Stemler Develops Adaptability Study for U.S. Military

Steve Stemler

Steven Stemler, assistant professor of psychology.

Failure to adapt in certain military maneuvers or assignments can lead to fatal errors. To help prevent grievous mistakes, the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense has asked psychologists to study adaptability. Assistant Professor of Psychology Steven Stemler was awarded a $60,000 subcontract via the University of Central Florida to study the concept and develop tools to measure adaptability.

In 2007, Stemler worked on related research when he and visiting psychology scholar Cynthia Matthew helped the Army Research Institute by creating a tool that identifies individuals who possess “mental flexibility,” a trait that Army officials believe is important to more creative and effective leadership.

At the moment, Stemler and students Vidya Neelakantan ’09 and Senna Georges ’10 are working with Andrea Patalano and her student Zach LeClair ‘10 on the first stage of the new project.

According to Stemler, adaptability has a “clear overlap with judgment and decision-making” theory, which Patalano, Associate Professor of Psychology and Associate Professor of Neuroscience & Behavior, has spent years studying. The team is using the early stages of the project to figure out how “adaptability” should best be defined. Stemler will be examining adaptability both at the individual and the group level. The goal of the project is to create tools that the military can use to measure adaptability.

As an example, Stemler shared his experience of dealing with an extremely delayed flight the night before he was to present at a conference in Washington, D.C. around eight in morning. Rather than to wait for the flight situation to resolve itself, Stemler decided to drive from the Hartford, Conn. area to New Haven and take a train to the appointment. He arrived the next day just a little over an hour before he was scheduled to present.

“To me that’s sort of a situation where you have to be adaptive,” Stemler says.

There were environmental and time constraints, a decision was made and the outcome (arriving at the conference) was accomplished. Stemler says that simply evaluating outcomes (e.g. did the person arrive? Did the troops survive? etc.) is one way to measure adaptability.

Stemler’s team is exploring whether adaptability is a cognitive ability which is “domain general,” meaning it is a characteristic of a person, or “domain specific,” meaning that it depends on cues from the external world to operate. The team is also studying how adaptable people know which information is relevant to their purpose or problem and which is irrelevant.

“Maybe the adaptable people are those who think of alternatives,” Stemler muses.

The complexity inherent in adaptability or resourcefulness can prove endlessly fascinating.

“When do people stop seeking new information?” Stemler asks rhetorically.

There are many military situations where personnel are pressed to make a decision when they have a limited amount of information. If a military leader suddenly learns that his or her troops will be going into an area with insurgents, the leader has to consider whether to leave or move into a new area, which also might pose risks.

“How much information do people need to make these decisions?” Stemler asks.

Stemler says that adaptive people may need to overcome stereotypes in order to make useful decisions. If a car bomb goes off and military personnel need to secure an area, then they need to quickly determine whether unknown locals are a threat or not. Stemler hopes to examine whether people can break out contextual constraints and think differently about a particular problem while also dealing with ambiguities.

“I am interested in the construct [of adaptability] because I think that is an ability that is associated with success in a wide variety of domains—the military being one of them, but not the only one,” Stemler says.

In fact, he has spent many years focusing on psychological research related to schools and academia and believes that adaptability is key in these areas.

Students who first arrive at college have to adapt to living away from home, having a roommate, dealing with different academic expectations, among other challenges, he says.

“I am also interested in whether people who are more adaptable to begin with tend to do better (in terms of academic performance and satisfaction with the college experience) and also whether the experience of being at Wesleyan, or another university, helps to enhance students’ capability for adaptability as they progress through life,” Stemler says.

In the academic world, someone who is adaptable can leave the past behind and focus on new plans or research.

“The best researchers may have an idea, go down that road for awhile, realize it is not going anywhere and shift their program of research accordingly,” he says. “Others, who are less successful, may get hung up on a certain idea and not be able to move beyond it. Adaptability in the academic arena involves recognizing the best ideas, even if they are not your own.”