Going to Mars

DSC_0028What amazes me the most about this convention is the diversity of how psychology is applied across disciplines, fields and careers. The panel discussion and presentation titled “How Psychologists Can Help Create Healthy Workplaces” examined the role of psychologists in shaping organizations to promote overall employee health.

Dr. Eduardo Salas of the University of Central Florida shared his experience as a psychologist in working with NASA astronauts to help design and organize a team for a landing mission to Mars. “From the research, there are five characteristics that this team must demonstrate in order to achieve mission success,” Salas said. He described healthy team resilience as incorporating the following:

  • adaptability and the ability to tolerate stress through self regulating
  • the ability to manage conflict within the team through mutual trust
  • mutual support and backup behavior
  • a strong “team coach” who promotes others, develops the team and creates incentives for success
  • organizational conditions that align with the team and the mission, which includes the policies, procedures and senior leadership to promote change

Nasa-MarsAs I reflected on Dr. Salas’ work, I started to think about his role with NASA and team training and considered all of the factors that the general public may discount in the process of selecting and training a team for a mission to Mars. Dr. Salas emphasized the concept of stress inoculation training — cognitive training to help individuals cope with stressors – to help train astronauts how to respond effectively and efficiently in extremely stressful conditions, in particular those conditions that would be unique to a mission to Mars.

“Communication to and from the International Space Station is about one second,” said Salas. “Communication to and from Mars would be 20 minutes in each direction, which can result in a multitude of issues.” He continued to describe many of the likely and possible stressors that these astronauts would encounter, including not being able to see Earth from Mars and living with seven individuals in an enclosed space for a prolonged period. I continued to think of simply how much the field of psychology can be applied to so many different situations. I’m recognizing more and more, despite of how obvious it is, that wherever there are people involved, psychology will always play a role.

Chimps Driven to Distraction

We all know how hard it can be to hold out for a big reward rather than take a smaller reward right now. But while pigeons, rats, monkeys and chimps show the similar behavior when offered food treats, only chimps can learn to distract themselves to sustain their self-control.

In a session called “Worth Waiting For — The Evolutionary and Developmental Foundations of Self-Control,” Michael Beran, PhD, of Georgia State University, described experiments he has conducted with chimps, orangutans and rhesus and capuchin monkeys.78779344

Orangutans could learn to wait about a minute if it meant they’d get a larger food treat, Beran said. But “rhesus monkeys were terrible – they just never got good at this.” And capuchin monkeys also struggled – but they could exert some self-control under certain conditions.

Beran and his colleagues designed an experiment in which capuchin monkeys were presented with two pieces of banana on a turntable, one small that was close to the monkey and a larger one that was farther away. The monkeys could see both pieces and they were able to stick their hands out of the cage to take the food. The monkeys would initially impulsively grab the smaller, closer piece of banana but eventually they learned to wait for the turntable to spin around and present the bigger piece, Beran said — although some capuchins were better at the task than others.

89792548Chimps, on the other hand, could learn to wait almost as long as children. (Remember Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiments in which preschoolers had to wait to get two marshmallows instead of one now?) Beran created an accumulation test where chimps would get more food treats if they could wait. The food was given to them through a delivery tube that went into their cages.

“All the chimpanzees learned quickly to wait,” he said, but some would touch or pick up the food (or the food delivery tube) but not eat, having learned that they would still get more as long as they didn’t eat anything. That led Beran to theorize that touching the food or tube might be a distraction that enabled them to wait longer. So he devised another experiment where some chimps were given toys to play with, some could not reach the food delivery tube and some were given no distractions and could reach the tube. The chimps with the toys could wait an additional 500 seconds to get the treats.

“I would make a pretty strong case that this is self-distracting,” he said.