One Size Doesn’t Fit All: A Case for Cognitive Measurement

Monday, June 15, 2015

In an ever-changing world, the Army needs to be able to measure soldiers’ cognitive abilities, and training and doctrine need to keep up. Like foot size, cognitive abilities and mental processes are not the same for everyone. By measuring a soldier’s brain function—perception, memory, control over motor functions and decisionmaking—trainers, educators and weapon developers could find ways of increasing human performance.

Although some may jokingly argue that feet are more important for an infantryman than his brain, those who understand the profession know the cognitive component is critical to making life-and-death decisions, not to mention the importance of long-term cognitive health throughout and following service.

The real issue is that we have not established a standard metric of neurocognitive performance: a “cognitive shoe size.” Lacking this standard, industry, trainers and educators default to a one-size-fits-all solution. When we assume our soldiers will think, feel and act the same before and after training, we are undermining their potential and long-term health. It’s as though we’ve given them all boots that don’t fit.

It’s Not All About Physical Attributes
In the physical domain, soldiers’ height, weight, body mass and strength are measured to help understand their capabilities and to place them in the right job. Cognitive measures could be used the same way. Although cognitive measurement tools exist, none are available for use by Army leaders or their soldiers. Without these tools, it is difficult to pair soldiers to systems, jobs or missions that take full advantage of their unique cognitive capabilities.

Most measurements today are related to injury, disease and mental disorders. This does not produce what would be considered a normal baseline. Tools that are used in the Army are based upon 1980s or earlier technology, and most of them assess men and not women.

We need a new method of baseline measure and a clear idea of what to measure.


(Credit: Chalkboard: iStockphoto; phrenological chart: Library of Congress; caliper: PhotoDisc)

What Needs to Happen
There are six cognitive functions important to military decisionmaking:

– Executive functions: These primarily involve planning, long-term memory, working memory, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, mental flexibility, spatial reasoning, speed and reaction time. These are key soldiering and leadership skills.

– Fluid intelligence: The capacity to solve problems helps soldiers think through novel situations. This is important in today’s complex environment, in which there are many tasks that soldiers may not have been trained to do.

– Circadian rhythm: Behavioral, mental and physical changes resulting largely from the daily change from light to dark are something a soldier and leader should understand because they affect performance. If leaders know they perform best in the morning, they could attempt to make their more difficult decisions at that time. If they face a key decision when they are not at their cognitive best, this knowledge would serve as a warning of when they need to take extra care.

– Grit and drive: This trait is absolutely critical and may be the most important cognitive capability for the military profession. The ability to work through tough situations to achieve a mission is critical. It also captures the attribute for those who learn from their failures.

– Experience: This refers to accumulated knowledge and skills, which could be the most important cognitive functions for critical decisionmaking. Through experience, a leader can speed up decisionmaking and facilitate better instinct-driven decisions.

– Morality and ethics: The military has an established moral and ethical culture as well as standards that must be instilled in those who join. These standards are important to the decisionmaking processes involved with dealing with other cultures’ morals and ethical standards.

Mental Acuity Matters
In Richard J. Davidson’s book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, he shows how personality styles affect how people think, feel and act and how personalities can be changed. Some traits work well in the military. Others don’t.

Resilience, such as how well one recovers from being mad or upset, can affect leaders and soldiers. Hanging on to an event, like the death of a teammate, can cloud rational decisionmaking because focus is distracted with the loss and with retribution. Leaders and soldiers need to understand that if they are more apt to hang on to an emotional event, they may not only hinder their near-term rational decisionmaking abilities but also trigger long-term effects like depression.

Positive or negative outlook is important when it comes to how a leader or individual assesses a situation. Understanding our own outlook is important when making a situational assessment, but understanding the outlook of those around you also makes you better equipped to draw on different perspectives to mitigate risks and enhance operational success.

Social intuition—the awareness or lack of awareness of what is going on around you—is a critical attribute in military and nation-building operations. Sensing what is happening in your unit is critical to fully understanding the emotional state of your organization. Given the many different cultures that our military engages and works with, having the innate ability to sense the social environment is also critical. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses in this area is critical to the mission’s success and your success as a leader.

Self-awareness of physical and cognitive status provides a key to effectiveness under stress and fatigue. For example, as commander, you may want an executive officer to watch over you and let you know when you are operating outside your norm. Physiological monitors are another method to be employed to assess and monitor this trait. Sensitivity to context—so you know whether your actions or comments are appropriate—is especially important when dealing with other cultures.

OK, but What Do We Do With It?
Once a suite of cognitive measurements can be agreed upon, we will have taken the first critical step in establishing a cognitive baseline for each soldier. With this baseline, it will then be possible to enhance training and education to improve individual cognitive capabilities.

That baseline will also affect standards for development of new material capabilities that better fit the soldier using them. It will provide industry with the cognitive range of capabilities needed, which in turn can assist in development of cognitive aid and augmentation tools tailored to the individual soldier. Lastly, this standard can serve as a tool for leaders to measure the cognitive operational readiness of each of their soldiers—similar to what they do for their equipment.

Doing this might require input from the Army Surgeon General’s office, academia and industry to develop a detailed list of what needs to be measured and how to do it. The value of testing will need to be explained to military leaders. This might not happen quickly, but we do have enough to start.

Somewhere in the world today, soldiers are going on patrol in a harsh and dangerous environment. Meanwhile, leaders sending them on these missions do not have the tools, knowledge or processes to fully understand the soldiers’ cognitive operating capabilities or provide them with the tools necessary to complete the task assigned. We should not wait.