Aggressive behaviour encountered by emergency responders is correlated to their own personality traits

Aggressive behaviour towards emergency responders (e.g. police officers, fire fighters and paramedics) is not only related to the personality traits of the perpetrators or the nature of the situation concerned, but also to the personality traits of the emergency responders themselves. Lisa van Reemst’s PhD thesis shows that some emergency responders have psychological traits that make them more likely to attract aggressive behaviour. Van Reemst argues that this does not mean that the emergency responders should be blamed for the aggressive behaviour they encounter, but rather that these are characteristics for which organisations can screen, and which emergency responders can be trained to curb.

Emergency responders who experience fewer negative emotions and are relatively patient with the people with whom they deal tend to encounter less aggressive behaviour. Van Reemst’s study also shows that it is useful to be ‘a little dominant’, because officers who are either too dominant or not dominant enough are more likely to experience aggressive behaviour. For police officers, particularly, the way in which they choose to respond to situations was found to be instrumental. For instance, police officers who choose to talk to the people with whom they are dealing or refrain from rushing into action are less likely to encounter aggressive behaviour than police officers who are quick to grab their batons. Van Reemst found little to support the notion that there is a link between the emergency responder’s degree of empathy and self-confidence and the way in which he or she interprets a situation on the one hand and the amount of aggressive behaviour they encounter on the other.

The amount of aggression encountered predicts the degree to which personality traits can change

Van Reemst also analysed in her PhD thesis how personality traits and aggressive behaviour affect each other. In police officers, certain psychological traits predict the likelihood that they will encounter aggressive behaviour. When they are exposed to aggressive behaviour, this will generally cause their behaviour to change over time. Police officers who encounter more aggressive behaviour will grow less likely over time to respond assertively or passively to a situation, which is to say that they will be less likely to talk to the culprits or wait before jumping into a situation. It is harder to determine in which way the personality traits of fire fighters and paramedics affect and are affected by the aggressive behaviour to which they are exposed.

Major differences between the three types of professions

One notable aspect of Van Reemst’s PhD thesis consists of the major differences between the three types of professions, both in terms of the amount of aggressive behaviour they encounter and of the correlation between aggressive behaviour and the officers’ own psychological traits. Of the three groups, police officers are most likely to encounter aggressive behaviour, while fire fighters are the least likely. Moreover, the study showed that, when it comes to fire fighters, who are more likely to encounter verbal aggression, there is very little correlation between aggressive behaviour and the psychological traits of fire fighters.

Understanding aggressive behaviour in order to prevent it

Van Reemst’s study was the first to look into such detail at:

  1. the psychological traits of emergency responders;
  2. the way in which an emergency responder’s personality traits affect aggressive behaviour and vice versa;
  3. and the differences in this respect between the three types of professions.

This study is vital to emergency responders since they regularly encounter people who behave aggressively, which negatively affects both themselves and society at large.

PhD defence ceremony

Lisa van Reemst will defend her thesis, entitled ‘Emergency Responders at Risk. An Empirical Analysis of the Relationship between Emergency Responders’ Characteristics and Their Exposure to Aggression by Citizens’ on Thursday March 5th 2020.

NB De people on the picture above do not feature in the research.

PhD student

Lisa van Reemst

More information

Press office Erasmus University Rotterdam, T (010) 408 1216 E

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