Apr. 9, 1998 Few people are cut out for pressure-cooker jobs such as being a 911 operator or an air traffic controller. These kinds of jobs require individuals to make quick decisions -- sometimes involving life and death -- while handling heavy information loads. Until now there have been few tools available to assess people who can thrive in such a stressful working environment.
However, that may change as the result of research by University of Washington psychologists who have determined that certain people seem to possess a common trait that enables them to survive, or even flourish, in pressure-cooker situations.
This trait -- a rapid, high information-load decision-making ability -- can be accurately evaluated in less than one hour using a test developed by Susan Joslyn, UW psychology lecturer, and Earl Hunt, professor of psychology. The new tool was tested on groups of university and community college students and professional emergency dispatchers in a series of five experiments reported on in the current issue of The Journal of Experimental Psychology. The research was funded by the Office of Naval Research.
"The test might be useful to test people in other occupations such as those who work in hospital emergency rooms or in military combat situations," says Hunt. "We studied a class of jobs that are not common in the way information flows. Most of the world doesn't move this fast or have this real time aspect. But the jobs that require this tend to be very important."
The UW researchers say their test measures rapid decision-making skills in various informational environments such as spatial-visual interactions found in air traffic control, computer- or character-oriented display terminals typical of emergency dispatching, and stressful interpersonal contacts characteristic of emergency operators.
Joslyn and Hunt distilled the essence of rapid decision-making under heavy information load into their single test called the Abstract Decision Making task. What they created is a computerized test that is similar in some respects to the classic television comedy sketch where Lucille Ball has to decorate and package cakes coming down a conveyor belt at a faster and faster rate.
The test's objective is to sort items one at a time by color, size and shape -- without seeing them -- into assigned bins. Subjects have to determine characteristics of an object by keying in questions and remember which objects go into different bins. Infor- mation about each item appears on a screen and periodically a new object is presented, sometimes interrupting the task that the person is working on. Sometimes the objects can be sorted by asking one question; other times it requires two or even three questions. Subjects are scored on how accurately and how fast they sort the objects.
In the series of experiments, nearly 400 people were trained to perform the abstract decision making task. Then their performance was scored on a series of trials, each lasting about five minutes. The subjects also were trained on computer simulations of emergency dispatching, air traffic control or both skills and were tested on how well they performed. In general, people who scored well on the abstract test also did well on the job simulations.
The first four experiments in the study relied heavily on computer-based skills. But the fifth experiment involved actors playing the roles of people making emergency calls to public safety operators. These subjects were trained in how to collect information from a caller, summarize it, code it for priority and then transmit it to a dispatcher. Then they were tested on how well they handled a series of calls where the actors, working from scripts, described nine separate incidents.
Subjects in this experiment also were trained and tested using the abstract decision making task. Again, a high score on the abstract decision making task was predictive of good performance on the simulation of the emergency operator's job.
"We were nervous that our test only predicted computer-based skills," says Joslyn. "But the fifth experiment showed that it also predicted how well people handled the social interaction aspect that can be a key part of a pressure-filled job. They had to, for example, be able to deal with a crying woman, keep her calm and get the information required to dispatch help. This really convinced me that we had something."
The test, she believes, has the potential of helping agencies and employers to identify the people who can best perform in these kinds of pressure-packed and sometimes hectic jobs.
"We learned in one of the experiments, which stressed training people to achieve a high proficiency in the dispatcher simulation, that people who scored the highest on our test also learned the dispatcher task faster," says Joslyn. "This means people we identified through our abstract decision making task would be more valuable to an employer because they would be up and running faster on the job as employees."
Joslyn and Hunt believe further research is needed to fully understand the skill of rapid-information processing and decision making. They have preliminary evidence that it is a trait separate from general intelligence, but say additional work is necessary to prove this assertion.
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