Paradoxical effects of self-awareness of being observed: testing the effect of police body-worn cameras on assaults and aggression against officers

Barak Ariel, Alex Sutherland, Darren Henstock, Josh Young, Paul Drover, Jayne Sykes, Simon Megicks, Ryan Henderson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objectives: Recently, scholars have applied self-awareness theory to explain why body-worn cameras (BWCs) affect encounters between the public and police, with its most immediate manifestation being a reduction in the use of force by and complaints against police. In this study, we report on the paradoxical effects of BWCs in the context of assaults on officers. Methods: A multisite randomized controlled trial in ten departments, with officers wearing (or not wearing) BWCs based on random assignment of shifts. Odds ratios are used to estimate the treatment effect on assaults, along with “one study removed” sensitivity analyses. Further subgroup analyses are performed in terms of varying degrees of officers’ discretion, to enhance the practical applications of this multisite experiment. Finally, before-analyses are applied as well, including Bootstrapping and Monte-Carlo simulations to further validate the results under stricter statistical conditions, to illustrate the overall effects. Results: A total of 394 assaults per 1000 arrests occurred during 3637 treatment shifts (M = 39.35, SD = 17.89) compared with 284 assaults per 1000 arrests during 3697 control shifts (M = 28.38; SD = 15.99), which translate into 37% higher odds of assault in treatment shifts than in control conditions. The perverse direction and relative magnitude in each experimental site in eight out of ten sites were consistent. The backfiring treatment effect was substantially more pronounced in low discretion sites, i.e., where officers strongly followed the experimental protocol (OR = 2.565; 95% CI 1.792, 3.672). At the same time, before–after analyses show that assaults were overall reduced by 61% in the participating police departments, thus suggesting paradoxical effects. Conclusions: We explain these findings using self-awareness theory. Once self-aware that their performance is being observed by BWCs, officers become at risk of being assaulted. Results suggest that under some circumstances, self-awareness can lead to excessive self-inspection that strips power-holders of their ability to function under extreme situations. This mechanism is potentially a function of “over-deterrence”. The study further demonstrates the benefits of applying psychosocial theories to the study of social control and deterrence theories more broadly, with a robust and falsifiable mechanism that explains the conditions under which being observed stimulates either appropriate or perverse consequences.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)19-47
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Experimental Criminology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2018


  • Aggression
  • Assaults
  • Being observed
  • Body-worn cameras
  • Deterrence
  • Police
  • Self-awareness

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Law


Dive into the research topics of 'Paradoxical effects of self-awareness of being observed: testing the effect of police body-worn cameras on assaults and aggression against officers'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this