one of them in the affirmative.

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Here’s a representative email I received from Michael G.:


I have been in law enforcement for 10 years and worked in EMS on an ambulance for 10 years as well (most simultaneously with law enforcement).  One of the regularly cited examples of partial auditory exclusion I can speak of is having to turn up the dispatch radio to be able to hear it while actively looking for something (e.g., a suspect or address on an emergent call). The environment inside the vehicle is usually about the same, and the dispatch radio can be heard just fine. But when a call comes in that requires brain power, either needed for visual assessment or mental rehearsal, it seems to make the radio difficult to hear unless I’m consciously listening to the radio for traffic.

David B. over at Facebook was more scientific about it, pointing out that the concept is documented in scientific literature from at least J.A. Easterbrook’s Cue Utilization Theory (1959). David B. then went on to cite a bevy of research, both LE-specific and general, that support the theory of auditory exclusion. (This, for example. Or this. Or this. Or this.)

So it seems that there is ample anecdotal and scientific support for this theory. Where is the controversy? Is it that some question the validity of the theory? Or is it that they would question its admissibility in court?

As for the first question, I think the article, as many of you pointed out, created unnecessary confusion in order to elicit a response. Specifically, it uses the terms “deafening” and “auditory exclusion” interchangeably. Deafening would imply physiology, while auditory exclusion is psychological in nature. Nobody is suggesting that the ears’ mechanisms somehow stop working under stress, only that perception narrows.

The article somewhat concedes the point, stating “… approached from a psychological perspective, the theory is better grounded.” The problem with this statement is that Dr. Sapolsky is a neuroscientist (not a neurologist, as the article states, and certainly not a physiologist) and Dr. Steptoe is a … psychologist.

As for why auditory exclusion shouldn’t be part of the defense on scientific grounds, the article doesn’t make a compelling case. Auditory exclusion clearly meets the Daubert standard—generally accepted in the scientific community; peer reviewed; testable; with a known and acceptable rate of error; and independently researched—for admissibility as evidence. The decision to admit it or not would be up to the judge. The judge in this case admitted it.

[I emailed Professor Philip Stinson at Bowling Green University, who is quoted as saying, “I don’t see this being admissible at all,” for clarification. I received no reply.]


Auditory exclusion is real, and it took me this long to realize that the article in question was never really about better understanding auditory exclusion or the stresses of police work. It was about getting clicks and confirming biases.

But I have to wonder: How many administrators and those reviewing use-of-force understand perceptional narrowing under high stress? And if they do get it, why aren’t we training our cops better to understand and deal with stress? Because the author is right about this: training must work to ensure “cops are better than us at this stuff.”

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Crawford Coates

Crawford Coates is the author of Mindful Responder: The First Responder's Field Guide to Improved Resilience, Fulfillment, Presence, & Fitness--On & Off the Job and the publisher at Calibre Press.

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