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Cognitive Load: How Does This Affect our Shot Process?



An intuitive user interface for a word-processing program will not, for example, make anyone a better writer… The phrase “make it intuitive” is a simplistic and potentially misleading “folk solution” to a more complex problem—a silver bullet approach to dodging the hard work associated with the introduction of new systems.”

-Excerpt from ‘The New Equipment is Here, Now Comes the Hard Part: Cognitive and Sociotechnical Challenges in Network-Enabled Mission Command By John K. Hawley and Michael W. Swehla


Fair Warning:

This article is going to be focused a little bit more on the ‘nerd’ side of using a gun. I’m citing sources, so that quantifiable data on why it is important to train can be spread around. People who don’t want to understand how to use their weapon more effectively in conjunction with other systems can head towards the egress.


Recently, I’ve been looking at the effects of cognitive load and its impact on the Soldier. Specifically, how does the increase in information systems we have in this modern world effect our decision-making process, particularly when it comes to the shot process?

Hawley and Swehla (2018)define cognitive load as “the aggregate mental load placed on… members by an increasingly complex mission-command work setting.”(p. 4) While they specifically reference mission command systems, cognitive load can also be focused on the shot process.

Working memory load could be defined as your brain’s RAM. It is the total number of things you can process at any given time. The more you have to process, the more time it takes to do it. Miller (1956) in his seminal paper on the subject stated that the human mind is capable of processing seven things, plus or minus two, at any given time. And while there have been many additions to that theory, it is a good working model for how much you can process at any given moment.

I’m sure by this point you are wondering what this has to do with shooting. As you probably know, the more you have to ‘think’ about the shot process under stress (applying cognitive load), the longer it takes, and the higher the probability of missed shots, or potentially hitting the wrong target.

Fox, et. al. (2017) studied the differences in cognitive load between inexperienced and experienced shooters (ROTC cadets and SWAT team members respectively). While shooting at a mixture of threat and non-threat targets, as the amount of cognitive load (more non-threat targets) went up, the inexperienced shooters took longer to acquire and engage the threat targets.

I’m sure you are saying to yourself: “that’s common sense!” But here’s the payout; cognitive load is the sum of all things clamoring for your attention. For example, you might be watching a game on TV, while carrying on a conversation with your significant other sitting next to you on the couch. Both of these things are sources of cognitive load (i.e. information), and when you deal with multiple information sources creating a high cognitive load, it is all too easy to get fixated on one until your brain can make sense of all the information coming in causing cognitive overload (and lead to your significant other feeling ignored). A prime example of cognitive overload is texting while driving and getting in a wreck.

This is especially true for the modern Soldier and Police Officer. Scribner (2002) reported that the information being provided to the Soldier is increasing from multiple systems, causing potential ‘information overload’ (p. 2). For his study, Scribner had soldiers doing simple math problems while engaging targets.  As the table below illustrates, a simple math problem made it hard for the Soldiers to identify non-threat targets in a scenario.

So now that we know what cognitive load is, and how to get overloaded, why is this important to know? For anyone who is in the military, law enforcement, or just a concealed-carry-weapons permit holder, cognitive load is important to be aware of when out in your ‘operational area.’ Because anything that takes focus from your ability to assess and engage targets, is a load on your ‘operating system’ (i.e. the brain).

How do we get better at ‘multi-tasking’ the day-to-day needs of our career and maintaining situational awareness? One thing that can reduce cognitive load when dealing with multiple required tasks, is to improve your single task performance. Brown and Bennett (2002)pointed out that ‘practice on a task leads to a shift in cognitive processing such that the task uses fewer attentional resources as various components of performance… become automatized.’ (p. 86)

Information systems are not going away. In fact, they are going to become more prevalent in the modern era. Being able to ‘multi-task’ will become more important, especially for those who use weapons as a part of their profession. The only way to ensure there is no collateral damage from your ‘target fixation’ on the information system, is to develop your situational awareness on your surroundings (i.e. ‘keep your head on a swivel’) and to arguably become proficient beyond the level of mere competence with your weapon. You don’t have to devote as much cognitive load to the shot process when you have developed and refined it, freeing up more ‘processing power’ to address the information coming your way. Accepting otherwise puts both yourself, and the people around you at risk.



Brown, S. B. (2002). The Role of Practice and Automaticity in Temporal and Nontemporal Dual-Task Performance. Psychological Research, 66, 80-89. doi:10.1007/s004260100076

Fox, A. B. (2017). Does Cognitive Load Alter Target Acquisition and Engagement Strategies in Tactical Shooters? International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings, 8(5). Retrieved from

Hawley, J. S. (2018). The New Equipment is Here, Now Comes the Hard Part: Cognitive and Sociotechnical Challenges in Network-Enabled Mission Command. Human Research and Engineering Directorate. Aberdeen Proving Ground: Army Research Laboratory.

Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity to process information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81-97. doi:10.1037/h0043158. PMID 13310704

Scribner, D. (2002). The Effect of Cognitive Load and Target Characteristics on Soldier Shooting Performance and Friendly Targets Engaged. Human Research and Engineering Directorate. Aberdeen Proving Ground: Army Research Laboratory. Retrieved November 1, 2002



Raymond Miller
Raymond Miller is the former Small Arms Master Gunner of the 82nd Airborne Division. He is leveraging his operational experience training soldiers in Weapons Mastery to address Human Systems Integration issues for the United States Army.


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