Test Gauges Tolerance for Job Stress

Air traffic controllers and emergency dispatchers must make critical decisions while being deluged with information. Now researchers have devised a test that accurately measures the cool, quick judgment needed to perform well under stress. The test, described in the current Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, could be useful for predicting a person's ability to handle these and other high-pressure jobs.

"We wanted to create a way to test the abstract ability to handle lots of information quickly," says lead author Susan Joslyn, a psychologist at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her group designed a computer game, in which participants must quickly classify unseen objects by size, shape, and color--while keeping track of all previous objects. Every time the computer comes up with a new object, it alerts the subject for 30 seconds or less. These announcements sometimes arrive before the subject is finished asking questions about the previous objects.

After testing several dozen student volunteers on the computer game, the researchers checked their performance on computer programs that simulated emergency dispatching or air traffic control. The researchers also placed participants in an emergency dispatch scenario where they answered calls from actors pretending to be distressed 911 callers. In each case, a high score on the abstract computer test correlated with a successful performance on the computer and play-acting job simulators.

But the real value of the tests may be as a learning tool rather than a screen for applicants, says David Woods, a cognitive psychologist at Ohio State University in Columbus. "Are you going to say, based on this, who can go into these fields?" he asks. "These days the political authority to do that does not exist." The importance of such tests, Woods says, is that they aid in "understanding the component skills that go into these high-pressure jobs."