Feature

At a congressional briefing in September, a panel of psychologists reviewed new psychological research with battlefield implications.

They presented research across diverse psychology subfields, but with one major commonality: all of the findings apply to improving U.S. military operations at home and abroad. Their presentations spanned human factors, training, recruitment and retention:

  • Human Factors. Retired Col. Gerald P. Krueger, PhD, presented results of ongoing studies of the performance-degrading effects of clothing designed to protect soldiers from chemical and biological weapons. In a study published in Military Medicine (Vol. 166, No. 2), and Military Psychology (Vol. 9, No. 4), Krueger reported that two types of common military gear--M-40 gas masks, which are air-filtration headgear currently being used by the U.S. military in Iraq, and the Battledress Overgarment, a protective layer of clothes worn over a standard military uniform--impair many routine activities such as walking, smelling and breathing, though they effectively protect the wearer from chemical and biological weapons.

Because the mask can increase respiratory resistance fourfold, said Krueger, "We learned that it takes some conditioning to perform aerobic tasks well when garbed in this protective gear." The gas masks, found Krueger and his research team in studies funded by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), can also suppress important olfactory cues. "When you do maintenance on a vehicle, you might not smell burning oil," explained Krueger. "That's an important loss."

Research on the ergonomics of protective clothing has implications for civilians as well as soldiers, said Krueger. Fire departments, hazardous-materials teams and police departments are just a few civilian first-responders who may use gas masks and other protective equipment.

Krueger offered this advice to civilians using the M-40 gas mask: "Train, train, train." Practice wearing the mask while performing typical tasks, he advised, because it increases both the confidence and functioning of people garbed in protective equipment. Also, important, he said, is continued human factors and ergonomic research on chemical and biological protective equipment. "Research is mission critical," concluded Krueger.

  • Training. In addition to the investigation of human factors and equipment interactions, psychological research on training is also crucial to the military, reported Col. Robert Roland, PsyD, of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He said DoD-funded psychological research has helped military commanders develop Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training.

SERE training, which details strategies for surviving and escaping capture by an enemy, has been demonstrated to lessen soldiers' fear of enemy capture--a critical component of survival, reported Roland.

  • Recruitment. Other promising research in the SERE area is designed to help military commanders and trainers identify factors that improve service members' ability to respond to high-stress combat and captivity situations. Stress-hardy individuals, said Roland, exhibit measurable differences from their peers on variables such as heart-rate, self perception and cognitive processes.

"These profiles can also be detected prior to training," stated Roland, who noted the finding could help the military focus instruction and recruitment efforts.

  • Retention. Besides recruiting, another important aspect of military human resource management is retaining enlistees. Howard M. Weiss, PhD, head of the department of psychological sciences and co-director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, summarized some of the institute's findings on ways in which the military can encourage re-enlistment. Commitment to the military, says Weiss, is central to predicting re-enlistment, and for married soldiers, spousal commitment is also important. In light of this finding, Weiss and his colleagues are developing measurements of military member and spousal commitment and examining the effects of quality of life on military commitment and retention. Ultimately, reported Weiss, this research will aid the military in increasing the retention rates of trained soldiers.

"Our warehouse of answers does not stock the right parts anymore," commented William C. Howell, PhD, adjunct professor of psychology at Arizona State and Rice universities, and former chief scientist for human resources for the U.S. Air Force. According to Howell, development of new technologies to aid the military in global conflict is not keeping pace with an understanding of human factors.

"New threats and conflicts pose greater demands, and our human resources are being taxed much more than our technology," said Howell.