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Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession (2015)

Chapter: 6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress

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Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
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6

Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress

Committee Conclusion: “Hot cognition” includes the topics of defensive reactivity, emotional regulation, and performance under stress. Research and military experience suggest that the ability to perform well in situations that elicit emotional responses is important in many contexts that are relevant to the military. Research on performance has tended to underplay the role emotions can play in governing behavior, whether for good or bad. The committee concludes that the hot cognition domain merits inclusion in a program of basic research with the long-term goal of improving the Army’s enlisted accession system.

This chapter considers three topics—defensive reactivity, emotional regulation, and performance under stress—that share a common theme of being concerned with one’s ability to function well in situations that elicit strong emotions. Researchers have called this ability “hot cognition” (Abelson, 1963; Brand, 1987) to contrast it with the arguably better understood and more commonly researched topic of cognition under circumstances of cool, level, or moderate emotions, or cold cognition.

Topics covered in this chapter overlap somewhat with topics covered in some of the other chapters. Hot cognition is often related to biased judgments and decision making, such as motivated reasoning, and therefore overlaps with topics covered in Chapter 3 on cognitive and decision biases. For example, Loewenstein (2007) distinguished defense mechanisms (e.g., denial, projection, rationalization), which he suggested were automatic and unconscious, from affect regulation behaviors (reappraisal, distraction/

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
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suppression of thoughts and feeling), which he proposed were deliberate processes.

Hot cognition also tends to be concerned with executive functioning and therefore overlaps with Chapter 2 on working memory. Specifically, Zelazo and colleagues (2010) contrasted hot versus cool executive function, with cool executive function referring to “conscious goal-directed problem solving” and hot executive function referring to motivated cognition. An older research tradition from an individual-differences perspective contributes to our current understanding of the moderating effects of emotions, particularly the effects of anxiety on performance (e.g., Humphreys and Revelle, 1984; Hembree, 1988; Byron and Khazanchi, 2011). Current understanding of hot cognition additionally draws on work in social psychology because hot cognition is often a social phenomenon. It also draws on developmental psychology because of the role emotions play in the thinking and judgment related to development. Neuroscience is featured in many studies of hot cognition.

In a presentation given at the public workshop hosted by this committee (National Research Council, 2013), Christopher Patrick proposed a psychometrically oriented approach to the study of individual differences in hot-cognitive processes. This approach, which he called psychoneurometrics, seeks to develop reliable neurobiological assessments of trait constructs such as inhibitory control (see Chapter 2, final section) or defensive reactivity by combining differing known biomarkers of the target trait as assessed psychometrically into a composite neurometric index of the trait (see Figure 2-5 in Chapter 2). Examples of known biomarkers of inhibitory control include the P3 and error-related negativity brain responses; a well-established biomarker of dispositional defensive reactivity is fear-enhanced startle (see Chapter 10 and Appendix C for further discussion of biomarkers). Patrick suggested that this psychoneurometric approach, which uses trait-related biomarkers as “items” to form a neurobiological “scale” can (a) lead to new conceptions of traits and assessments that predict physiological (including brain) reactivity in performance contexts more effectively than report-based measures; (b) minimize rating-scale response bias through the use of physiological measures; and (c) encourage a process-level understanding of constructs, focusing on the biological mechanisms mediating the stimulus-response link.

This chapter is divided into the three topic areas; for each, the committee defines the topic, discusses some of the key findings in the area, reviews how topic-related constructs are typically measured, and then concludes with a discussion of whether a continued research program is justified, based on findings and research prospects. The chapter ends with the committee’s recommended future basic research agenda on topics of hot cognition.

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
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DEFENSIVE REACTIVITY/FEARFULNESS VERSUS FEARLESSNESS/BOLDNESS

Defensive reactivity, which can be defined as “proneness to negative emotional reactivity in the face of threat” (as presented by Christopher Patrick, see National Research Council, 2013, p. 23), is related to the construct of fearfulness versus fearlessness or boldness.1 It is distinguishable from the Big Five personality domain of Neuroticism (or negative emotional stability) at least conceptually in that it entails variations in cue-specific fear reactivity, rather than free-floating negative affect, as Neuroticism is presumed to entail. There is some evidence (e.g., Dvorak-Bertscha et al., 2009; Gordon et al., 2004; Kramer et al., 2012) that while situation cues are relevant in understanding defensive reactivity, important individual differences exist that can be measured, thereby suggesting potential utility for military selection. Specifically, these differences are related to the sensitivity or responsiveness of the brain’s defense system (e.g., the amygdala and related structures). Defensive reactivity/fearfulness versus fearlessness/boldness is considered to be a general factor that operates across social, sensation-seeking, and reported-affect domains.

Key Findings

Why is defensive reactivity important? Fear can be an unproductive emotion across many situations ranging from the battlefield to the classroom. Its dispositional opposite, fearlessness or boldness, can be a productive emotional attribute. Boldness has been found to relate to adaptability. For example, Dvorak-Bertscha and colleagues (2009) found that individuals scoring high on boldness were able to maintain their attention on a task under conditions of shock threat (adaptability). There is also some evidence that boldness is a trait useful in leadership. Lilienfeld and colleagues (2012) used Big Five trait ratings of U.S. presidents provided by expert historical biographers to estimate scores on “fearless dominance” or boldness as a facet of psychopathy, and they found this dimension to be related to leadership ability. Among the presidents assessed, they found that Theodore Roosevelt scored the highest on this factor. Elsewhere, Lykken (1995) characterized Winston Churchill as another political leader exhibiting extreme dispositional fearlessness.

There is as yet little research on the relationship between dispositional defensive reactivity and performance in enlisted military occupational spe-

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1 While it could be that individuals might be rated separately on fearfulness (high versus low) and boldness (high versus low), current research treats the terms interchangeably. Furthermore, the committee found it hard to imagine a highly fearful individual who is nevertheless highly bold, or a fearless person who is not also bold.

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
×

cialties such as infantry, ordnance disposal, security police, or special forces. There might be times when, and situations in which, boldness could be a productive and adaptive attribute. There might be other times when, taken too far, boldness might be maladaptive—for example, with combat soldiers unnecessarily risking their lives and the lives of others by disregarding safety protocol or danger signals. An analysis of optimal ranges of boldness for different military occupational specialties could be a useful and productive endeavor. The context of environments and situations experienced by soldiers across Army specialties might be a challenge to generating optimal levels of boldness for use in the selection process; however, the committee believes an exploration of the application of the Yerkes-Dodson law2 would also likely be an informative and useful endeavor.

Measures

An important issue is how to measure fearfulness versus boldness. The most common measurement approach has been the use of surveys (rating-scale self-reports). A comprehensive empirical study of fearlessness surveys suggested three distinct categories of scales: social behavior scales, activity preference scales, and perceived experience scales (Kramer et al., 2012). Examples of social behavior scales (which from a content perspective bear a resemblance to the Big Five domain of Extraversion) are the Social Potency (later renamed Social Influence) scale from the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI) and the Shyness with Strangers vs. Gregariousness scale of the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire (TPQ).3 These scales are clearly aligned with the Extraversion facets of Social Dominance (e.g., “have leadership abilities”) and Gregariousness (e.g., “love to chat”). (Note: In these and other examples of scale items in this chapter, the actual items from the scale are proprietary, so the committee has provided illustrative items from the International Personality Item Pool [Goldberg et al., 2006], based on item or scale content matches.)

Examples of activity preference scales within the Sensation-Seeking domain are the Fearlessness scale of the PPI (e.g., “enjoy the thrill of fearful situations”) and the Thrill and Adventure Seeking scale of the Sensation Seeking Scale (e.g., “seek adventure”). Another related scale is the Fear of Uncertainty vs. Confidence scale of the TPQ (“face danger confidently”).

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2 The Yerkes-Dodson law indicates an increasing linear relationship between arousal and performance, up until a certain point beyond which further increases in arousal have a detrimental effect on performance.

3 The latter scale is abbreviated as “TPQ-HA3” in the literature because it is a lower-order scale for the higher order Harm Avoidance factor, which Cloninger (1987, p. 575) described as a “heritable tendency to respond intensely to signals of aversive stimuli, thereby learning to inhibit behavior to avoid punishment, novelty, and frustrative non-reward.”

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
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Examples in the perceived experience category are the Fearlessness scale of the EAS [Emotionality, Activity, and Sociability] Temperament Survey (“would fear walking in a high-crime part of a city,” negatively keyed), the Anticipatory Worry vs. Uninhibited Optimism scale of the TPQ (“often worry about things that turn out to be unimportant”), the Fatigability and the Asthenia vs. Vigor scales of the TPQ (“get too tired to do anything”), and the Stress Immunity scale of the PPI (“recover quickly from stress and illness”). Yet another example of a perceived experience scale is the Fear Survey schedule of the PPI, in which participants rate a series of words such as “flying insects” and “sight of knives” on a 0 to 4 scale to indicate the degree to which the objects described invoke fear (Tomlin et al., 1984). Furthermore, as described in this report’s first chapter, some of the constructs related to defensive reactivity are measured through the Tailored Adaptive Personality Assessment System (TAPAS; Drasgow et al., 2012).

An obvious problem with survey-based measures is that in the form of rating scales they are easily faked. So, in addition to the survey approach there has been some research that explored actual performance-behavior measures. An intriguing approach is to measure fearfulness physiologically, for instance as increased startle-blink reactivity to sudden loud noises occurring in fear-evoking situations (the “fear-potentiated startle” that indicates a fear reaction). A study by Vaidyanathan and colleagues (2009) showed a significant correlation between degree of startle potentiation during aversive picture viewing and survey responses related to fear versus boldness (see also Kramer et al., 2012). Such measures might not be practical for large-scale personnel testing using present day technology, but the point of this illustration is to show that performance measures are possible, and it may be productive to devise and develop performance-based measures of the kinds of constructs that have been identified from survey-based research.

Potential Benefits of Future Research

The committee sees potential for improvements in identifying candidates likely to succeed as soldiers through the pre-accession assessment of defensive reactivity (fearfulness versus boldness). Research suggests that boldness can contribute to adaptability and leadership (see Chapter 7 for a more detailed discussion of adaptability as a predictor construct), whereas fear can be an unproductive emotion across many situations ranging from the battlefield to the classroom. The committee also believes there is high potential for improved tests resulting from an exploration of both physiological measures and performance measures of defensive reactivity such as, but not limited to, the eye-blink startle measure. More generally, it may be useful to develop performance-based measures of personality factors relevant to fear/fearlessness, such as the Big Five domains of Extraversion

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
×

and Neuroticism, which are traditionally measured with surveys. The committee believes that a research program along these lines would contribute to fundamental knowledge of how biobehavioral dispositions such as defensive reactivity relate to and differ from the Big Five domains, would clarify the predictive validity (for various outcomes) of survey versus performance measures, and would identify potential contextual factors (e.g., boldness in social versus affective versus workplace versus battlefield contexts) and evaluate their importance.

EMOTION REGULATION

Consider these situations in which a person regulates (or fails to regulate) his or her emotions: suppressing the impulse to seek revenge for unfair treatment, resisting a temptation, experiencing anxiety, or “acting out.” Emotion regulation refers to the “cognitive and behavioral processes that influence the occurrence, intensity, duration, and expression of emotion” (Campbell-Sils and Barlow, 2007, p. 543). Individuals can regulate their emotions by intensifying them or by denying, weakening, curtailing, masking, or completely hiding them. Emotion regulation can be seen as a form of coping with situations by modifying one’s emotional reactions; a way of increasing or decreasing the intensity of the moment (Gross, 2002).

Gross and Thompson (2007) proposed a modal model of emotion, involving a situation that is attended to and appraised, resulting in a response. In their scheme, emotions are one kind of affect along with stress, mood, and impulses. Emotion regulation applies to both positive and negative emotions, can be conscious (controlled) or unconscious (automatic) or somewhere in between, and can be good or bad, depending on the situation. The constructs of coping with stress, mood regulation, and psychological defenses overlap with emotion regulation but are not the same. Coping with stress is addressed in the next section of this chapter; psychological defenses were discussed in Chapter 3 on cognitive biases. Mood regulation is addressed here, to a limited extent.

Another process or stage model of emotions was proposed by Siegler and colleagues (2006), who distinguished internal feeling states (i.e., the subjective experience of emotion), emotion-related cognitions (e.g., thought reactions to a situation), emotion-related physiological processes (e.g., heart rate, hormonal, or other physiological reactions), and emotion-related behavior (e.g., actions or facial expressions related to emotion).

The related construct of self-regulation has been defined as the “process by which one monitors, directs attention, maintains, and modifies behaviors to approach a desirable goal” (Ilkowska and Engle, 2010, p. 266). As Gross and Thompson (2007) pointed out, self regulation and emotion regulation might share processes, as can be seen in delay-of-gratification

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
×

studies. For example, Mischel’s (1996) marshmallow studies asked respondents (typically children) to ignore a marshmallow on display in front of them while the experimenter steps out of the room, with the promise of a reward of two marshmallows in a short time when the experimenter returns if the respondent has resisted the temptation and failed to consume the marshmallow. Such studies call on attentional responses—reframing and distraction—which are involved in emotion regulation as well as in pain regulation and other forms of self-regulation. Open issues are whether and to what extent findings and methods for researching self-regulation overlap with those for emotion regulation. (Self-regulation is covered in Chapter 2 on working memory.)

Individuals differ in the way in which they can or typically do regulate their emotions, which suggests that there are emotion-regulation abilities (Lopes et al., 2005). This idea is incorporated into the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso definition of emotional intelligence (Mayer et al., 2002) as a facet called emotional management (along with three other facets: emotional understanding, perceiving emotions, and facilitating emotions). More importantly, MacCann and colleagues (2014) provided evidence that emotional intelligence behaves from a psychometric standpoint as a second-stratum factor of abilities, alongside fluid, crystallized, and other abilities in the Carroll (1993) abilities taxonomy. A further subset of emotional management, called “controlled interpersonal affect regulation,” refers to the deliberate regulation of someone else’s affect (Niven et al., 2009). Emotional management may be related to the Big Five domain of Neuroticism (Diefendorff and Richard, 2003).

The point here is not that a particular existing test of emotional intelligence, such as the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) should be included in the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) but rather that the constructs such tests endeavor to measure may be useful. Certainly there are many challenges associated with measuring such constructs in a fair, valid, and reliable way in order to evaluate whether they increase the prediction of Army outcomes beyond what is already given by existing cognitive and personality assessments.

Why is emotion regulation important? People regulate their emotions for a variety of purposes, including to avoid pain or get pleasure (hedonic motivation), to conform to social roles, to facilitate task or role performance, to manage self-presentation, and to regulate the feelings of others. Emotional coping with adversity (“flying off the handle”) is counterproductive. Emotional regulation may be related to self-discipline, which is key to success in school and the workplace (see, for example, Duckworth, 2011).

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
×

Key Findings

Emotional management (as measured by the Situational Test of Emotion Management, described below) has been found to correlate (r = .54) with eudaimonic well-being (the sense of living a “meaningful life”) as measured by a rating scale and with hedonic well-being (experiences of happiness or pleasure) as measured by a diary method (the Day Reconstruction Method). Correlations between net affect—that is positive affect minus negative affect while engaged in an activity—ranged from r = .18 for sleeping and resting to r = .44 for working (Burrus et al., 2012). Although well-being outcomes are not often included in discussions of what makes soldiers successful, they may mediate outcomes such as attrition and therefore are worth noting.

There is some evidence that coping styles, which are related to emotion regulation, are related to achievement. MacCann and colleagues (2012) found that, after controlling for personality, cognitive ability, and demographic factors, problem-based coping predicted grades, life satisfaction, and positive feelings about school. Emotion-focused coping was found to predict negative feelings only. Avoidant coping predicted both positive and negative feelings about school. Emotional intelligence and problem-focused coping have been proposed as inoculators against fatigue from the effort in showing compassion to others (Zeidner, 2013).

Matthews and colleagues (2006) compared performance in stressful versus non-stressful tasks and found that low emotional intelligence was correlated with worry states and avoidance coping, after controlling for personality factors. However, emotional intelligence was not specifically related to task-induced changes in stress state. Neuroticism correlated with distress, worry, and emotion-focused coping. Conscientiousness correlated with task-focused coping.

Another finding on emotion regulation pertains to development. The improvement of emotion regulation through the course of adolescence has been attributed to maturation of the frontal lobes, which are essential for controlling attention and inhibiting thoughts and behaviors (Siegler, 2006). Developmental trends in emotion regulation are particularly important given that the average Army enlistment age is 20 years of age.4 Recruits’ likely growth in emotion-regulation skills as they develop from adolescents into adults may have implications for selection and for prediction of both near-term and long-term performance.

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4 See the Army’s frequently asked questions about recruiting for more information. Available: http://www.usarec.army.mil/support/faqs.htm#age [July 2014].

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
×

Measures

There are several measures of emotional regulation used in the literature. The MSCEIT includes a Managing Emotion subscale (Mayer et al., 2003), which is defined as “the ability to be open to feelings, to modulate them in oneself and others so as to promote personal understanding and growth.” The two tests in the Managing Emotion category are a social management test and a personal management test. In both tests, participants read a story and rate (on a scale from very effective to very ineffective) how effective various responses would be to handle the emotions in the story.

The Situational Test of Emotional Management (MacCann and Roberts, 2008) consists of 44 situational judgment tests (see Chapter 9 for further discussion of situational judgment tests) with items such as

Lee’s workmate fails to deliver something on time, causing Lee to fall behind schedule. What’s most effective? (a) work harder to compensate; (b) get angry with the workmate; (c) explain the urgency of situation; or (d) never rely on that workmate again.

The Coping with School Situations Questionnaire (MacCann et al., 2011) measures various coping styles (problem-focused, emotion-focused, and avoidant coping strategies) with survey-type questions. For example, agreement with “I make the extra effort to get all my activities completed” indicates a problem-focused strategy; agreement with “I blame myself for having put off my homework” indicates an emotion-focused strategy; and agreement with “When faced with a test the next day I go out with my friends” indicates an avoidant strategy (MacCann et al., 2012).

Other measures commonly seen in the literature (which could test emotion regulation with the addition of emotional stimuli in the task) include the flanker test (Eriksen and Eriksen, 1974), a measure of attentional control in which respondents are shown a stimulus to which they are to respond (e.g., by indicating whether it is pointing to the left or to the right, or whether it is a noun or a verb, or whether it is a square or a circle), but the respondent is simultaneously shown distracting visual stimuli, which they are told to ignore. Related tests are the Stroop color-word test and the Simon spatial compatibility tasks. The outcome measure is a difference in performance with and without the distractor present (or with congruent versus incongruent distractors). With adults, the distracting information is designed to influence attention, and the measure therefore becomes one of attentional control (e.g., Shaffer and LaBerge, 1979). Flanker tests have been used successfully with children as young as 4 or 5 years (Diamond et al., 2007). Emotion-related flanker tests using faces have also been developed for adults (Fenske and Eastwood, 2003).

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
×

Another commonly used technique is the marshmallow test: the delay-of-gratification test described above. With respect to executive function, certain problem-solving tasks are considered cool executive functioning tasks, such as the Wisconsin Card Sort (which asks respondents to match a new card to categories, but the categories sometimes change), whereas others, such as the Iowa Gambling task (Damásio, 2008), which has participants choose cards to win money from card decks that vary in their payout probabilities, are thought to recruit hot executive functioning. Both types of task see phenomena such as perseverance behavior (staying on the classification strategy or on the same card deck) and are executive function tasks, but the former is thought to involve the prefrontal cortex, while the latter engages the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Potential Benefits of Future Research

The committee sees potential for improvements in military selection and assignment tests through a pre-accession assessment of emotion regulation. Emotion regulation is important in a broad variety of contexts, ranging from controlling one’s impulses (e.g., the impulse to seek revenge on a party blamed for some perceived slight or injustice) to recovering from a loss or stressful event or coping in a clear-headed manner with a catastrophic situation. Clearly, emotion regulation is important in military operations, particularly combat or any deployment. Emotion regulation comes into play in controlling impulses to obey command authority and follow the law of land warfare. It is called upon in recovering from combat-related loss, such as in post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder, and is likely related to vulnerability and conveying resilience. Third, emotion regulation is likely to be an important factor in combat effectiveness and leadership in combat and more generally during war experiences.

Emotion regulation has emerged in the literature as a construct of importance, as shown, for example, in the increasing number of references to it (14 total before 1990; 603 in the 1990s; 2,785 in 2001–2005) and by the publishing of a handbook focused on it (Gross, 2007). There is widespread agreement on some of the key features of emotion regulation. For example, emotion-regulation strategies include situation selection and modification (e.g., avoiding situations that might provoke negative emotions); attentional deployment, such as distraction or redirecting focus; reappraisal (reinterpreting an event, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”); and response modulation, such as suppressing emotions (e.g., to appear appropriate) or intensifying them (e.g., to gain sympathy; to invoke fear in others) through such means as manipulating one’s facial expressions or body posture (Bargh and Williams, 2007; Gross, 2007; Mesquita and Albert, 2007).

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
×

There also have been significant relevant developments in affective neuroscience, including understanding of the physiological basis for emotional regulation, such as the neural mechanisms of inhibition (Quirk, 2007), the role of the prefrontal cortex in higher cognitive control including affective processing (Davidson et al., 2007), and the role of the dorsal region of the anterior cingulate cortex in monitoring conflicts—not only in tasks such as the Stroop, Simon, and flanker tasks but also between emotional and cognitive influences on certain tasks such as moral dilemmas (McClure et al., 2007). Much is still unknown, but it seems rapid advances are occurring. Continued investment in this topic area will likely pay dividends in increased clarity of how emotions and cognition together affect human capability and performance.

There also may be benefit to pursuing more traditional measures: rating scales, situational judgments, and performance measures of emotion regulation. Situational judgment tests (see Chapter 9) seem quite amenable to presenting and recording responses to emotion-provoking situations (e.g., situations presented via video) that require an emotion-regulation strategy and response, particularly if the response as acted out by the respondent is recorded in detail (e.g., captured on video). Among promising performance measures, an example would be an adult version of Mischel’s (1996) “marshmallow test” as a delay-of-gratification measure. Such tasks are referred to as intertemporal choice tasks, and they pit impulsivity against patience by asking the subject to choose between an immediate small award or a delayed but greater reward (McClure et al., 2007). Other performance measures of interest would include other kinds of conflict tests, such as variants of the Simon, flanker, and Stroop tasks, which set up a conflict between two response tendencies. In an emotion-regulation variant of these tests, the response conflict might be between a more emotional and a more level-headed cognitive response. Another category of performance measures could include moral dilemma tests and variants on tasks from game theory, such as the prisoner’s dilemma and the ultimatum game. Such approaches enable the manipulation of respondents’ perceptions of unfairness and injustice, provoking an emotional reaction and allowing for an emotional response (e.g., retribution).

Finally, for emotion regulation in contrast to other constructs in the individual-differences literature, while it is well know that emotion regulation develops over a lifetime, there is less known about the degree to which emotion-regulation skills are trainable and transferable from situation to situation. The literature on emotional intelligence (Wranik et al., 2007) posits emotion management or emotion regulation as one “branch” of emotional intelligence and treats it as a trait-like factor. But very little is yet known about the extent to which emotion regulation is malleable. Given the importance of emotion regulation to so much of human activ-

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
×

ity, the committee believes that exploring not only the testing of emotional regulation but also its trainability is an important topic for future research on human capability.

PERFORMANCE UNDER STRESS

Performance pressure has been defined as an anxious desire to perform at a high level in a given situation (Hardy et al., 1996). The difference between regular performance and pressure performance depends at least somewhat on the subjective importance of a situation (Baumeister, 1984; Beilock and Carr, 2001). The related construct of choking, or performing more poorly than expected, given one’s level of skill, tends to occur in situations fraught with performance pressure, especially in sensorimotor or action-based skills (e.g., basketball free throws; golf putting) (Beilock and Carr, 2001).

Performance under stress is clearly important in military selection because there are many situations in the workplace and battlefield that involve working under pressure, including time pressure, pressure in the context of someone evaluating a person’s performance, or pressure in the context of danger or risk up to and including the high-level risk of death in combat operations. The consequences of mistakes in these pressure-to-perform situations can be catastrophic to the individual and to those who constitute the individual’s small unit.

The ability to perform well under stress could be considered a performance outcome, but it may also be a general attribute of a person (e.g., in sports there is the concept of a “clutch” performer) or it could be to some extent situational. It does not have to be one or the other. It is for this reason that this chapter is included in the hybrid topics section of the report. In psychometrics, particularly clearly in Item Response Theory models (e.g., the Rasch model), there are separable concepts of ability and item difficulty. The stressfulness of a situation can be seen as an item difficulty construct whereas an individual’s general ability to handle stressful situations can be seen as an ability construct. There is the additional issue, from a psychometrics perspective of dimensionality, that situations can potentially vary not only in their stressfulness overall but in the kinds of stressfulness they provide. Anxiety inducements—such as time pressure or reputation—and financial incentives, drugs, fatigue, unfamiliar surroundings, noise, and other factors (e.g., Evans and Cohen, 1987) can in some sense be seen as stressors. It is likely that different stressors affect individuals differentially.

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
×

Key Findings

The ability to perform under stress can be treated as an outcome that conventional personality measures can to some extent already predict. For example, the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI) has Assessment of Background and Life Experiences (White et al., 2001), Assessment of Individual Motivation (Stark et al., 2011) and TAPAS (Drasgow et al., 2012) measures, which include scales for adjustment and other indicators of emotional stability. There is research suggesting that such measures do predict performance-under-stress outcomes (e.g., Drasgow et al., 2012). In addition, there is ARI research on the psychological (i.e., an Occupational Stress Assessment Inventory) and psychophysiological (e.g., heart rate, vagal tone, blood pressure) predictors of performance under stress (Heslegrave and Colvin, 1996).

Scientific understanding of performance under stress has advanced over the past decade and a half. One lesson learned is that conscious attention to proceduralized skills promotes choking, suggesting that it is often better “not to think about it,” a skill that itself can be trained (Beilock and Carr, 2001). One way “not to think about it” is to engage simultaneously in a task unrelated to the task at hand. For example, Beilock and colleagues (2002) showed that expert soccer players could dribble a ball as well when repeating random words as they could without distractions. However, their dribbling performance was impaired when they had to perform a task related to the dribbling, such as signaling whether they had just used the inside or outside of their foot to move the ball. The related task seems to have encouraged (or forced) them to “think about it.” Understanding the conditions promoting or preventing choking and other maladaptive performances under stress is important in developing an assessment framework for measuring susceptibility to performance stressors. Not taking into account issues such as these could result in the development of tests measuring different constructs for different people.

Pressure to perform, such as that induced by a monetary incentive, generally diminishes performance on a cognitive (e.g., math) test (Beilock and Carr, 2005). The proposed mechanism is that pressure reduces working memory capacity (see Chapter 2). If working memory capacity is reduced, the individual relies on strategies that are less working-memory-intensive, such as perceptual strategies or “intuitive” strategies. By contrast, when tasks are set up to favor an intuitive strategy, pressure improves performance. This difference was demonstrated with a classification task that could be solved with rule learning or with perception, supporting “distraction theory” (Markman et al., 2006).

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
×

Measures

A battery of performance-under-stress measures does not yet exist, but there are some standard techniques designed to induce pressure, many of which are inherent in the procedures for administering current standard tests of cognitive and other abilities. One standard technique is to ask participants to perform cognitive tasks (e.g., math, problem solving, classification) under no pressure and under pressure (the form of pressure may be financial incentives, time limits, or the presence of an audience or partner), much like the current procedures for administering the ASVAB or any other standardized test of cognitive ability. Another is to have participants perform athletic tasks (e.g., golf putting, basketball free throws; soccer dribbling) under pressure (e.g., financial incentives, time pressure, audience pressure, or the pressure caused by self-monitoring of performance), much like the current procedures used to assess the physical capability of potential military recruits.

Potential Benefits of Future Research

The committee sees great potential for the identification of future successful soldiers through the assessment of performance under stress. In the past decade there have been significant advances in understanding how cognition changes (e.g., choking) in various pressure-inducing contexts (Beilock et al., 2002; Markman et al., 2006); However, there would be value in further clarifying or characterizing those tasks for which performance changes are most likely and those contexts that induce pressure. For example, what are the characteristics of tasks that make them susceptible to the choking effect? Is the effect limited to perceptual-motor tasks or even more specifically to certain types of tasks (e.g., golf putting; shooting free throws), or is the effect broader? Does it extend to more purely cognitive tasks (test taking), or are the mechanisms underlying choking on cognitive tasks (test anxiety) fundamentally different from those underlying choking on athletic tasks (“the yips,” a loss of fine motor skills)? And what is the nature of the pressure that produces this effect? Are time pressure, financial incentives, and peer pressure interchangeable, or do they induce different kinds of effects? What other kinds of pressure-inducing contexts are there?

Finally, what are the salient characteristics of the choking phenomenon, broadly speaking, as an individual-differences construct? Do individuals systematically vary in their susceptibility to pressure? How broad does the construct need to be to capture the behavioral phenomena? Do those whose performance suffers under pressure on athletic tasks also experience test anxiety? What kind of mediating role does experience or expertise play in susceptibility to choking? Are there individual-differences factors that

Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
×

moderate that relationship, such as emotion-regulation ability, Neuroticism, or boldness?

RESEARCH RECOMMENDATION

The U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences should support research to understand issues in the domain of hot cognition:

  1. Research should explore behavioral performance measures and also physiological measures of dispositional defensive reactivity, such as the eye-blink startle measure and other biological indicators (biomarkers) of fear activation, and more generally other traits conceived as “biobehavioral.” Research should examine how biobehavioral dispositions like defensive reactivity relate to and are distinct from other personality constructs such as the Big Five (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism). In addition, research should compare the predictive validity of trait dispositions as assessed by physiological or behavioral measures in relation to survey assessments and examine how traits affect performance outcomes in differing situational contexts (e.g., impact of dispositional boldness on behavioral effectiveness in social versus affective versus workplace versus battlefield context).
  2. Research should clarify how emotions and cognitions together affect human capability and performance and should expand understanding of the physiological bases for emotional regulation. Key themes include neural mechanisms of inhibition, the role of the prefrontal cortex in higher cognitive control including affective processing, and the role of the dorsal region of the anterior cingulate cortex in monitoring conflicts (e.g., conflict between emotional and cognitive influences on moral dilemma tasks).
  3. Research should explore measuring emotional regulation with established forms of assessment such as rating scales, situational judgment tests, and performance measures (e.g., delay-of-gratification measures, emotional conflict tests, cooperation versus competition tasks).
  4. Research should examine the conditions that improve or diminish cognition and performance under stress, in order to develop measures of susceptibility to stress.
  5. Research should evaluate whether susceptibility to stress is contingent on the type of stressor (e.g., time pressure, peer pressure, fatigue) and whether there are cognitive, personality, and experiential correlates of susceptibility.
Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
×

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Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
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Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
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Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
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Suggested Citation:"6 Hot Cognition: Defensive Reactivity, Emotional Regulation, and Performance under Stress." National Research Council. 2015. Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/19017.
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Every year, the U.S. Army must select from an applicant pool in the hundreds of thousands to meet annual enlistment targets, currently numbering in the tens of thousands of new soldiers. A critical component of the selection process for enlisted service members is the formal assessments administered to applicants to determine their performance potential. Attrition for the U.S. military is hugely expensive. Every recruit that does not make it through basic training or beyond a first enlistment costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Academic and other professional settings suffer similar losses when the wrong individuals are accepted into the wrong schools and programs or jobs and companies. Picking the right people from the start is becoming increasingly important in today's economy and in response to the growing numbers of applicants. Beyond cognitive tests of ability, what other attributes should selectors be considering to know whether an individual has the talent and the capability to perform as well as the mental and psychological drive to succeed?

Measuring Human Capabilities: An Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group Performance Potential for Military Accession examines promising emerging theoretical, technological, and statistical advances that could provide scientifically valid new approaches and measurement capabilities to assess human capability. This report considers the basic research necessary to maximize the efficiency, accuracy, and effective use of human capability measures in the military's selection and initial occupational assignment process. The research recommendations of Measuring Human Capabilities will identify ways to supplement the Army's enlisted soldier accession system with additional predictors of individual and collective performance. Although the primary audience for this report is the U.S. military, this book will be of interest to researchers of psychometrics, personnel selection and testing, team dynamics, cognitive ability, and measurement methods and technologies. Professionals interested in of the foundational science behind academic testing, job selection, and human resources management will also find this report of interest.

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