We all know that psychologists often work closely with war veterans, especially those that have post-traumatic stress disorder (what used to be known as “shell shock”). However, it is not as well known that psychologists are also involved in identifying how specific individuals best fit into various branches of the army, navy, or air forces before they even start basic training. In fact, as far back as the Second World War, the United States Air Forces had teams of psychologists testing recruits on many cognitive and personal variables to develop methods to predict where they would best fit in the various branches of the military.
What triggered my interest with this question started with the search my doctoral student Xing Huang initiated to identify a validated spatial orientation test. It turned out that such a test was one of the many used in “The Classification Program” conducted by the Army Air Forces of the United States (as it was called back then) during World War II. According to the report edited by DuBois (1947), there were more than a thousand psychologists and psychological assistants involved in the program. In fact, among the names of those involved, listed at the end of the report, I recognized Robert L. Thorndike and James J. Gibson, names that are likely familiar to students of the history of psychology.
Aside from providing an interesting glimpse into history, the report generated by DuBois and his many colleagues made my student and I aware of a measure that was aptly named the “Spatial Orientations Test”. This test was of particular interest to us because it is basically a measure of the ability for perspective taking from a map-based aerial perspective. The original test consists of two parts, with part 1 presenting items with large black and white aerial views of a given location and requiring the test-taker to identify the location of specific features on this map, presented as small black and white aerial views. However, to keep testing time reasonable, we used only the second part of this test as it produced the best predictive validity for successful completion of bomber pilot training in the Second World War. This part of the test measures the ability to locate on a map the places shown in photographs. On each page, a military map of various locations in the United States and four aerial photographs are presented. The scale of the photographs is always 10 times larger than that of the map. Twelve lettered sections (from A to L) are divided by white lines on each map and the test-takers are asked to identify the section of the map in which the photographed section can be found. Essentially, we viewed this test as a potentially solid measure of map reading abilities.
Accordingly, last January, my student Xing became possibly the first person in 70 years to use this test in research and most likely the first ever to administer it to women as all previous test-takers were male cadets in the 1940s. Her goal was to determine whether the Spatial Orientation Test would correlate with other measures of spatial orientation and whether it would meet the expectation of an advantage for men over women in this type of task. She was also curious to know whether the advantage for men would persist even when time limits on the test were relaxed. Therefore, she administered the 48 items on the Spatial Orientation Test either with its standard 18 minutes or with a relaxed time limit of 36 minutes. Results of this research were recently presented at the meeting of the Psychonomic Society (Huang & Voyer, 2015), where they generated much interest.
She tested 41 men and 60 women, asking them to complete the Spatial Orientation Test (SOT), along with a number of tests relevant to navigation skills and attitudes: the Santa Barbara Sense of Direction Scale (a self-report measure of navigation abilities), the Perspective Taking/Spatial Orientation Test (mostly relevant to the ability to orient oneself in relation to objects viewed from different perspectives), the Landscape Perception Test (a measure of the ability to perform 2D to 3D transformation and vice-versa in imagination), the Spatial Anxiety Scale (a self-report measure of the anxiety one experiences when in situations where navigation and spatial abilities are required), and the Spatial Self-Confidence Scale (a self-report measure of confidence with handling navigation and spatial situations). Results supported the expectation that men would perform better than women on the SOT. Although giving more time to participants to complete the SOT improved their performance, it did not affect the magnitude of sex differences. Finally, correlations among the six tests showed common cognitive components between the SOT and the other spatial tests. Performance on the SOT was also better in people who were highly confident and reported little anxiety about navigation. These results have implications in terms of the processes underlying SOT performance and also in terms of the spatial abilities required to be a good bomber pilot.
Although the sex difference we observed is interesting, it should not be over-interpreted. Essentially, both women and men can become good bomber pilots; just not all women or all men. The good news is that spatial skills can improve with training (Uttal et al., 2013). So, if your ambition is to become an air force pilot, keep working on these spatial abilities and you will have at least a head start on that component!
DuBois, P. H. (Ed.) (1947). The classification program report No. 2. (Army Air Forces Aviation Psychology Program Research Reports). Defense Document Center Defense Supply Agency: Army Air Forces, Washington, DC. (retrieved from www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/651778.pdf)
Uttal, D. H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., Alden, A. R., Warren, C., & Newcombe N. S. (2013). The malleability of spatial skills: A meta-analysis of training studies. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 352-402.
Huang, X., & Voyer, D. (2015, November). Influence of time limit and gender on a rediscovered spatial orientation test. Poster presented at the meeting of the Psychonomic Society, Chicago, IL.
“Color Photographed B-17E in Flight” by U.S. Air Force photo – http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/shared/media/photodb/photos/060515-F-12…. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Color_Photographed_B-17E_in_Flig….
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