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Countermeasure for Managing Interpersonal Conflicts in Space

Principal Investigator:
James A. Cartreine, Ph.D.

Brigham and Women's Hospital

Interpersonal conflicts can affect the success of an organization or team. These conflicts can also impact the operations of long-term spaceflight and jeopardize the safety of the crew.

Dr. James A. Cartreine and a team of researchers are building on research from two previous projects to design and produce an interactive multi-media intervention program to assist astronauts in managing real, ongoing conflicts on long-duration missions.

A preliminary evaluation of the conflict intervention tool will be conducted with first responders – firefighters and EMS personnel – who live, train and work together.

NASA Taskbook Entry

Technical Summary

Some amount of interpersonal conflict is expected on long-duration (LD) missions, whether between crewmembers or between the crew and the ground; however, severe conflicts can interfere with mission success and even safety. Severe, ongoing conflicts have been reported on LD space missions, Antarctic expeditions, and a recent LD space mission simulation Nonetheless, empirically-supported tools to help crews prevent, assess, and manage interpersonal conflicts have not been developed. This study addresses Bioastronautics Roadmap Risk #24: Human Performance Failure Due to Poor Psychosocial Adaptation. The investigators have begun development of an interactive multimedia portal to help LD flyers prevent, detect, assess, and manage their own psychosocial problems. This work has been supported by two NSBRI grants.

In the first grant, program architecture was developed to organize the types of content and experiences users can find in the portal. Sample content about depression and interpersonal conflict was also developed as a prototype to demonstrate how training could be delivered through the system. The second NSBRI grant was to complete and evaluate the depression content, including self-treatment of depression.
The present project will design and produce an interactive media intervention program to assist persons manage real, ongoing conflicts on long-duration missions. A preliminary evaluation of the conflict intervention will be conducted in a variety of settings where individuals live, train, and work together: fire departments .The goal of this preliminary evaluation is to gather data on response rate, sample characteristics, and to estimate effect size, in preparation for a randomized controlled trial.

Original Aims
1) The primary deliverable will be a countermeasure to help crews manage interpersonal conflict. We have produced an interactive media intervention program to assist persons manage real, ongoing conflicts on LD missions. This intervention is based on cognitive-behavioral therapy and will help individuals to work out strategies with the assistance of a coach, on computer.

A second deliverable is preliminary data about the countermeasure. We will conduct an open trial to obtain data about the intervention’s potential effectiveness in settings that share some characteristics of the space setting (group living, small work groups). The open trial will also enable us to develop and assess our procedures and instruments for data collection, and estimate effect size, in preparation for a future randomized controlled trial. This appears to be the first standardized intervention (self-guided or otherwise) to be evaluated for the management of workplace conflicts between peers in any industry.

This interactive media program rounds out a suite of assessment, intervention and training tools for long-duration flyers, all accessible via a single portal: the Virtual Space Station (see Carter et al., 2005). Other major resources in the Virtual Space Station developed through NSBRI support include an intervention for depression, an intervention for chronic stress, and self-assessment of depression and conflict with tailored feedback.

Year 3 has involved the production and completion of the interactive media program for conflict intervention, which included these major activities: Scriptwriting, storyboard development, media production, programming and debugging.

The year has been tremendously busy and productive on all of the above fronts; each of which has posed their unique academic, intellectual, organizational and administrative challenges. Additionally, we have continued to maintain contact with the Houston Fire Department, the Phoenix Fire Department, and the San Diego Fire Department. The program will be evaluated at these sites during Year 4.

Unique Aspects of This Study
1) This software appears to be the first computer-automated behavioral intervention that tailors the intervention components to the user’s needs. Prior computer-automated treatments have provided the same clinical components to all users, without regard to whether the user needed them or not. This makes the intervention highly tailored to the unique status of the individual and also highly efficient, since users are only presented with content that is applicable to them.

2) Tailoring the Program to Users Follows a Unique Process. We have developed a set of algorithms that approximates an item-response procedure to decide whether users should receive domains of interventional content or not. Computer-adaptive testing is performed in the first intervention setting to create a “treatment plan” to help him or her manage the interpersonal conflict. Users answer questions from validated measures to determine whether or not a given content area will be presented to them. The assessments are only used to make a binary decision of whether a user should receive that interventional content. Once the user responses reach a numerical threshold (or cannot reach it), the program ceases asking questions in that domain and moves to the next. This application of computer-adaptive testing technology reduces the amount of questions needed to be answered by users to tailor their treatment, making the intervention more time-efficient.

3) This appears to be the first interactive media program ever developed to assist persons to formulate an action plan to manage a specific workplace conflict.

4) The planned evaluation of the program will be the first to evaluate the any intervention for conflict between co-workers across multiple settings in any industry.

Current computer-delivered behavioral interventions have generally guided users through a pre-determined set of activities designed to address a presenting problem. This study advances the field of automated, computer-based interventions by tailoring the contents of the intervention—and even the clinical topics presented—to the user’s needs. The conflict intervention program delivers a core set of interventions to assist users with their interpersonal conflict: problem solving, cognitive restructuring, and negotiation skills training. In addition, a series of empirically-supported self-assessments also evaluate whether a user should receive content to improve his or her assertiveness, ability to manage anger, or empathy (the ability to understand the other party’s point of view and emotional state). With this approach, the users receive content tailored to their particular needs, and they don’t waste time on unnecessary content.

Persons involved in intense workplace conflicts may also experience problems with sleep, anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse, stress, rumination, and others. These subsidiary problems can make managing interpersonal conflict challenging. This program incorporates empirically-supported measures of these problems to determine whether users would benefit from content on any or all of these seven topics. If so, the program provides optional content on the topic area.

Finally, to date, research on workgroup conflict has generally been phenomenological and descriptive. Despite the ubiquity of conflict between co-workers across all industries, and the potentially large costs of conflict in productivity, no prior studies have empirically evaluated a standardized intervention for workplace conflicts. We will do this in Year 4.

Earth Applications

Workplace conflict is ubiquitous. Clearly, if effective, this countermeasure could help firefighters and other first responders. It could also be adapted for use in isolated operational environments, such as polar research stations, submarines, commercial ships, oilrigs, and underwater research stations. However, even greater value would be derived by making this and similar programs available to the public in workplaces and other settings such as secondary schools, social services offices, places of worship, military bases, prisons, public health and mental health centers, and eventually at home or in any location, through broadband Internet.