Head Strong

How Psychology is Revolutionizing War

What the Military Can Learn From the Peppered Moth

Military service in a time of ever changing missions.

The ability to adapt to rapidly changing environments is a vital skill for leaders and workers in nearly every profession. I spent almost 15 years as a law enforcement officer, and one of my biggest challenges was being able to quickly shift from one situation to another, sometimes with virtually no warning.  In high stress and high threat situations, this can be quite difficult.  I recall on one occasion spending two hours at the scene of a gruesome murder.  I focused on preserving the scene, interviewing witnesses, and controlling my emotions.  Within minutes after clearing from that call, I was dispatched to a noise complaint of barking dogs disturbing the caller’s peace.  Still struggling to process – cognitively and emotionally – the homicide I had just worked, it was hard to show much empathy for the  “victim” of the barking dogs.  I managed to handle the barking dog call professionally, but it wasn’t easy.  Successful law enforcement officers must learn to adapt to constantly changing conditions and tasks, and most learn to do so based largely from on-the-job experience.

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Military personnel face similar problems.  No mission is the same.  In today’s world, it is not uncommon for a military unit to engage in a deadly firefight in the morning, help build a village’s infrastructure in the afternoon, and mediate negotiations among local factions in the evening.  Or, a unit that spends a year in combat operations may, in its next deployment, be tasked with rendering aid to victims of a natural disaster.  Moreover, during the past 13 years many of our military personnel have deployed to combat multiple times.  When they return home, many have difficulty in readjusting to normal work and family life.  The skills needed to survive in combat do not usually facilitate good family relationships.  Soldiers who experience trouble adapting from one situation to another may suffer dramatically in terms of their social, family, and work relationships.

New York Army National Guard Soldiers assist during Sandy; credit: Col Richard Goldenberg, New York Army National Guard

Recently I gave a keynote address to the New York Army and Air National Guard’s annual professional development seminar.  The theme was “Growing Adaptive Leaders in a Rapidly Changing Environment.”  Members of the New York National Guard have handled many different missions since September 11, 2001.  Besides assisting at Ground Zero, they have deployed regularly to support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  On top of that, they supported Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.  And being a member of the guard is more difficult in some ways than being a member of the active duty military. Besides dealing with military matters, they must also shift back and forth between their military role and their civilian occupation.  That is to say, they need to adapt quickly amongst a variety of conditions and environments.

I wanted to give the Guard good advice, based on sound psychological principles and findings.  For me at least, this is harder than presenting theory or data at a conference to other psychologists.   I knew from experience the National Guard audience would take careful notes on what I would say and use my advice to shape their training procedures.  This was a wonderful opportunity for a psychologist to be of service to the community, and I wanted to give them “actionable” advice.

So what did I tell them?  For one thing, I think it is important for people to understand what psychologists mean by adaptability.  I began my talk by telling the story of the English peppered moth, which exists in two color variations (light or dark).  The light colored version accounted for about 98 percent of the moths in England prior to the Industrial Revolution, and two percent were dark . The light color blended in with lichens covering tree trunks, and provided effective camouflage from birds who enjoyed dining on them.  Most dark ones were gobbled up by birds because they were easily seen and made easy targets. However, during the Industrial Revolution coal burning became widespread and dark coal dust soon settled on outside objects, including the tree trunks the moths often settled on.  Now, it was the dark peppered moths that enjoyed a reproductive advantage over their light colored counterparts.  Within a very few generations, the color pattern of these moths reversed and soon about 98 percent were dark.  Not surprisingly, when coal burning fell out of widespread use in the early 20th century and trees and lichen were again light colored, the peppered moths reverted to their original distribution of 98 percent light and 2 percent dark. 

What do peppered moths and soldiers have in common?  Clearly environments change and can do so very rapidly for both.  Genetic mechanisms allowed the peppered moth to adapt and thrive when coal pollution changed the color of the tree bark.  Soldiers must do the same in the face of ever changing missions and settings, but they do so through altering their behavior.  In humans, there is not enough time for natural selection to work its wonders, but the fundamental idea is the same.  Moths and soldiers that are capable of change in response to alterations in environment will be more successful than those who cannot.

The bulk of my talk focused on how leaders and individual soldiers can build adaptability through training and preparation.  I differentiated among four types of adaptability:  Cognitive, emotional, social, and physical.  It was important for the audience to know that adaptability is multidimensional.  Soldiers must be flexible in all four of these areas in order to adapt and thrive.  It is also important for them to understand that these skills can be learned and improved.  We discussed a variety of strategies to increase adaptability across these four domains. I also focused on the vital role leaders can play – especially in the military with its highly organized hierarchical structure – in nurturing adaptability among all members of a unit.

In the end all of us, military and civilian alike, must be capable of adapting to life’s inevitable changes and challenges.  To the extent we can do so, we increase our chances to succeed, self-actualize, flourish, and be resilient.  We can learn a lot from the English peppered moth.  After all, we don’t want to be eaten by a big bird.

Note:  The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Peppered moth photo credit: Olaf Leillinger 2006-06-14; '''License:''' CC-BY-SA-2.5 and GNU FDL

Michael D. Matthews, Ph.D., is Professor of Engineering Psychology at the United States Military Academy and author of Head Strong: How Psychology is Revolutionizing War.

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