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'Human factors' and military decisions.

'Human factors' and military decisions

On July 3, the U.S. warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger jet in the Persian Gulf. The tragedy might have been averted had the Navy trained the ship's crew based on research revealing ways to make decisions when using complex technology in stressful situations, representatives of the American Psychological Association told Congress last week.

"There is much knowledge about how decisions go wrong and how they can be improved that is not being put to use in military decision making," Paul Slovic of the University of oregon in Eugene told the House Armed Services Committee. "There is no serious commitment to decision-making research in Department of Defense agencies."

A Navy spokesman disputed the psychologist's testimony.

Slovic and four other psychologists involved in "human factors" research, which focuses on how people can best interact with sophisticated machinery, based their comments on a review of the Navy's official report of the Iranian airliner shootdown.

A striking error identified in the Navy investigation is the crew's judgment that the jet was descending as if to attack, when actually it was ascending, said psychologist Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The computerized surveillance system on the Vincennes first misread the plane's altitude and identified it as an F-14 fighter jet, but then corrected itself. The Navy report concludes crewmen responsible for evaluating surveillance data did not closely analyze the initial computer mistake. Furthermore, the skipper paid more attention to their increasingly heated reports of an emergency than to new displays generated by the computer.

Crew expectations of an imminent attack likely played a major role in their inability to reevaluate early signs of attack on the computer, Nisbett said. Research suggests expectations pervasively affect what people think they see and remember. Even is a simple, nonstressful task, subjects shown playing cards with a black ace of diamonds consistently and confidently identify it as either an ace of spades or a regular ace of diamonds, Nisbett explained.

In the case of crewmen dealing with a potential battle situation, advanced automated surveillance systems are a "mixed blessing," psychologist Richard W. Pew of BBN Systems & Technologies Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., told the committee. Such systems ease workload and time pressures, but operators tend to put too much faith in the computer's judgment and take a relatively passive role in analyzing and integrating new data.

"Research is badly needed to understand when and just how much automation to introduce in situations where the ultimate control and responsibility must rest with the human operators," Pew asserted.

Communication and crew coordination problems on the Vincennes parallel those uncovered in analyses of the causes of civilian and military plane crashes, said psychologist Robert L. Helmreich of the University of Texas at Austin. Ongoing research is being sponsored by NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board, but similar research is largely ignored by the Navy, Helmreich charged.

"Each branch of the military supports research on human-factors issues," responded Stephen F. Zornetzer of the Office of Naval Research in Washington, D.C. The Navy now has a $4.5 million research program on tactical decision making, Zornetzer said. The surveillance system on the Vincennes was designed 20 years ago, he added; better systems are now under development.

It remains to be seen if the House committee, chaired by Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), abides by the Navy view or urges more funding of human-factors research in the military.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 15, 1988
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