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Patrol officer personality, stress, and coping

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2009
Author: Morgan Jensen
The objective of this study was to examine what influence coping skills, specifically avoidance, problem solving, and seeking social support, and personality characteristics have for police officers on perceived job stress. Participants consisted of 100 male and female patrol officers from a midsized police department. Avoidance is a maladaptive coping skill that increases stress in patrol officers who are extroverted. Once avoidance was controlled for, police officer stress was not affected by personality.

V TABLE OF CONTENTS Page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS iii ABSTRACT OF THE DISSERTATION iv LIST OF TABLES vii Chapter 1. INTRODUCTION 1 2 . REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE 6 3 . METHOD 46 Hypotheses 46 Procedure 49 Instruments 51 4. RESULTS... 59 Participants 59 Preliminary Analysis 59 5. DISCUSSION 65 Li mi t a t i o n s 72 Fut ur e Res ear ch 74 REFERENCES 78


vii LIST OF TABLES Table Page 1. Percentages of Sample Demographic Information , 60 2. Means of Score on the Survey Scales PSQ, Avoidance, Seeking Social Support, Problem Solving, Emotional Stability, and Extroversion 62

1 Chapter 1 INTRODUCTION There is an abundance of research on the stress that police officers face while on the job (Brown & Campbell, 1990; Hillgren, Bond, & Jones, 1976; Kroes, Margolis, & Hurrell, 1974; Toch, Bailey, & Floss, 2002; Violanti, 1983; Violanti & Aron, 1994). Research is lacking, however, in the area linking the effects of coping and personality to perceived job stress (Lau, Hem, Berg, Ekeberg, & Torgersen, 2006). An individual's personality is an influential force in his or her life. Personality influences how an individual perceives and reacts to his or her environment (Larsen & Buss, 2002). Current research suggests that individuals who score high on extroversion scales of Big-Five personality measurements utilize active coping strategies, such as problem solving and seeking social support (Vollrath, Torgersen, & Alnaes, 1995). Maladaptive coping strategies, on the other hand, are often utilized by individuals who

2 score high on neuroticism or emotional instability scales of personality measurement (Vollrath et al., 1995). Highly neurotic personality traits have also been linked by current research to a higher experience of stressful situations. Neuroticism has also been found to predispose individuals to have more frequent experiences of negative emotions and distress (Vollrath, 2001). Stress is present in the lives of every individual (Selye, 1956). Many police officers face regular stressors that can lead to may stress-related diseases, such as hypertension, nervous conditions, and heart disease (Kroes et al., 1974). According to research by Toch et al. (2002), police officers experience cumulative stress, which results from their consistent exposure to stressing events that are created by their job duties. Cumulative stress is a combination of perceived stress varying with the number of years a police officer serves on the job. A variety of work-related events, such as critical incidents, combined with family stress, add to cumulative stress (Toch et al., 2002). Cumulative stress may also include unresolved issues that officers experience early in their career. As these

issues go untreated the officers will experience increasing negative effects and compounded cumulative stress. There is an increasing awareness by police supervisors that officers are negatively affected by constant exposure to trauma, danger, and deviance. Police officers are faced with a distinctive combination of stressors placed on them by the nature of their work. The influx of drug use and gradual decline in moral values occurring in society today require police officers to be psychologically sound and prepared for duty (Dietrich, 1989). Research that examines how police officers deal with stress is of the utmost importance in creating an effective stress management plan for police officers. Society is placing progressively more demands on officers, and their job-related experiences play a role in the development of their personality. Ongoing evaluations of police officers' personalities and research identifying influencing factors in creating and dealing with stress are fundamental to police departments nationwide (Anshel, 2000). One way people deal with stress is through the use of coping mechanisms. Coping is a reaction by the body to a stressor. Although, little research has been conducted to

4 show the relationship between coping and police officer stress, it is suggested that poor coping skills can be a predictor of stress experienced by police officers (Anshel, 2000). In the present study, the researcher examined how a police officer's personality affects how he or she copes with stress in his or her work environment. Police officers, as a whole, may make use of many different coping mechanisms. Understanding an individual's coping style allows supervisors to recognize individuals who are utilizing either maladaptive or adaptive coping skills. Information on police coping strategies and their effectiveness is useful in constructing stress management interventions for officers who may be using maladaptive coping strategies (Anshel, 2000). Policing has been identified as one of the top three most stressful professions (Violanti & Aron, 1994). There is a high financial cost associated with illnesses relating to stress, which include absenteeism, early retirement, and reduced productivity (Violanti & Aron, 1994). Stress management education is important in helping police administrators and psychologists reduce causes of job stress. It is essential to understand the manner in which

5 police officers cope with their job-related stressors as a means of creating successful stress management education (Anshel, 2000). The researcher examined what personality characteristics were present, what types of coping techniques were utilized, and what the influence of those coping skills and personality characteristics was for police officers on perceived job stress.

6 Chapter 2 REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE "Personality" was defined by Larsen and Buss (2002) as a "set of psychological traits within the individual that are organized and relatively enduring and that influence his or her interactions with, and adaptations to, the environment" (p. 4). According to Larsen and Buss, personality is an influential force in an individual's life. Personality has an effect on people's actions, interactions, feelings, goals, and reactions (Larsen & Buss, 2002). Personality is generally assessed at three different levels. The first level is the human nature level (Larsen & Buss, 2002) or examining how humans are like all others (Kluckhohn & Murray, 1948). Personality analysis at this level describes personality traits that are considered typical of the human species and that nearly everyone possesses (Larsen & Buss, 2002). The second level of personality analysis occurs at "the level of individual and group differences" (Larsen & Buss, 2002, p. 12) or examining how humans are like some others (Kluckhohn & Murray, 1948). At this level of analysis,

7 researchers assess personality differences between individuals or personality differences between groups of people (Larsen & Buss, 2002). The third level of analysis is the individual uniqueness level (Larsen & Buss, 2002) or examining how humans are like no others (Kluckhohn & Murray, 1948). Personality researchers at this level believe that every individual is unique or no two individuals possess exactly the same personality characteristics (Larsen & Buss, 2002). Individual personality differences studied by researchers in the second level (individual and group differences) can be examined using Big-Five measures of personality. Big-Five measures of personality assess where on a continuum of personality characteristics an individual falls (Larsen & Buss, 2002). Galton (1884) was credited by John, Angleitner, and Ostendorf (1988) as the first researcher to organize personality descriptors. According to John et al., Galton's work was not scientifically systematic and insignificant as the work done by him was allegedly accomplished by simply scanning the dictionary.

8 Klages (1926) was recognized by John et al. (1988) as the first theorist to generate interest in developing personality descriptors. Klages implied that research in the area of personality traits should begin by studying language. Many early personality-trait researchers, Allport and Odbert (1936), for example, focused on compiling lists of personality traits that proved to be difficult as well as daunting (John et al., 1988). Allport and Odbert (1936) compiled a list of approximately 18,000 English words that could be used to describe personality traits and behaviors. As a means of organizing these descriptive words, the researchers arranged the descriptors into four categories: "neutral terms designating possible personality traits," "descriptive of temporary moods or activities," "weighted terms conveying social and characterial judgments," and "miscellaneous" (p. 38). Allport and Odbert's (1936) list of personality descriptors was used by Cattell to create a model of personality structure that is multidimensional. Cattell's early work focused on reducing the amount of personality terms. He reached this goal by systematically and

9 empirically clustering terms until he developed 12 basic personality factors (John et al., 1998). According to Digman (1990), subsequent research has focused on further narrowing personality factors into five general dimensions of personality. Early research labeled the dimensions as follows: Surgency, Agreeableness, Dependability, Emotional Stability, and Culture (Fiske, 1949; Goldberg, 1992; Norman, 1963; Tupes & Christal, 1961). Goldberg (1992) found the five factors of personality to be acceptedly labeled and numbered as follows: "I. Surgency (or Extraversion); II. Agreeableness; III. Conscientiousness (or Dependability); IV. Emotional Stability (vs. Neuroticism); and V. Culture, Intellect, or Openness" (p. 26). The aforementioned personality factors have been used to empirically study personality. Although these factors describe personality dimensions, they do not define personality. Personality can be described as factors that describe different individuals as they are and also the factors that have brought about the known personality (Gendlin, 1964). According to classical personality theorists cited in Kelly

10 (1955), personality should be examined as a multidimensional trend that is molded and shaped by events. Gendlin's (1964) theory of personality change follows classical theorists and is based on the concept of experience as an ongoing, concrete process in which an individual senses and feels. Basically, Gendlin theorized that an individual's personality may change as a result of his or her experiencing process and the connection between that process and characteristics of his or her personality. Personality characteristics become evident when a person acts in a way that seems to contradict the circumstances that surround the individual (Gendlin 1964). As an example, a police officer remains likeable and secure despite the overwhelmingly bad circumstances he or she encounters on the job. Personality characteristics are important determinants when police agencies hire officers. It is common practice for each police officer applicant to go through a rigorous screening process (Varela, Boccaccini, Scogin, Stump, & Caputo, 2004). Mental health professionals are usually contracted to screen individual job candidates for major mental illnesses and personality characteristics that may inhibit optimum job

11 performance. According to Varela et al. (2004), the screening process is imperative because police officers are assigned the task of protecting the community from harm. Unacceptable candidates who are perhaps unable to maintain their responsibilities as an officer may be identified through psychological screening (Varela et al., 2004). Research has demonstrated that personality characteristics are correlated with job performance (Gonder & Gilmore, 2004; Hogan & Holland, 2003; Nowicki, 1999; Varela et al., 2004). Machismo, authoritarianism, bravery, cynicism, and aggression are characteristics commonly associated with the police personality (Balch, 1977; Skolnick, 1977). The idea of the police personality has evolved over time. It is not the same today as it was 20 years ago (Twersky-Glasner, 2005). According to Nowicki (1999), there are 12 personality traits commonly found in successful police officers. Nowicki determined these traits through systematic qualitative interviews with police administrators, supervisors, trainers, and officers. The traits are as follows: enthusiasm, good communication skills, good judgment, sense of humor, creativity, self-motivation,

12 knowledge of the job and system, ego strength, courage, utilization of discretion, tenacity, and a thirst for knowledge. Enthusiasm, according to Nowicki (1999), is important because a police officer has to believe in his or her role and perform routine duties with energy. Good communication skills are necessary, according to Nowicki, because officers frequently interact with the public. Good communication skills are also used when writing reports. Good judgment or common sense is necessary in any situation a police officer may encounter while on the job. A sense of humor was also found by Nowicki to be an important characteristic because it can help an officer cope with undesirable situations. Creativity is essential when police officers must obtain the end result but stay within the confounds of the law. Self-motivation is necessary, not just as a means for advancement, but also as a way to perform routine work details adequately. A thorough knowledge of job details, the criminal justice system, and the ability to use discretion allow an officer to complete his or her work efficiently and effectively. Ego strength and courage are both necessary in an officer's ability to think clearly

13 during times of high stress. A personality characteristic, such as tenacity, enables officers to view different tasks as challenges, not obstacles (Nowicki, 1999). According to Twersky-Glasner (2005), previous research on the police officer personality has been faulty. The first deficit is that previous research focuses separately on each negative characteristic of the police personality. Another deficit is that prior research has failed to examine the development of the police personality. Job experiences throughout the course of a police officer's career continue to mold and develop his or her personality. The police personality is formed from his or her job-related experiences. Research is also limited in the area of linking personality traits to police officer behavior (Twersky-Glasner, 2005). Future research in these areas is important in helping police supervisors to understand and manage police officers. Empirical research on successful police personality characteristics and job performance has been inconclusive (Gonder & Gilmore, 2004). Gonder and Gilmore examined the use of "special scale configurations of the MMPI and MMPI-2" (p. 59) in predicting the successful completion of the

14 police academy training. The researchers found that special scale configurations, including the Husemann Index and the Social Introversion scale, were significantly correlated to completion. Many researchers agree, however, that a personality characteristic, such as extroversion, has an effect on an officer's daily work experience predisposing him or her to more positive affects. This research suggests that police officers who score high on extroversion scales of personality measurement may experience a lower level of perceived job stress (Costa & McCrae, in press; Vollrath, 2001). According to Costa and McCrae (in press), personality characteristics have a direct effect on an individual's perception of stress and his or her individual stress process. The two characteristics these researchers linked to stress are neuroticism and extroversion. Costa and McCrae (1990) suggested that neuroticism, also referred to as emotional instability, can be defined as "an enduring disposition to experience psychological distress" (p. 23). This lasting distress affects how the individual perceives his or her environment. Ways of coping, perceptions of stress, and psychological well-being are all influenced by

15 the presence or absence of emotional stability as a personality characteristic (Costa & McCrae, 1990). Rowlison and Felner (1988) found in their research that students who score high on neuroticism scales—meaning they perceive the world around themselves as difficult—are evaluated by their teachers as having poor adaptation skills. These data indicated that stress in normal individuals is different from the seemingly constant distress of neurotic individuals. These findings can be influential for police administrators because neurotic personality traits can be assessed as they may shift during a police officer's career (Twersky-Glasner, 2005). Recent research by Hart, Wearing, and Heady (1995) suggested that personality characteristics influence a police officer's perception of his or her work environment, methods of coping with his or her work environment, and pattern of work experiences. Personality characteristics that were found to be influential were neuroticism and extroversion. Individuals found to score high on emotional instability scales would need to be monitored by police supervisors due to their predisposition to experience stress (Vollrath, 2001).

16 Stress has been identified as a constant condition in the lives of most individuals. The negative effects of stress make it an important research topic (Abdollahi, 2002). Toch et al., authors of Stress in Policing, and Sapolsky (2004), author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, have credited Selye as the pioneer of stress research. In addition, Selye has also been credited by many researchers as defining the term stress in the context it is presently used (Oxington, 2005). Oxington quoted Selye in Psychology of Stress, saying that there would be no life without stress. According to Oxington, stress is an inevitable result of life. The definition of stress has been described by many different researchers (Lazarus & DeLongis, 1983; Oxington, 2005; Sapolsky, 2004; Selye, 1956; Storch & Panzarella, 1996). Sapolsky defined stress in his book, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (2004): "A stressor is anything in the outside world that knocks you out of homeostatic balance and the stress response is what your body does to reestablish homeostasis" (p. 6). Sapolsky (2004) also indicated how anticipation of a stressful event can become a source of stress.

17 Surprisingly, the body reacts in the same predictable way to an actual stressing event as it would to an anticipated stressing event (Sapolsky, 2004). Commonly accepted definitions of stress have also been provided by earlier researchers, such as Selye (1956) and Lazarus and DeLongis (1983). According to Selye's (1956) generalized adaptation theory, stress is defined as any reaction of the body to a demand. Demands can be anything ranging from physical injury or tension to extreme heat or cold. Stressors are either internal or external stimuli that an individual believes to be demanding. Stressors can be psychologically, physically, or socially inflicted. In Selye's theory, the body reacts to stress sequentially, according to three stages. The first is the alarm stage. A typical physical reaction to the alarm stage is movement of the body's defense mechanisms, such as a change in hormone levels with the expansion of the adrenal cortex. Psychological reactions to the alarm stage occur in three steps: alertness to the stressor, augmented anxiety levels, followed by task and defense oriented behaviors (Selye, 1956).

The resistance stage is the second phase of the body's reaction to stress. In general, during this stage of resistance, the body tries to adapt to the stressor. Physical reactions aroused during the alarm stage return to normal, and psychological reactions turn to coping mechanisms. If the person's coping is ineffective and this stage is extended, the body moves into the next stage of exhaustion. In the exhaustion stage, the body cannot resist stress any further. Physical reactions include swelling and depletion of adrenal glands and damage to the lymphatic system. Psychological symptoms can be as severe as disorganization of perceptions and thoughts. The body exhibits symptoms to damaging stress in biological and psychological manifestations. These manifestations can be anxiety, irritability, headaches, gastrointestinal upset, high blood pressure, and depressive symptoms (Selye, 1956). Lazarus and DeLongis (1983), also leaders in the study c of stress, developed two models of life stress as it exists in the research. These two different models are the life events and the daily hassles.

In the life events model, it xs argued that certain life events bring about change and force the individual to adapt, causing stress (Lazarus & DeLongis, 1983). The second model, daily hassles, Lazarus and DeLongis argued, is the basis to defining stress. Daily hassles is a term used to identify the exasperating and stressful burdens people deal with every day that increase stress levels. Anxiety about losing weight, undemanding work, and lack of family time would all be considered daily hassles (Lazarus & DeLongis, 1983). Certain hassles can be temporary or chronic, but Lazarus and DeLongis believed that it is important to distinguish them from the bigger life-changing events, such as a death in the family or the loss of a job. In Lazarus and Delongis's model, stress is based on the individual's perception of the stressor. Stress is a complex system of processes not a simple variable. Oxington's (2005) definition of stress elaborates on the work of Lazarus and DeLongis (1983). Oxington considered stress to the body's physical reaction to a situation that is disagreeable. He described how different events cause different degrees of stress; for example,

20 missing the train or waiting in a seemingly long line can result in mild stress, which, according to Lazarus and DeLongis (1983), would be considered daily hassles. The death of a loved one or loss of a job can cause severe stress, making this type of life-changing event a life event, according to Lazarus and DeLongis (1983; Oxington, 2005). Stress can also have different temporal durations, such as acute and chronic stress. According to Oxington (2005), chronic stress includes stress that is not short term. Health concerns and financial problems may be sources of chronic stress. In turn, acute stress is caused by a reaction to a short-lived, urgent threat. This threat can either be real or perceived (Violanti, 1983). The underlying theme in the working definition of stress is the significance placed on perception. Stress is experienced when social demands are not adequately met by an individual followed by consequences for not meeting demands. The individual has to perceive an imbalance of demands and response capability in order to feel stress (Violanti, 1983). For example, a police officer only experiences job stress when he or she perceives his or her job duties to be

21 stressful. Further, working swing shifts may create more stress in one officer as compared to another. One common source of stress for individuals may be their employment. An individual's profession may be a widespread source of all types of stress, chronic, acute, mild, and severe (Oxington, 2005). For police officers, their work-related stress and life stress are two different constructs that change over time (Tang & Hammontree, 1992). According to Toch et al.'s (2002) research, police work is exceptionally stress inducing. Police officers engage in work that requires putting themselves into situations that may be physically dangerous or even life threatening (Kroes et al., 1974). Kroes et al. (1974) interviewed 100 patrol officers in 1974 for the purpose of identifying some basic stressors unique to police officers. The researchers found the most substantial stressors noted by officers were not direct threats to the life or limb, but rather, threats to their feeling of professionalism (Kroes et al., 1974). In 1994, Violanti and Aron extended this concept by having 103 sworn police officers (varying in rank, ethnicity, and experience) rank job stressors on the Police Stress Survey according to

how much stress each event creates for the officer. The authors' research supported the idea that police officers rank organizational stressors, such as shift work and inadequate support, as occurring more frequently, which leads to more opportunity to cause stress. These stressors affect a police officer's sense of professionalism. Another common stressor unique to police work is the double standard placed on officers by the public. Some segments of society react to police officers with discrimination, apprehension, distrust, and occasionally hostility, both on and off duty. Police officers are often viewed as fitting a stereotype and not as an individual (Kroes et al., 1974). Research by Violanti and Aron (1994) supported the idea that the pubic causes stress in the perception of the police officer. Officers gave "personal insult from a citizen" (p. 825) a mean rank of 36.7 on a scale of 0 (no stress) to 100 (maximum stress). Also on the list was "public criticism" (p. 825), which had an average rank of 39.5, and "negative press coverage" (p. 825), with an average rank of 51.8 (Violanti & Aron, 1994). Stress felt by the law enforcement community is difficult to measure and is attributed to more than one

23 factor (Abdollahi, 2002). Police officers experience stress from the various work situations they face while on the job. Some stressors include policies and procedures implemented by the department and the justice system, as well as from personal traits and characteristics. Stress experienced by police officers can be divided into three subcategories: intra-interpersonal stress, occupational stress, and organizational stress (Abdollahi, 2002). Intra-interpersonal stress was proposed by some researchers to be a contributor of stress caused by personality characteristics that make it challenging to perform the necessary tasks of police work (Abdollahi, 2002; Anshel, 2000). Preemployment screening in the form of psychological testing has been used to determine some of the personality traits most associated with a compromised ability to deal with high levels of stress (Abdollahi, 2002), such as low self-confidence and low self-esteem (Anshel, 2000). According to Abdollahi's (2002) review of the police stress literature, research in the area of inter- intrapersonal stress has not demonstrated conclusive results.

24 The second category of police officer stress is occupational stress, which is caused by police officer work duties (Abdollahi, 2002; Brown & Campbell, 1990; Hillgren et al., 1976; Violanti & Marshall, 1983). Occupational stress includes normal events that are expected in the daily work of a police officer, such as report writing, giving traffic violations, and being in situations that may become dangerous (Hillgren et al., 1976). Occupational stress occurs on a continuum that ranges from no stress to maximum stress. For example, Violanti and Aron (1994) found that police officers ranked minor physical injuries as low stress, as compared to killing someone in the line of duty as high stress. In addition, hazardous and unpredictable situations sometimes occur during routine police work. It is typical for police officers to respond to calls in which there is little or no information about the scene, which creates more stress than if they had information about the scene (Hillgren et al., 1976). The third category of police officer stress research is organizational stress. Organizational stress is defined as stressors that derive from the police organization itself

25 and the process along with procedures inherent in the criminal justice system (Abdollahi, 2002; Hillgren et al., 1976; Violanti & Marshall, 1983). One aspect underlying organizational stress is that police officers feel they lack the support of the administration (Hillgren et al., 1976). Other examples of organizational stress are work schedules (abnormal work hours), poor supervision, or bad working relationships with partners or supervisors (Abdollahi, 2002). Another profound pressure found inside the police department is peer group influence. Reiser (1974) described the police department as functioning as a family for its employees. In a city police department, the chief serves as the parental figure who has all of the decision-making power. The supervisors at as "older siblings" (p. 156) who patronize the "younger siblings" (p. 156), who are the inexperienced patrol officers. When the department is marked with internal dissension and cliques, officers may feel depressed and alienated. Having the support from other officers is a positive attribute but may result in loss of autonomy for the individual officer (Reiser, 1974).

26 Previous research has focused on the sources of police stress (Collins & Gibbs, 1993; Hillgren et al., 1976; Reiser, 1974; Violanti & Aron, 1994). Much of this research shows that the major sources of stress for law enforcement officers are related to the organization and its procedures. Organizational stress has been reported similarly from police officers, as well as police administrators, which makes research in this area imperative to reducing stress at all levels of the organization (Hillgren et al., 1976). Police stress research is beneficial to police administrators because stress is highly correlated with aggression (Barnett, Fagan, & Booker, 1991). Unnecessary aggression could be detrimental to an officer and may result in termination from the department. According to Kruk, Halasz, Meelis, and Haller (2004), "Aggressive behavior is facilitated by the corticosteroids that are secreted in an anticipatory response to the social challenge itself, even before actual fighting starts" (p. 1062). This excerpt exemplifies a connection between the areas in the brain that deal with aggression and the stress response. Aggression may be a response to a stressor due to a connection between areas in the brain that facilitate defense mechanisms to

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Abstract: The objective of this study was to examine what influence coping skills, specifically avoidance, problem solving, and seeking social support, and personality characteristics have for police officers on perceived job stress. Participants consisted of 100 male and female patrol officers from a midsized police department. Avoidance is a maladaptive coping skill that increases stress in patrol officers who are extroverted. Once avoidance was controlled for, police officer stress was not affected by personality.