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Psycasm

Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

ResearchBlogging.org

[Wherein our Hero checks to see if he's the made of the right stuff for a Moon base or an Arctic Mission]

Did you hear? NASA and DARPA have announced the 100-year Starship project. Broadly speaking it aims to attract billionaire investors into a Starship Project, as well as creating a project that will inspire generations.

The thought of interstellar flight alone inspires me. My hand is officially up for crew. Yes, I know I’ll be 125 if it’s completed in exactly 100 years, but I figure we’re only 40 years away from stasis, or maybe even some magic drugs to reverse cell death. Whatever it takes, I’m there. Seriously, I would volunteer to do any such thing, including going to Mars. Even if it wasn’t a return trip - the idea of being a colonist is even more spectacular. More realistically however, I *might* find myself in Antarctica at some point. Maybe, in a future where I’m a rock-star academic and the government gives me a grant that involves ice, cold, or confinement or something…

And so that got me thinking – what’s the psychology behind confinement, behind isolation, behind the extremes of survival.

I would love to do such a thing, but the truth of the situation would be that 'I' would become a 'We' pretty quickly. If you’re in a spaceship, or an Arctic base you are only as good as the people around you. I can imagine the 'I' doesn’t matter after a certain point. Palinkas (2003) has suggested that, after looking at Antarctic missions, that there are four factors which come into play; three of which are:

- Social Coherence is really important

- Variations in mood are seasonal, and

- Estimates of personality pre-mission are not as accurate as estimates of individuals in situ

The first point stands to reason – you need to get alone with the people you’re eating, sleeping, and breathing with. More interesting are the second two points – Variations in mood are seasonal, and nothing brings out the ‘real’ you more than trying circumstance.

Consider seasonal influences: Data collected between ’63 and ’74 support the existence of a winter-over syndrome between early and late winter in the Antarctic. Palinkas (2003) goes on to suggest it’s more than just being cold, being confined, and not being able to engage in outdoor activity; he suggests that there is genuine influences of prolonged daylight (and darkness), time of year, and latitude upon a person’s somatic responses.

Just imagine what it would be like to experience 24 hour of sunlight? Yet, that statement is something of a misnomer, because as soon as a 24 hour day ends, a new one begins, complete with another 24 hours of sunlight. Imagine, literally, months of sunlight. An interstellar space-ship might night have to deal with seasonal influences, but if you’re headed toward Alpha Centauri day and night don’t even exist. What-the-hell influence is that going to have on your mood?

Regarding pre-mission trait predictors; Palinkas (2003) suggests that there are ‘few, if any, traits that serve as useful predictors of performance’ for isolated and confined conditions. That’s worrying. The message: people change. We’re not talking about Reavers, here, however. The data merely suggest that the situation is what influences such behaviour, and it’s unlikely that anyone is a veteran of extreme, confined environments. Then consider interstellar flight – No-one, ever, has done that. Who knows what’s going to happen, and who knows how people are going to react. Yet, that doesn’t mean people who put their hands up are necessarily going to go postal. On the contrary, the people who volunteer/enlist are likely individuals who are motivated, inspired, highly capable, and generally inspired by trying circumstance. We self-select into these kinds of things. Trench-coat types need not apply.

Leon and colleagues (2002) looked at the experience of a 3-couple expedition (plus a 2 ½ year infant) on an ice-locked High Arctic mission. Leon et al (2002) suggests that a high achievement orientation and low anxiety rating are key, but also note that other studies have found that ‘narrow interests and a low need for stimulation’ were key personality traits. Obviously there’s a problem here – a mixed-group of these two ‘types’ will lead to problems. A bunch of Asperger-like individuals mixing with a bunch of highly driven individuals is not a probable mix. But a bunch of over-achievers together is likely a good idea; as is a bunch of super-focused no-maintenance folk. It’s kind of like mixing red wine and vodka. Each excellent unto itself, but terrible together.*

Leon et al (2002) goes on to say that while Arctic/Antarctic missions is the best analogue we’ve got for interstellar flight, it’s not perfect, and the demand characteristics vary. Fortunately, we’re doing the best we can - The Mars500! [If you have a link to a blog/twitter/anything in English, please let me know].

Many years ago I read (in New Scientist, I think) that A(nt)arctic missions usually deteriorated at the half-way mark. People were happy up to that point, but the realization that they needed to go at least as long again kind of gets them grumpy. [… and ever since reading that article I can’t help but think of that fact whenever I go for a jog – I really slump at half-way, due to that knowledge alone.]

And so Paul and colleagues (2009) looked into this exact problem, and they made some really interesting findings. First, they found that individuals (in such isolated/confined situations) had a great need to associate with others, but without a high degree of intimacy. Second, individuals desired others to establish a relationship, but with a low level of interaction. This, in a manner, supports the secondary argument by Palinkas (2003) who suggested (to counter his own point) that narrow interests and low-stimulation were desirable traits. Obviously it’s not a complete overlap, but you can see how the two might be related.

Fortunately for me I see myself conforming to the description of Paul and colleagues (2009). I love the weak-link; I cultivate it as best I can. Good, low-maintenance relationships… who doesn’t want that? Perhaps it’s my own rationalization in failing to make other kinds of relationships, but I seem to be pretty good at it.

So the data is mixed, and it comes down to a mix of Individual, Situation and Group. General statements about the best ‘kind’ of person, or the ‘best’ way to interact are not always going to be valid, but can serve as a useful starting point. The more important point, I think, is the fact that individuals self-select into such roles – folks might be over-achievers, or interest driven, but it doesn’t matter - they choose their own paths. Additionally Implied in that statement (and the research) is that teams probably self-select too; or at the very least successful teams do.

And so despite the characterisation of individuals who thrive under such situations, and despite the fact I’ll probably never be among them, I will still fantasize about such journeys. Space is (probably) beyond my reach, and Antarctica (perhaps) is at my finger-tips, but I can always keep my eyes open for ‘Lighthouse Operator’ in the classifieds.

*warning: Just an opinion.

---

Palinkas, L. (2003). The psychology of isolated and confined environments: Understanding human behavior in Antarctica. American Psychologist, 58 (5), 353-363 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.58.5.353

Leon, G., Atlis, M., Ones, D., & Magor, G. (2002). A 1-Year, Three-Couple Expedition as a Crew Analog for a Mars Mission Environment and Behavior, 34 (5), 672-700 DOI: 10.1177/0013916502034005006

Paul, F., Manas Kumar Mandal, ., Ramachandran, K., & Panwar, M. (2009). Interpersonal Behavior in an Isolated and Confined Environment Environment and Behavior, 42 (5), 707-717 DOI: 10.1177/0013916509336889

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