Chester Spell

Chester S Spell Ph.D.

Team Spirit

Teams and Health in Space

It's all about control

Posted May 16, 2016

When we were following the return from a year in space by astronaut Scott Kelly, it made us think of one of our favorite movies, The Right Stuff, about the first American astronauts in the 1960’s. Surely Kelly would be an example of someone with the Right Stuff (as would Mikhail Kornienko, the Russian cosmonaut who also spent a year in space). This also got us thinking about how much space exploration has changed, especially how it has gotten way more “groupy.” The Right Stuff and related depictions of early space traveler was mostly individual level stuff, about astronauts and their qualities. It was all about the person. Space travel has changed and now it is about teams and groups working together, and networks of people. In reality it has also been that way since there is always a ground crew, and some of the more interesting group conflicts in space missions have been across the space/ground crew faultline. In fact, NASA planners have identified two of the biggest obstacles still facing a long duration mission to Mars. One is the effects of radiation on the body and another is the working relationships and psychological well-being among crew members during months of isolation.  In short, if you are going to be together for a long time, you better be able to get along with one another!

Keeping the now recognized group nature of space missions in mind, what can groups and teams research tell us about groups and long duration flights? Here are a couple of principles gleaned from recent research that can help guide how space crews are selected and how to maintain psychological well-being.

Lack of control hurts us

One of the most consistent research findings (over decades of it!) in occupational psychology tells us that lack of control is related to stress and physical health over the long term. Chou, Parmar, and Galinsky’s recent publication in Psychological Science found that health problems, specifically felt pain, was also an outcome for people who were economically insecure.  But the really interesting “missing link” in the connection between economic insecurity and pain was a lack of control over one’s situation.  So there is another bit of evidence that lack of control is what really bothers people across many contexts. This might prove significant for a long duration space crew, because there, knowing you can’t quit the group is a fundamental thing you can’t control (you are stuck in the group)!

Groups can help us

Based on the research that tells how important a sense of control is for a group well-being and functioning, what can be done? The good news is that groups can actually help people enhance their sense of control. In some ways this is paradoxical, since one might think that being in a group means having to give up control over a situation, but recent research suggests that identification with a group actually enhances perceived control and, in turn helps health and well-being. A study published last year by Greenaway, Haslam, Cruwys, Branscombe, Ysseldyk, and Heldreth in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that being in a group- and they looked at many kinds of group- led to greater sense of personal control. This worked for example, for people that identified as Democrats and Republicans (no difference between the two parties by the way, just being in a political party helped elevate sense of control).  Other studies have shown the positive effects of group identification lead to adoption of many positive health behaviors from aerobics classes, to condom use, to groups getting vaccinations. People in groups, or more importantly who identify as part of a group, are healthier - groups are good for you! One way this good effect of groups can work is through social support; in a study we published in Personnel Psychology we found that well-defined subgroups within a group reduced depression and anxiety.

How we can use this research

While the context of long duration space flight challenges crew well-being in an environment as extreme as that found on space missions, seeing yourself as part of a group (and not just the crew itself) can be an elixir for the health threats posed by that ‘lack of personal control” feeling. As a practical matter, that’s why astronauts crews have emphasized regular communications with families over the course of long missions. So intervention-wise, any creative efforts to remind one of groups they belong to and make salient is important. An example: recall that when 33 Chilean Miners were trapped underground for several weeks in 2010, a critical way they coped psychologically was through messages on notes they exchanged, through a very long tunnel, with families above ground (NASA was consulted on that rescue operation, by the way).  The relationship between control and group membership may also be reciprocal - a sense of personal control can in turn help one identify with a group,  reinforcing a “good feelings” cycle.

This whole approach to enhancing health through gaining a sense of control might be summarized by Pythagoras, who observed thousands of years ago that “no man is free who cannot control himself.” And one key way to do that, based on the research, is by identifying with a group.

Written by Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova