Friday, February 09, 2007

Flying Low with NASA

The bizarre story of NASA astronaut Captain Lisa Nowak has everyone talking. It's raised some predictable and reasonable questions about psychological assessment of astronauts. In a storm of comments at a New York Times blog, The Lede, several commenters correctly observed that this incident is the first incident, and that's a pretty good record. (Of course, that's assuming that it is the first incident. Others may have been covered up.) After an incident like this, however, we should still ask if the assessments are good enough.

I did a search for astronaut selection, and I couldn't find a current list of psychological tests NASA uses. Santy (1994) has an intriguing history (available on Questia), but the book is 12 years old, and given publication lag, the information is even older. In a Google search, I found a recent reference to the Astronaut Personal Characteristics Inventory (ASTROPCI), but little other information. The primary tests they use are predictable, including IQ tests, tests of perceptual-motor functioning, personality inventories, and projectives. It appears that NASA is maintaining an active program of research on personality assessment in astronauts. Nevertheless, several news stories indicate that NASA only assesses astronaut candidates once and never repeats the assessment.

However, here is an intriguing quote from Santy:

The Working Group's position was that personality assessment is underutilized as a resource in astronaut selection, but the empirical record in aviation psychological research of using personality traits as predictors of performance is appalling. This dismal record extends back to World War I and the selection of opponents for the Red Baron. (p. 108-109)

In other parts of the book, Santy correctly points out that psychological assessment is often directed toward identifying psychopathology, but psychopathology isn't a good predictor of success on a job. (Yes, I know there are a host of Dilbert-type jokes here.) This is especially true where the occupation is one in which there are only a small number of people who are employed in the field.

Assessment of personality traits is another way to predict success on various jobs. For example, according to Santy, the 16PF, a personality inventory measuring 16 different personality traits, has been used by NASA in astronaut selection. Logically, different jobs require different traits, so assessing for the right combination of traits would make for a good astronaut right?

No. Personality traits do correlate with behavior, but the correlations tend to be somewhat low. The 16pf is a useful instrument--I've used it myself--but by itself, it's inadequate. No personality inventory is adequate by itself. Generally, we compensate for this weakness by using multiple tests and multiple types of assessment.

That's what NASA does. Each test has a certain likelihood of miscategorization. By using multiple tests, the likelihood of miscategorization declines. NASA takes it farther by also using different types of instruments: Psychiatric interviews are included, as are samples of behavior. Behavioral sampling is done by putting candidates into trainers and assessing their performance under roleplay conditions.

Although NASA doesn't do formal, repeat assessments, there is certainly ongoing monitoring of astronauts. It's the same monitoring that goes on at every job. Both peers and superiors are looking at each astronaut's functioning in training and in everyday performance. I can't prove it, but I suspect that such performance evaluations have washed out people who psychological testing has missed. This brings us back to Captain Nowak.

Why didn't she wash out? From all the reports I've seen, Captain Nowak was a competent astronaut. How could she melt down over a marital separation and a perceived love triangle outside her marriage?

The answer lies in an old argument in psychology: Is behavior controlled by person or situation variables? On the one hand, personality theorists argue that internal variables, such as personality traits, conflicts, and dynamics, control behavior. Behaviorists, on the other hand, argued that the external variables, such as the environment and behavioral consequences, control behavior.

For example, what controls the tendency to cheat on tests? Is it a person's honesty (a trait), or is it the opportunity to cheat (the environment)? The resolution to the argument was predictable. Both person and situation variables are needed together to predict behavior. In many cases, the situation exerts more control than the person. To return to the above example, as the risk of getting caught for cheating drops, the number of students who cheat rises. But cheating never reaches 100%, because honesty is important, too.

The Milgram obedience experiment is another example of the power of the situation, as is the Zimbardo prison experiment. The situation has powerful control over the individual. Change the situation and you change individual behavior.

So, Captain Nowak was able to function in the setting of the astronaut corps. She could work in an environment where death was always looming. She just couldn't deal with the environment where rejection had occurred. You're not going to get rejection on the space shuttle. For reasons that I am not privy to, abandonment and rejection were more threatening than death to her. I don't think any amount of psychological testing would have prevented this awful situation.


Santy, P. A. (1994). Choosing the Right Stuff: The Psychological Selection of Astronauts and Cosmonauts. Praeger.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Sports Rant

Today, being Superbowl Sunday, is a good day for a sports rant. Not too long ago, I was a pretty avid sports fan. Over time, I became disillusioned. Professional sports cause too much damage.

I first learned about the damage athletics can cause when I evaluated a soccer player who had been deafened while playing indoor soccer. (I can talk about this because his evaluation is a matter of public record.) The poor guy had no job skills at all. He'd spent his life preparing for major league sport (he was British) and he never made it. What was he going to do now that he's completely deaf?

I also learned while working on this case, that most professional soccer players suffer headaches and memory loss consistent with head injuries. They use their heads as a tool, but wear no head protection. At least football players wear helmets. Which do a fat lot of good.

Recently, there have been a series of articles about the health of retired football players. Many of them are dealing with depression, memory loss, sleep apnea, and arthritis. According to a recent New York Times article, head injuries, caused by repeated concussions, can lead to depression and suicide:

Since the former National Football League player Andre Waters killed himself in November, an explanation for his suicide has remained a mystery. But after examining remains of Mr. Waters's brain, a neuropathologist in Pittsburgh is claiming that Mr. Waters had sustained brain damage from playing football and he says that led to his depression and ultimate death.

The neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh, a leading expert in forensic pathology, determined that Mr. Waters's brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer's victims. Dr. Omalu said he believed that the damage was either caused or drastically expedited by successive concussions Mr. Waters, 44, had sustained playing football.
Waters case is similar to that of Mike Webster, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here is part of his obituary from the Sports E-Cyclopedia:
Mike Webster's durability and toughness made him a 4-time Super Bowl champion and one of the NFL's best linemen ever. However, those very qualities also might have led to a brain injury that sent him spiraling into drug use and homelessness. The bare-armed strongman nicknamed "Iron Mike'' died September 24th he was only 50. He was remembered as a great center whose sturdiness personified the Pittsburgh Steelers' championship teams and whose off-field health and drug problems saddened them.

The Steelers initially said Webster died of a heart attack but later declined to comment. Webster was diagnosed with brain damage in 1999, an injury caused by all the years of taking shots to the head. "He was one of the main reasons why we won four Super Bowls,'' Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris said. "Unfortunately, he had some turmoil and misfortune after his football career. He is now at peace.''

Notice that the Steelers initially lied about Webster's illness. I guess we wouldn't want young children asking if sports are a bad idea for them. They should, but we spend too much time telling them how wonderful athletics are.

As bad as professional athletics are for adults, what is happening to young children is even worse. The Times also has a story on a high school football player, a friend of Joseph Addai (who will play in the Superbowl today), who was paralysed in a high school game.

Less clear is the social toll that professional athletics take on us, but I still concerned about it. The American love affair with professional sports has corrupted our values. In school, athletes are often revered. Why? Athletics are entertainment and nothing more. what's so important about them? Shouldn't we teach our children to revere scholars instead?

Nah, I didn't think so.

Children grow up thinking that athletic abilities make them special. They see how much the high school quarterback is revered. Some become so obsessed with it, that they give up their childhood, practicing and playing every chance they get. As they rise up in the ranks of school and professional athletics, their sense of entitlement grows, fed by coaches who use it to motivate them. This is why so many athletes have been arrested for drug abuse and violent crime. They're taught that their athletic skills make them exempt from social rules.

Today, to be "the best" means more than practicing a lot. It means playing when hurt. This is why Andre Waters and Mike Webster suffered brain damage. It also means taking performance-enhancing drugs, and we all know what's being said about Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. Here is a good resource on the effects of steroid abuse. They are far from trivial.

This attitude has leaked down from the professional ranks, to the college ranks, to the high school ranks, and even lower. I've seen it at every level, including an 11 year old boy. Our love of sports is corrosive and it needs to stop. But, it won't until fans turn away.

Sometimes, the fans sorta get it, but then they back away. A few years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates decided they both needed new stadiums. For a while, the fans put up a fuss, but the opposition was all talk and both teams got what they wanted. They spent millions of dollars on PNC Park and Heinz Field. In the meantime, the city of Pittsburgh is fading away. It's downtown is empty. The surge in home prices of the last few years never hit Pittsburgh; there's no reason to live there. That money could have been much better spent on other things.

So, I've lost interest in sports. I'll watch the Superbowl tonight, so I don't sound like a weirdo tomorrow, but I really don't care who wins. I know a lot of people will lose.