Special Agent and Threat Management Coordinator, Federal Bureau of Investigation - Philadelphia Field Office
Master of Applied Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania ’20
Bachelor of Arts in English, St Joseph’s University ’00
“To be a really good agent or detective, you need to be incredibly curious about everything,” reflects Eric Patterson (Master of Applied Positive Psychology ’20). “You should be curious about every single person that you're coming in contact with—you should want to learn as much as you can about them.” As a veteran of federal law enforcement for nearly 20 years, Eric’s curiosity informs his approach to interviewing techniques—both as an interviewer and an instructional designer who trains law enforcement officers around the world how to ask the right questions. “My whole job is to stop acts of targeted violence,” he says. “We train our officers to go back into their communities and teach educators, coaches, and places of worship what are the indicators of someone going down a pathway toward targeted violence—and how we can get ahead of the curve on that.”
In his search for cutting-edge psychological research to help develop and improve the curriculum, Eric encountered studies by Master of Applied Positive Psychology faculty that focused on topics such as empathy and the PERMA model of well-being (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment). “This is not the norm that we would typically be teaching our officers,” says Eric, “but I wanted to see to what extent positive psychology would be able to help us understand the values, perspectives, and the beliefs of those folks that we are sworn to protect and serve—whether they are victims, witnesses, sources, or subjects.” He dove into positive psychology books and contacted researchers directly to discuss how to apply their methods in law enforcement—and ultimately applied to the MAPP program to continue pursuing his interest.
With his unpredictable and intensive work requirements, it was challenging to schedule time for coursework—but Eric did not find it difficult to stay focused. “I was beyond passionate about the material because I was using it and seeing the benefits of it,” he explains. “We learned about PERMA, and I was immediately including that in my interviewing strategy. We learned about character strengths, I was immediately putting it into practice.” For example, Eric’s task force frequently works with adolescents who have made violent threats or have exhibited indicators associated with mass shooters. Traditionally, Eric explains, law enforcement is called in to manage maladaptive behaviors—just as traditional psychology focuses on pathology rather than behaviors that promote well-being. Positive psychology opens up new avenues for de-escalating violence and redirecting juvenile subjects from harming themselves and others. “It changed the way we do interviews and the way we manage our cases involving threats of targeted violence in the long term. We have to assess the threat, but we also have to create a long-term mitigation strategy for that individual. When we are dealing with juveniles who may be on a pathway towards targeted violence, we have to identify that kid’s strengths, then we’ve got to ask what he’s good at, so we can tie him to an anchor in his life. We apply the principles of positive psychology not only to our interactions with that subject, but also when dealing with the supporting adults in his life.”
For his capstone, Eric tackled a question that was at the forefront of public consciousness in 2020—how to bridge the gap that divides law enforcement and the communities they serve. As he researched in fields such as moral psychology, social psychology, community psychology, and neuroscience, he frequently reached out to connect with scholars whose work resonated with him. “I was trying to build a big tent of advisors who would see the utility of their research in the field of law enforcement,” Eric explains. “It allowed me to make introductions between folks in law enforcement and researchers who were doing amazing work, but previously had not seen the applicability of it in the field of law enforcement or threat prevention.” The researchers Eric contacted were open to talking to him, reviewing his applications of their work, and advising his capstone—but only one had ever been contacted by law enforcement before, and many were surprised (if gratified) to find that their work had practical applications for policing.
With 150 pages and 32 readers, Eric jokes that he wrote more of a dissertation than a capstone. “I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else, but I wanted to take my time and do it correctly. And those were really useful and productive conversations. To this day, I still communicate with quite a few of them about programs we’re building out.” His capstone research on positive policing included a practical, teachable framework to help police officers better understand themselves and others.
Eric is scheduled to begin teaching a two-part course on this subject at Penn State in the fall titled Applying Positive Psychology in Policing; he is already teaching some of this curriculum to the members of his FBI-led Task Force. The first half of the course is titled Obstacles and Pathways to Self-Awareness, focusing on teaching officers to do the hard work to understand themselves and to understand the agency they have to create positive interventions in their own lives. “What are the things we don’t understand about ourselves, that prohibit us from understanding the values, beliefs, and thought processes of others? What are those things you need to do to improve your own well-being?” Eric asks. “We teach officers that it’s okay to take care of themselves and their own mental health, because then they’re better able to serve the community and keep people safe.” Once they have done this work, law enforcement officers are in a better position to understand the values, beliefs, and perspectives of those victims, witnesses, sources, and subjects in their communities. The second half of the course, Obstacles and Pathways to Understanding and Perspective Taking, explores the research into tribalism, polarization, dehumanization, moral foundations, and various systems of thinking. “Understanding how and where people created their world beliefs and value systems is an essential function of the work of my Task Force,” says Eric.
“Whenever I've taught a course, I've always told them, you're going to learn more from each other and each other's experiences than you're ever going to learn from me,” Eric adds. “I did find that to be the case with MAPP. I learned as much from my fellow students as I did from my instructors. The folks who are drawn to that program are curious about the world. They're curious about making connections.” Eric has remained involved in the MAPP community, not only through his conversations with working scholars but as an assistant instructor teaching incoming MAPP cohorts. “To whatever extent I can, I will help out,” he says. “It’s so important to have folks from this program bringing their work back to schools, to places of worship, to their communities. If we can educate kids in well-being and positive interventions early on, then we won’t see as many of them go down a pathway toward violence. That would be the best possible outcome.”