Colorado State University Researchers Receive Grants to Help Individuals and Teams Make Sensible Decisions in Times of Stress

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Navy have awarded two grants to Colorado State University totaling $1.4 million, both of which will benefit the U.S. military and homeland security by helping individuals and teams to make better decisions under pressure.

Colorado State University professors have been awarded two separate research grants to examine issues of human cognition in relation to individual decision-making under stress and team pattern-recognition under stress.

C.A.P. Smith, assistant professor of computer information systems, along with his colleagues Ben Clegg, assistant professor of psychology, and Peter Young, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, is focusing on finding ways to help individuals make high-stakes decisions under stress. Last year the team received a $1.1 million grant from the DARPA.

Stephen Hayne, associate professor of computer information systems, and Smith are studying how to improve decision-making in environments where team communication is crucial in an independent command structure like the U.S. Navy. Over the last few years, the Office of Naval Research has provided $486,000 of funding for this project ($312,000 just last year).

"Much of my DARPA study will center on human memory," said Smith. "We will look at ways people remember information more reliably and with less effort. As a result, we hope we can find ways to help novices behave more like experts and apply the correct information under pressure and in time-sensitive environments."

Smith has concluded from his research that in times of great stress, humans look back to another similar situation they are familiar with and use that as a means for deciding what to do in the present situation. Smith is developing improved human-computer interfaces that reduce the effort required to analyze situations and choose the correct responses. The payoffs for military and society relate to efficiency, quality, costs and safety, Smith said.

By using technology to monitor test subjects’ eye movements, brain activities and brain blood flow during pressure situations, Smith will be able to tell when the test subjects are cognitively overloaded. Strategies for improving performance include changing the format in which information is presented; for example, changing verbal information to visual or shifting part of a task to another member of a group who is not as overloaded at the time. DARPA envisions that, sometime in the near future, it will be possible to reliably detect whether a person is nearing cognitive overload.

Smith’s research project, called Multi-Modal Support for Augmented Cognition, will eventually have wartime applications such as operational command centers and controlling unmanned aerial vehicles.

Hayne and Smith’s Office of Naval Research-funded project focuses on the process of self synchronization among team members without any verbal communications.

"During war, it is crucial to communicate between team members and, since radio lines are becoming crowded and inaccessible at times, voice communication is difficult," Hayne said. "By building a computer system that allows people to work together by communicating what they see nonverbally, team members will still be able to correspond without taking the time to actually speak and listen to other members of the team."

Using symbols, icons or other nonverbal communications would save valuable time during war or other crisis situation where teams must be synchronized and understand what each member is doing, but have little extra time to talk to one another. For example, Hayne said that after a disaster, various medical teams such as the Red Cross, the local government and military entities must respond in a fashion so that all their resources are allocated depending on the situations in different areas. Each medical team must be able to communicate to the other medical teams where more resources are needed, how many injured people they have, where they are located and if they need more help.

Through Hayne’s research, icons and graphics would be used along with global positioning systems to signal to the other medical team members that more help is needed – and, without additional communication, someone from another team could simply start heading toward the area where he is needed.

"This information is sent in a push-pull fashion with negotiated interrupts," said Hayne. "Someone needs more help, so they push the information out on the device when it is convenient for him, and without having to communicate any more, help arrives shortly after because another team member has pulled the information in and perceived the graphic or icon as a signal for help."

Hayne and Smith’s five-year research project is in its third year and currently is in the nonverbal team communicating testing phase. Testing is performed on junior and senior undergraduate students while they play a team computer game. Students are motivated by cash awards for accuracy and for beating the time clock, which adds the time-pressure decision-making aspect.