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Human Performance

The Role of Psychology in Human Performance Optimization

[Transcript at bottom of page]

EPISODE 1: The Role of Psychology in Human Performance Optimization

This week, Martin & Jonpaul talk to eminent psychologist Professor Michael Matthews. Mike shares insights from his extensive career across a wide-range of topics including the importance of non-cognitive factors such as grit, developing character traits and the role of organisational culture.

Guest, Cast & Crew

Michael Matthews is professor of engineering psychology in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He has authored over 250 scientific papers and is the co-editor of several leading texts.

Hosted by Martin Jones & Jonpaul Nevin https://www.ophp.co.uk

Edited by Bess Manley

Produced by Wavell Room https://wavellroom.com/audio/


Mike’s email Mike.matthews@westpoint.edu

Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb

Human Performance Optimization: The Science and Ethics of Enhancing Human Capabilitieshttps://academic.oup.com/book/1587

Headstrong: How Psychology is Revolutionizing War https://academic.oup.com/book/36963

If you’re enjoying this content, please like and subscribe so we can keep improving. And remember to visit Wavell Room for their latest articles, podcasts and newsletters.


00:42 Introducing Professor Michael Matthews

03:29 Prof Matthews’ Journey: From Police Officer to leading Psychologist

07:33 Exploring Non-Cognitive Factors

10:32 The Grit Factor

17:45 Character Development and Organizational Culture

22:38 The Crucial Role of Character in Leadership

25:24 The Pitfalls of Short-Term Wins Over Long-Term Success

27:20 The Multidisciplinary Nature of Human Performance Optimization

28:09 The ‘Shiny Object Syndrome’

31:38 The Psychological Warfare of Modern Conflicts

35:43 The Weaponization of Social Media in Warfare

39:33 Improving Situational Awareness and Counteracting Misinformation

43:23 Closing Thoughts

Up Next

Our next episode will be released on 20th May, when our guest is social psychologist Dr Jutta Tobias Mortlock. We discuss the role that mindfulness training can play in high-performance settings.


[00:00:00] INTRO: Hello and welcome to the Optimizing Human Performance podcast. I’m Martin Jones, a Human Performance Specialist, Researcher and Educator. And I’m JonPaul Nevin, a former Royal Armoury Physical Training Corps Instructor turned academic. Each week we talk to world leading experts about how to unlock the full potential of those who operate in high stress, high stakes environments.

[00:00:21] INTRO: We discuss the latest science, innovative strategies, practical wisdom and inspirational stories in the rapidly evolving world of human performance optimisation. The Optimising Human Performance podcast is produced in partnership with the Wavell Room and the Tactical Athlete Performance Centre at Buckinghamshire New University.

[00:00:42] INTRO: Today we welcome Professor Michael Matthews to the podcast. Professor Matthews is a professor of engineering psychology in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He has authored over 250 scientific papers and is the co editor of several leading texts, including Human Performance Optimization, The Science and Ethics of Enhancing Human Capabilities, and Headstrong, How Psychology is Revolutionizing War.

[00:01:11] INTRO: In our conversation with Mike, we discussed various topics related to human performance optimisation, including the importance of non-cognitive factors such as grit, developing character traits, and the role of organisational culture.

[00:01:24] Martin: Hi Mike, welcome to the Optimizing Human Performance podcast. How are you doing?

[00:01:28] Mike: Well, just fine. It’s a fairly early morning here in New York.

What a perfect way to spend residence days talking about interesting things with interesting folks.

[00:01:39] Martin: It’s great to have you with us today. let you tell us about yourself, what  you do, where you are and your current role.

[00:01:45] Mike: Well, I’m a professor of what’s called engineering psychology at West Point, United States Military Academy. We’re located about 50 miles north of Manhattan And I’ve been here since the year 2000 when I first joined the faculty. I teach biopsychology and cognitive psychology and other courses to the cadets, Really with a focus, about how to tailor that to make cadets better leaders when they eventually become officers in, the United States Army. Earlier on in my life I taught at the Air Force Academy when I was an Air Force officer. Never thought I’d turn to the dark side and be at West Point, but here I am, 24 years and still enjoying it.

[00:02:18] Martin: Great. Thank you very much. So 20 plus years, lots changed in the world in those, in those 20 years.

[00:02:23] Mike: When I arrived in June of 2000, the world was quite different, both technologically and politically. And also the, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. I was actually teaching class that morning in, 2001 and September 11th. I remember it very distinctly that. I’d taken a break after my first hour class, which started at 7. 30, and I was looking at CNN, just kind of kill time between classes, and there was a, picture of a plane striking the, one of the towers, and, the headline was Small Plane Strikes Tower.

[00:02:52] Mike: It was breaking news. They didn’t know what had really happened. I sat with my cadets, and, the subsequent two hours, with a big screen TV on, watching everything unfold. that was the class of 2003. These cadets were juniors at West Point then and every single one of them went off to war.

[00:03:07] Mike: And many of them served valiantly and some didn’t come back. So it was really a life changing event and really made what I do at West Point, which is developing leaders of character and leaders for the Army, much more tangible to me the importance of what we do to prepare these young people to go out and face the rigors and stresses and challenges and trauma that are inherent in being an Army officer.

[00:03:28] JP: Mike, having read several of your texts, what I’ve always found fascinating was your background as a police officer and then your transition into the US Air Force. Therefore, it’d be real good if you could just take us through those experiences and how it sort of led you into the field of applied psychology.

[00:03:45] Mike: The history of my interest in psychology is a little different than a lot of folks. guess I knew from an early age I wanted to be a psychologist. The way that I came to that conclusion was I believe it was my eighth grade year, in school. my middle brother, who’s six years older, he’d gone off to college and, he’d come back for Thanksgiving break and he had his college textbooks in the back of the car and I, uh, got to digging through them and I found a psychology text this is a college level text and I was a pure knucklehead when I was a youngster.

[00:04:12] Mike: I mean, I was not a very good student, but for some reason, that book really caught my attention. I read it from cover to cover that weekend. And decided that I wanted to be a psychologist. when I grew up, it wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I was able to actually take a course in psychology and that just further reinforced my interest But I was never interested in psychology from the standpoint of being a clinical psychologist who focuses on remedying disease or pathology. I was really more captured by the idea of how you take, Psychological principles and apply those to the rest of us And make those people better allow them to thrive and excel from the very get go.

[00:04:49] Mike: That was my interest So, next year I went to college. I had my first College level course in psychology was equally inspired My professor and I, Dr Regruso We became lifelong friends. But during that journey in college, I also became interested in police work. So much so that I joined the local police department and went through the academy in my spare time. I managed to commissioned police officer in Springfield, Missouri and I I really found that interesting because. I liked, at the time, being a young guy, the dynamics of getting into a patrol car, not knowing what’s going to happen from one minute to the next.

[00:05:24] Mike: The radio could go off and could be a barking dog call, which is no big deal, or it could be a shooting or something that’s more, more weighty. And for a young person, that’s kind of, uh, pretty exciting stuff to be able to go out and handle, those things. And it allowed me to see human behavior in very stressful conditions. and to see how people can rise up from difficult situations and still excel. Both the police officers themselves, but also many of the people that we respond to to help. May have been having a hard time, but, worked their way through it. So ultimately, when I graduated from college,

[00:05:54] Mike: I was a much better student. I was offered, uh, fellowships to go to graduate school and get a PhD. And I had to make this big life decision. whether it be a, career full-time police officer, or to become a psychologist. And ultimately I decided that psychology would be a longer term, way to stay engaged.

[00:06:10] Mike: I’m, I know if I had been a police officer, I would’ve retired at age 45, and here I’m at age 70 and still being able to engage as a psychologist. it was a good decision in retrospect.

[00:06:19] Martin: yeah, I, I agree. I’m glad you became a psychologist, Mike, because I’ve, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your work over the years. So, uh, yeah, it’s been good for me. I’m glad that you’re doing that.

[00:06:28] JP: Yeah, what’s struck home in several of your texts, especially Headstrong, are those little vignettes which you pop in, whereby you relate theory to real world experience. I just think that’s so vital because it helps to bridge that gap and provide that contextual understanding, linking the theory to real world application.

[00:06:45] Mike: I am capable of writing things that no one understands, you know, I am, I am a bona fide scholar. I could write an article that, nobody in their right mind would ever want to read, But I, I do really enjoy writing, books like Headstrong, which were intentionally written so that anyone with curiosity in the field could read about a psychological principle and then by illustrating it with an experience from police work or something else I’ve done in life. Make sense of it.  And that’s the very same reason that I, uh, blog several times a year for Psychology Today. The idea is to take psychological science and, craft it, in a way that, everyone can understand it and appreciate the importance of it. And the relevance of it.

[00:07:22] Martin: Yeah, absolutely. Really, really important. I think the translation is key. Like, I think we all know academics sometimes get a bad reputation for being in their ivory towers and that translation is so important. coming back to some of the articles you’ve written on psychology today, present these non cognitive factors of human performance. things like grit, things like hardness, resilience, those sorts of things. Can you describe what are non cognitive factors? And maybe using the examples of hardness and grit, you know, what are these things? Why are they important?

[00:07:51] Mike: Absolutely. this goes back to, uh, the 25 75 rule. Let me just comment on the 25 75 rule, and then I’ll drill down to your question. So, the, , the audience might be interested in knowing that the first experimental psychology laboratory was founded in 1879 in Germany. So you can see how, far back psychology as a, scientific discipline goes. But most of the research through those years that’s focused on, human performance is focused on, cognitive abilities like IQ or aptitude test or SAT test, you know, things of that nature. And it’s been a really productive line of research, but consistently through the last hundred plus years.

[00:08:27] Mike: What we’ve found, scientists have found, is that these cognitive factors, let’s use IQ as an example, at the very best account for about 25 percent variation performance. So yeah, it matters. It matters a great deal if you have a, really high IQ, really good academic, cognitive talent. It helps predict how your freshman grades are going to be or how well you may perform in the workplace. but let’s flip that, what about this other 75%? So, frankly, a lot of that 75 percent is undetermined. statistician would call it error variance, and we know something’s going on there, but we don’t know exactly what. So when I talk about non cognitive factors in affecting human performance, I’m thinking about things that don’t have so much to do with, how snappy your brain is, or your IQ. But rather things that, are strengths of the heart or the gut, like motivation or grit, or hardiness and your ability to overcome adversity, to, uh, stick with your mission and achieve success, and not just achieve success, but to do so not at the cost of your psychological well being. In other words, it’s one thing to push through a difficult situation and, and win the fight, so to speak, or win the battle or, or achieve the goal more generally. But if the cost of that is your psychological wellbeing, that’s not, good. So non cognitive factors can be just any number of a host of things, which contribute to that ability to both excel that is performed, but also to adapt. And as you mentioned, uh, hardiness, which is your, ability to overcome, existential crises in life, but come out feeling okay about it, is important.

[00:10:04] Mike: Grit, which is the passionate pursuit of long term goals, is super important. My work with Angela Duckworth, illustrates that. And, um, If I sat down and thought long and hard about it, Martin, I might come up with a list of like 50 things, but we don’t have time for that. Those are three good examples.

[00:10:19] Mike: Grit, hardiness, and just character strengths in general.

[00:10:22] Martin: Yeah, I really like the article that you wrote about psychological body armor. I think that’s a really nice way of describing these things. yeah, it’s just like the, armor of the mind. could we do a little deep dive into grit? That’s something that people ask me a lot as a psychologist who works in, high performance environments, I’m often asked about grit.

[00:10:40] Martin: And, what it is and why it’s important and how we develop it. So how did you start working on Grit first and foremost

[00:10:45] Mike: Well, almost being in the right place at the right time. This is maybe 2004, sometime in that time frame. And the, really famous psychologist, Marty from the University of Pennsylvania, who’s well known for his work 50 years ago on, a number of things. Learned helplessness being probably the thing he’s most recognized for back in those days. And he, in the late nineties, founded a new approach to psychology called positive psychology. And it’s kind of what we’ve been talking about. Positive psychology really rang true with me, because it’s a psychology for those of us who do not have, pathologies and substance abuse and things of that nature.

[00:11:21] Mike: we had invited, Dr. Seligman to visit West Point. And he and I went out to dinner and we’re talking about, this idea That I have that, the military in particular is a natural home for positive psychology, for the reason being that, soldiers, and I’ll use the term soldier generically to refer to, airmen and, naval personnel, just people who serve their, country in the military, it’s all about being better at what you do and growing and developing new skills and being able to overcome adversity and so on. So during that conversation, he said he just brought on a new graduate student named Angela Duckworth. And so no one knew who Angela Duckworth was in 2004. So I had a call with Angela and, told her all about West Point and about how we bring new cadets in. to West Point each summer, about 1, 200 new cadets, and they go through something called Cadet Basic Training, which is like basic training for militaries all around the world. It’s meant to be a challenge. You get up early, you get a haircut, away from mommy and daddy for the first time, perhaps, and make them do things like obstacle courses and such that they didn’t think that, They’d be able to do and in doing so create these challenges for them to overcome and build confidence.

[00:12:28] Mike: That’s the whole thing, right? But cadet basic training has a certain attrition rate associated with it. So as you might expect rigorous training if we bring in 1000 people then you might lose a certain number And as Angela talked about her concept of grit, she was just kind of coming to terms with it then, which she defines as the passionate pursuit of a long term goal.

[00:12:49] Mike: It occurred to me that to get into West Point is a long term goal. It’s not easy. We start with about 50,000 applications, and we end up taking about 1, 200 cadets, each year. They’re highly motivated. They have a lot of talent. Their cognitive skills are really off the chart. are equivalent to the Ivy Leagues in terms of, test scores and things of that nature.

[00:13:08] Mike: But they’re also athletes and they’re leaders. They’ve been team captains. So this is a really great group of people, And even with that, cadet basic training is a real gut check. So some of them didn’t make it through and it seemed to me that, if we could collect data on the relationship between grit and, uh, and success, , during cadet basic training.

[00:13:25] Mike: That would be a really interesting experiment to do. So I was able to make that happen. So, for the incoming class of 2007, which means they arrived in the summer of 2004 at West Point, every new cadet candidate on the first day of training, before we really got hooks into them.

[00:13:42] Mike: This is an important point. On the first day of training, before we had. socialized them into the military, we gave them the GRIT test, among other things. And we followed them through their first, year at West Point. And lo and behold, we found was, is that GRIT was the only statistical predictor of which cadets managed to make it through cadet basic training.

[00:14:03] Mike: It was the only thing that really mattered. We lost about 70 that year. We lost a great number. I did some further analyses and I looked at cadets who had reported to the Cadet Counseling Center for emotional issues like, you know, anxiety or, you know, whatever. A lot of it’s just in plain words, homesickness and whatnot. uh, the new cadets who reported for psychological health, their grit scores were significantly lower than those of the cadets who, persevered. So the bottom line was is that grit looks like it appeared to be a very important factor in a very difficult task, which is very much more a gut check than a head check, right?

[00:14:39] Mike: So it didn’t matter if your IQ was 140 when you’re cold and wet and tired and away from home for the first time. That would matter in the fall semester where they’re taking academic course like calculus and physics. Sure, that mattered. But for the summer training, it was a real gut check.

[00:14:57] Mike: What mattered was their grit, their determination to complete the task no matter what. So that was the beginning of the grit studies and was one of several studies that Angela put into her dissertation and ultimately, an article that we co authored, since been cited almost 10, 000 times in the literature.

[00:15:12] Mike: So There’s a lot of information and misinformation about grit, I think, out in the

[00:15:16] Mike: world.

[00:15:17] Martin: Hmm. what do you think of the, the main sort of myths or the misinformation around grit? Can you highlight some of those?

[00:15:23] Mike: so it’s this, the pop psychology level of understanding of grit is that, oh, it’s just motivation to do something difficult, like, I’m going to, go out and work hard today, or I’m gonna, stick to my diet today, or do something relatively trivial. the truth fact is that, grit is designed to measure commitment to these really long term goals that are hard, not little day to day things. And then secondly, A lot of pop psychology has captured grit as sort of the end all solution to every problem humans have. and it’s not. We talked about that 75 percent of non cognitive factors. It’s some small slice of that. But to succeed in life, you need to have a lot more comprehensive skills than just grit. You know, understanding social intelligence, you know, self regulation, which is more the day to day stuff, virtues of courage and, transcendence.

[00:16:11] Mike: A whole lot of things really matter. Grit’s just a small slice of it.

[00:16:15] Martin: Yeah. I used to teach a course to undergraduates and we, talked about grit in that course. And I always remember one student asking me the question that. I wasn’t quite sure of the answer, so I wonder if you can answer it for me, he said to me, what if your long-term goal, is to be a drug’s kingpin, leader of an organized crime gang.

[00:16:32] Martin: is that grit? if you’re, that’s what you want to do in life. You know, you want to

[00:16:36] Martin: Be a crime boss, head of a crime family.

[00:16:37] Mike: I, I, I’m sorry to say, but it probably is, you know, it’s the whole, study of positive character. Grit being one of them is a subject of that, question. So, for example, you know, you think about, attributes that make a good, West Point cadet or an Army soldier, American Army soldier, things like courage and selfless service and honor and integrity. and if you take those very same traits and apply them in the context of a positive organization. That’s a good thing, but we found like some of the most loyal people are gang members in LA and places like that You know, so they’re loyal to their group. They have great integrity within the context of that crime group but from the big picture of life they are, you know doing nefarious things and bad things for culture as a whole so it’s it’s a little bit of an enigma how to unpack that.

[00:17:26] Mike: You could you take somebody who’s been a gang member and actually transform them into a good productive member of society by re channeling those, character strengths towards something positive? We have some evidence of cadets that had rough backgrounds who, become great officers, had a revelation , an an epiphany. Hey, how can take these same characteristics do good things in life instead of bad things?

[00:17:45] JP: In regards to those character traits which you mentioned, including Grit, if you were to identify with an individual that they were deficient, in certain character traits, can we develop these?

[00:17:55] Mike: So the answer, I firmly believe, is yes. But it’s also a challenge to demonstrate that, empirically in a scientific study. And the reason is that our measures of grit and character and, hardiness and such, they’re pretty soft measures. You know, they’re easy to, falsify, So we don’t really have a good meter stick to assess that change. Now, that said, events or experiences like a military basic training or achieving a, an academic goal, getting into medical school, for example, is a really long road to hoe.

[00:18:25] Mike: It’s really hard to do. by virtue of, going through those experiences that tends to hone character in a positive way. Now there, are universities across the world, including many there in England, and certainly many in the United States and elsewhere would have character development programs built into their curriculum.

[00:18:43] Mike: We find it’s really important at West Point. I think you could extrapolate this to any college or university setting or, even other settings. There’s some elements to, enhancing these character strengths of which grit is an example. One is, educating people about them they know state is.

[00:18:58] Mike: You know, what is grit? What is motivation? What is hardiness? And then giving them an assessment and let them reflect on where they stand. So, education reflection is important. And then the ability to practice using those strengths in different contexts. So at West Point they can practice it in a leadership position within the Corps of Cadets or they can practice it out in field training in the summer . That’s important. And a very important piece too is a mentor. So opportunities to lead others, is a great way to, become aware of and learn how to hone and to apply these non cognitive strengths. So I think it can be done and is being done. it’s hard to demonstrate sort of concrete terms.

[00:19:37] JP: So would you say the culture of an organisation can help shape the development of those character strengths? think back to my own time in the British Army, and we used to have the Army’s values and standards mandated as training every year. And quite often they would go in one ear and out the other.

[00:19:54] JP: it wasn’t really until I left the military when I reflected back on those values and standards that I sort of realised that they essentially underpinned what I believe as an individual. These sort of constructs such as courage, Discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty, selfless commitment, they underpin who I am now.

[00:20:11] JP: being in that culture certainly shaped my beliefs and characters. it almost seems like it’s something that was subconsciously been ingrained within me. So if that’s the case within the British Army, can that be replicated within other cultures? Can an organisation’s cultural norms shape an individual’s inherent character?

[00:20:31] Mike: I think so, and the way I look at it is organizations can have either a positive role or a negative role. So keep in mind that if you’re a leader in any organization, to some extent you inherit whatever people go into that organization. the rest of us, some people be very strong at characters some not so much.

[00:20:47] Mike: very much. But the organization itself, if it has strong values, reinforces those values, pays attention to them, can actually activate positive character in people, and reward it and encourage it in very subtle ways But at the same time, there’s so many case histories, of organizations which may give lip service to positive, values, but in practice they don’t really live it. there’s a great book, your listeners might be interested in, in reading called The Blackhearts.

[00:21:15] Mike: It’s about a platoon, of, American Army soldiers deployed , in Iraq, uh, at the height of the war. And basically, the elevator version of this is they had very weak, command and control, poor leadership, Were unsupervised And they had a couple of bad apples, which ultimately ended up in the murder of several, Iraqi civilians. Just a horrible situation. And the question is, was it because they had bad apples in the unit or was it because a leadership failure or was it both? And I’d say it was a bit of both. Because if they’d had a positive organization with direct involved leaders who would make corrections on the spot and not allow this to get out of hand, I don’t think any of that would have happened.

[00:21:54] Mike: Yeah. That’s not to say that those particular soldiers would have ever necessarily evolved into being, a master sergeant super great soldier, but at least they wouldn’t have done the bad things. So the more I study this, the more I think organizations are the most, play the most pivotal role in at least the expression of character, if not its development.

[00:22:11] Martin: Really interesting, really interesting. And I guess that West Point as an organization involved in that cultural

[00:22:18] Martin: architecture a core component, getting people as they

[00:22:21] Martin: enter into these organizations,

[00:22:23] Mike: our mission statement is to produce leaders of character for the nation. It’s not to produce lawyers or physicians or, whatever. It’s to produce, leaders of character. We feel that it’s pretty easy to select people with high IQs to get into a university.

[00:22:37] Mike: You can do that. It’s a harder

[00:22:38] Mike: question to select the right people, of the right character and then develop that further so that, When the chips are down, you’re leading in difficult situations, they can be trusted. one of my good friends was the 59th superintendent at West Point, is a lieutenant general, now retired, Robert Caslin. He often says, you could be a cadet if you finished number one in his or her class in academics, but if you fail at character, you’ll fail at leadership. And this comes back to JonPaul, your your point about the importance of organizations. Organizations must be well led by people of character or there will be failures.

[00:23:11] Martin: I like the idea of character being

[00:23:13] Martin: almost elevated in

[00:23:14] Martin: importance. I think it’s something that

[00:23:15] Martin: now we’re talking about, it just seems so common sense to me, but I think there’s a lot of organizations, a lot of people don’t really think of it that way, it’s nothing new, is it?

[00:23:23] Martin: Really? We’ve been talking about character and virtues, for thousands of years is something, to aim towards. Yet it’s not something that’s always pushed to the fore in terms of our character traits or virtues, our values influence our performance of discrete tasks in high pressure environments.

[00:23:39] Mike: You know, Martin, the trouble is, it’s a natural human tendency to want to optimize immediate short term profits or wins at the expense of long term success. So, if you in your news feeds, and read about organizations that are found to have, misused funds, or to exploited customers, like a red credit card customers.

[00:24:00] Mike: I think, you know, there’s one example. There’s Wells Fargo Bank. was widely cited as having some real issues along those lines in the last few years. And there’s other examples. if the quarterly profit is more important than 10 year success, there’s other examples. Then it just sometimes channels people takes their attention away from doing the right thing.

[00:24:20] Mike: We see that in sports, too So there are Sports organizations, For example, the National Basketball Association I’ve done a lot of work with the San Antonio Spurs and when you walk in and get a briefing from the Spurs leadership about what human performance means the first thing you start hearing about is character and way down the lines, it’s, you know, what’s your leaping ability is or some of those more physical things.

[00:24:41] Mike: They can deal with that. And in fact , over the last 25 years, they’ve been able to sustain organizational excellence. what the general manager at the time we were having this conversation said that, When he first became general manager, they had a player that was really good, great rebounder, later went on to help another team win a couple championships, but he would just poison around the, team. It took him six weeks, but he managed to trade him, and he said it was the best trade he ever made, even though he missed his rebounds and so forth. That person was such a, bad influence on the cohesion and chemistry of that, the positive cohesion and chemistry of that team, that, yeah, that might’ve helped them win that year, but it would’ve been very destructive over the long term.

[00:25:19] Mike: So I think you can extrapolate that to all kinds of organizations. the pitfall is, again, is this eye on quarterly profits or winning this year over long term success.

[00:25:30] Martin: I’ve certainly seen that as well in professional sport. My experience of working with professional athletes and coaches, often called the maverick. I think in this country, they’re known as the maverick. And I remember talking to, again, a high profile Coach about some of the pressures that he had to, to play The Maverick.

[00:25:48] Martin: ’cause they were immensely talented, but he just said they just didn’t fit within the team. They didn’t share the values. their character was not aligned with his ideals for that team and had to make that sacrifice for the good of the, organization for the team.

[00:26:02] Mike: You know, I think of us who are listening can think about organizations you’re part of, whether you’re a teacher at a high school or a public school or, you work in a sales department someplace. We all work in the context of teams and if you’re any age at all, you probably worked in different teams in different contexts.

[00:26:18] Mike: I would hope this all rings true that, your personal experience sort of reinforces this notion that positive culture. is really, really an important way of activating rewarding these non cognitives which then contribute not just performance for the quarter, or this particular season, but performance in the long haul and how well you feel about, what you’re doing are you deriving meaning and from, from what you do.

[00:26:41] JP: So it sort of falls into that idea that there is no I in team and sort of highlights the importance of team cohesion. if you look at some of Professor Anthony King’s work, he often highlights the importance of team cohesion as a determinant of operational effectiveness. Mavericks, yeah, they may have their place at times.

[00:26:59] JP: However. For those who work in the extremist context, they’re probably likely to be quite divisive.

[00:27:05] Mike: JP, if I know American football is an odd sport. You probably don’t follow it that much in England, but if you ever, take a look at the Army, West Point, football team, the back of the jersey says West Point in their number. It doesn’t say Jones or Smith. It says West Point in their number, and that’s no accident.

[00:27:20] JP: So Mike, just going a bit broader now, what are your thoughts in terms of the development of human forms optimisation as a scientific discipline in itself? Having sort of studied and followed the development of HPO for over the past 14 years, I’ve sort of witnessed how it’s all came together in the form of the US military’s holistic force fitness doctrine, for example.

[00:27:40] JP: But what’s your thoughts as to how it’s developed as a concept since its initial inception back in 2006? Thanks.

[00:27:47] Mike: Yeah, so one thing I think I would say is that, um, we are better poised, we meaning, The scientific community and the human performance community 30 or 40 years ago to develop evidence based sort or scientifically informed practices to enhance performance.

[00:28:05] Mike: And you mentioned earlier the prevalence of snake oil in this area. I see this all the time, when speaking with, our leaders, it the Chief of Staff of the Army or the, West Point Athletic Director, talked to our Athletic Director a few years ago and he said that one of his big problems is every week some, entrepreneur comes in with a great idea and he calls them shiny objects. So here’s a shiny object you’re gonna want to buy, and it’s not based on any scientific credibility, and it’s really tough You know I would not expect our athletic director or the chief of staff of the army to be an expert in human physiology And that stuff and so Snake oil sales people are really good at what they do we’re getting to the point though that It is possible now, that you can take, these scientifically informed, approaches to truly enhance performance.

[00:28:49] Mike: so we’re better poised. But I think that also requires leaders and decision makers be better, consumers of that information, and to be able to recognize a shiny object from something that’s legitimate. And maybe part of that’s just having a trusted agent that you Can call upon so the athletic director would occasionally call me and say hey, so and so came with this idea it’s a little patch you put inside a football helmet. It’ll prevent brain injury. Well, no, sir. It won’t It’ll make that person rich, but it’s not going to really help the football players.

[00:29:18] Mike: So that’s part of it. consider is that by its very nature human performance optimization is extremely multidisciplinary So There’s a genetic component, or epigenetic component to it, there’s a physiological component to it, there’s a brain science component to it. If you can range, from, from real hard test tube type science all the way up to leadership experts, all of those contribute. And so just to, uh, take a myoptic sort of approach, just take one of those would not be fruitful. It’s much better to cast your net widely.

[00:29:48] Mike: I’ve seen organizations in the Army that do just that. for example, in an HPO, setting to optimize soldier performance. They’ll hire a strength coach, but they’ll also hire a psychologist, and they’ll also hire, an exercise, therapist, physical therapist. Eight or nine different disciplines. We’re a, soldier or maybe a team member can go and get different perspectives on how to make him or herself better. So I think the multidisciplinary piece is important

[00:30:13] Martin: shiny object syndrome is again something that I wrestle with on at least a weekly basis with people coming up with the latest gadget, the latest thing. I guess it comes back to education, like you were saying earlier, that people need to recognize what is marketing and what’s an evidence base. And I think it’s very easy to be Taken in by the marketing

[00:30:35] Mike: When I was working for the chief of staff in the army some marketer, entrepreneur had approached the special forces and said, There’s a thing in your brain called a Z Wave. And we know how to train it. Well,

[00:30:44] Mike: there’s no such thing as a Z Wave. And they’re just not a shred. I mean, not, not even, not even a tiniest little shred of science behind it. it’s just astounding, that we live in cultures where, you can turn on TV and see ads for things they’re supposed to, Boost your brain power if you’re 65 or older.

[00:31:01] Mike: They don’t, you know, they don’t do that. But you’re allowed to sell things and to deceive people. And another piece of it is that, say you want to be diligent and I’m gonna do my research quote unquote on something. Most people’s idea of research is to go to Google and type in the keywords and see three or four articles that pop up and they’ve done their research. For a scientist, research is two or three or four years of hard work done in a lab and with empirical, statistically validated findings. It’s not just looking something up on the internet for five minutes .

[00:31:30] Martin: Yeah, absolutely. I think That’s the sound bite for the episode for definite. That’s it. That’s it If you only remember one thing from this episode, it’s that

[00:31:38] Mike: yeah,

[00:31:38] JP: So Mike, could you provide us with an insight into the role of psychology then, and how the application of psychology has influenced the conduct of warfare, sort of focusing more on that military side of things.

[00:31:50] Mike: Well, that’s the book, Headstrong, pretty much all 20 chapters or whatever it is. So I’m not gonna, I’m not sure I can give you like a good soundbite on that. But the logic is that, you know, psychology, which as a discipline and profession, is the scientific understanding of human behavior. plays a central role in every aspect of life.

[00:32:09] Mike: To be psychologically sound means to do the right thing at the right time, and to have, derive meaning and purpose from life, and to succeed and excel, et cetera. you might think, that success in something like war would just be simply a matter of. who has the most firepower, who has the most, bestest guns and and so forth. But you can go all the way back in history. So long as you’ve been recorded in history, there’s been lots of Davids and lots of Goliaths, right? And in almost every case, these intangible aspects of warfare and human conflict, that is the psychology of war have been real difference makers.

[00:32:48] Mike: So you look at a huge country like Russia, attacking Ukraine. It’s not a small country, but you know, you would think that just based on military might alone, Russia could have crushed them in six weeks. but there is a spirit, so to speak, of war, which is in other words, another form of psychology, I guess, of motivation And grit, maybe, and determination to prevail even when the odds are against you. So, psychology more directly influences training. How do you train troops to be effective soldiers? There’s a huge psychology of that. There’s also a huge role of psychology in training cognitive skills, better decision making. So I’ve done 10 years worth of research in an area called situational awareness, within the military context, where we know how to measure how soldiers and their leaders size up a situation and can predict what’s gonna happen next and how to train that and make it better. The role of, of simulations, like immersive simulations and making better decisions, is an important application of psychology. Teaching soldiers skills to overcome or be invulnerable to combat stress, so they are not as likely to be vulnerable to PTSD and related disorders. Those are just some, you know, I could just go on and on about the importance of psychology.

[00:34:01] Mike: And my thesis in that book was that for wars of the 21st century. Psychology is arguably the most important science. you look back at World War chemistry was really important. It might have been the defining science. bigger, better, badder explosives, right? And mustard gas and things of that nature.

[00:34:18] Mike: World War II, physics was arguably the deciding science. radar and the nuclear bomb. there’s a historian named Byron who, talks about there being a World War III, and that’s basically the Cold War, and there, sort of, information technology and computer science was super important. In World War IV, which he says we’re in now, psychology is the defining science. it ultimately comes to do with shaping hearts and minds. look the situation in Israel and the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Unimaginable destruction on either side and yet they’re still at it. I think in the end, it’ll be psychological factors which win the day.

[00:34:52] JP: Yeah, that’s a real interesting point. Indeed, within my own lifetime, the British Armed Forces have been engaged in four major warfighting operations. So you had the Falklands War, the First Gulf War, the Second Gulf War and Afghanistan. And the fundamental nature of those conflicts was arguably very, very similar.

[00:35:08] JP: They were all volatile. Uncertain, complex, ambiguous, and indeed often lethal. However, their character was very, very different. And that change in character was driven both by technological developments and obviously changes within society. And if you think to what’s happening today, in regards to the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza, 50 percent of these conflicts is arguably fought online.

[00:35:31] JP: It’s about who wins the social media battle, so to speak. Who gets their point across? Who has the best narrative? That’s it. And that sort of highlights the importance of developing cognitive ability.


[00:35:43] Mike: Well, you know, brings up a very important point it’s the weaponization of social media, which is really a psychological manipulation as well. in some ways, I think that ISIS and, and Hamas are better at leveraging social media to further their cause than the other participants in those conflicts.

[00:36:02] Mike: and you said a very important thing, if you can use social media to achieve a military effect, for example, as you may know, we’ve got an upcoming election here, in the US, if President Putin decides that one candidate or the other would be more favorable in terms of policies towards Russia, he can unleash his social media hounds to manipulate, through the various social media platforms, American attitudes.

[00:36:26] Mike: a way that really is disruptive and I think it’s a big part of the, conflict you probably see on your, on your news feeds. Things like January 6th and, things of that nature. You use social media to stir up those, passions based on misinformation and achieve a goal that you might not be able to achieve with conventional weapons, there’s than one way to bring a country down And social media right now, it looks to me like, one of the most potent weapons. And one we need to get smarter about to develop countermeasures and educate our population so they’re not so prone to manipulation.

[00:36:57] Mike: That’s all psychology. That’s social psychology.

[00:36:59] Martin: Yeah. Super interesting. Does it, does it, fit into this concept of situational awareness? being aware of, social media? would you consider that situational awareness

[00:37:09] Mike: I think in the strategic picture, at the strategic level, it certainly would be. You know to the extent that misinformation could affect your ability to correctly predict what’s about to happen next and influence your actions most of my research was down at the squad and platoon level where We want to know if a platoon leader is going to go left right or up the middle You know and they knew where the enemy was and things of that nature, but in a larger sense strategic sense knowing uh uh, fact from fiction would be really important, dramatically important in terms of, managing the expectations and making decisions as well.

[00:37:40] JP: It’s a bit like that scientific analogy, and we have a lot of noise in the data, and we’re just trying to identify some form of meaningful signal. But now, if you look at, obviously, the media narrative and what goes on online, there’s just so much noise in the background. We can see how certain adversaries can potentially hide in the shadows and even add to that noise.

[00:38:03] JP: And it sort of makes you wonder whether or not the degreeee of influence which one could have in that sort of environment could potentially lead to a cascade, and that cascade then may lead to potential downstream effects with certain actors influencing people in nefarious ways via information and false news, so to speak.


[00:38:24] Mike: Well, you know, it’s, it’s really frightening. And you think back 200 years ago, in fact, I read a biography of the Lincoln years. Back then, if you wanted to plan misinformation, about the best you could do is stand up on a soapbox in a park and talk to 10 or 15 people, or maybe you could write an op ed for, a newspaper.

[00:38:42] Mike: But now, anybody can, whip out their phone and if you can write the most bizarre, ridiculous things that are, they’re not based, in fact, and fan the flames. It’s just this morning. I saw a little Facebook meme, that basically said, Well, how outrageous it is that U.

[00:38:55] Mike: S. congressmen all retire on a 174, 000 a year pension, even though they just served two years. Well, there’s not a shred, not a, not a shred of truth in that. It is so far from the truth, and yet people will share that, and it reinforces a belief. And that makes them angry at the government. I think they’re trying to make people angry at the Biden administration.

[00:39:15] Mike: But it stirs the pot in a really bad way. So yeah, I think it could lead to catastrophic circumstances to include the downfall of democracies, and potentially even a very large scale kinetic sort of war, which none of us want.

[00:39:29] Martin: I’m gonna throw you a bit of a, of a hand grenade question here, Mike. So, so get ready, get ready. you mentioned your 20 plus years of, research on situational awareness. so how do we get better at it? We need to improve situational awareness at the squad level, at the societal level. How do we do it?

[00:39:46] Mike: So, small unit level, it’s a matter of training, some degree of selection. You want to put the right people in leadership jobs, but also training and experience. So I was working with, one of our former secretaries of defense, Jim Mattis. He’d been an advocate for of radically improving training for our small unit forces, his inspiration was you can, and I think he’s right, For tactical sorts of decisions, and you extrapolate that to, to other situations besides the military, sort of day to day decisions. What really makes a difference is, experience. And so, it’s hard to take a platoon out in the actual field and lead them through a three day exercise and every soldier of the 30 soldiers in the platoon get, get much of experience other than swatting mosquitoes and And being sleepy.

[00:40:29] Mike: You know, the platoon leaders probably get some value out of it, but no one else much does. With modern immersive, simulation technologies, you can take, a soldier, a junior leader and put them in a, an immersive environment, and they can run through 5, 10, 15 battles in, or engagements in a day. And so the idea is, you enhance situational awareness by exposing them systematically to different variations of the types of decisions they might have to make out in the field. The U. S. Air Force and the Air Forces around the world do this pretty well already with flight simulations.

[00:41:01] Mike: So an American fighter pilot who engages an enemy aircraft, in combat will have already finished a thousand such missions in simulation. So they’re not going to be surprised by anything the bad guy does. They’re ready to go. We can now do this for police officers and soldiers and others who lead in dangerous situations, firefighters, first responders, and you build this huge library of scripts which allows the person to recognize, oh, here’s what’s going on, and here’s what’s probably going to happen next, and that defines situational awareness. I think it becomes harder, to train strategic leaders in the same manner, because Because of the complexity of the decisions and the input they’re getting.

[00:41:40] Martin: Coming back that social media question then, is that, are you seeing that leaders within West Point, are you having to teach them about the kind of things that they’re reading in social media? Is that now infiltrating

[00:41:53] Martin: into the education of

[00:41:54] Martin: future

[00:41:54] Martin: military leaders?

[00:41:55] Mike: yes it is.

[00:41:56] Mike: In my own course in Cognitive Psychology, in fact, just next week we’re going to have a whole, lesson on misinformation and misinformation management. And I know from cadets just hearing what they’ve said in other courses and other departments do address it. We certainly do not have a core course that every cadet takes in that yet. But it’s such an important thing that it’s being integrated into courses across the curriculum. We’ve been trying to make our future army officers and leaders savvy  and good about interpreting such things.

[00:42:24] Martin: Yeah, I guess being savvy comes back to that other 75%, right? It’s one of those non cognitive factors.

[00:42:30] Mike: you’re right, yeah. How do you define it? How do you measure it? Those are hard things, but it needs to be done.

[00:42:36] Martin: Yeah, absolutely.

[00:42:37] Mike: basketball, which I played, it’s called court sense. Knowing where you were on the court, what’s going to happen next. And I, unfortunately, although I’m tall, I’m two meters tall, I was, I didn’t have very good court sense, so I wasn’t a very good basketball player.

[00:42:49] Mike: But, um, that’s probably a selection issue. I don’t know if I could ever have learned it. But, regardless of our, our occupation, again, whether you’re a teacher or a, you work in the trades, you have a court sense. you know what’s happening and can recognize things and, respond accordingly.

[00:43:03] Martin: Yeah. I recognize we’ve had you on for a good hour now, Mike, and I’ve loved this chat. I’ve learned tons. It’s been a really good deep dive. I just want to hand it over to you really for the final word. What  do you feel are like the most important things that we’ve talked about or anything that we haven’t covered that you really want to talk about before we wrap this one up?

[00:43:23] Mike: The thing that comes to mind is that Organizations that, employ people in dangerous situations or challenging situations, I think they almost have a moral obligation to go about systematically giving their members the tools and skills and abilities to perform well and to adapt well to the situations that are going to encounter as a result of their, their occupation. And so I might just close with that, that these organizations need to take human performance optimization seriously and to know it’s more than just winning the game, tonight’s game, or the quarterly performance report. It’s a long term commitment and engagement be excellent, across long periods of time. And in that way, you have like real true meaningful human performance optimization.

[00:44:09] Martin: Yeah. That’s great. a great way to wrap, things up,

[00:44:12] JP: So, Mike, just to close up with, if people want to know more about you, what’s the best method for them to reach you?

[00:44:18] Mike: Well, I welcome them to email me. It’s mike. matthews@Westpoint.edu one word. And I’d be happy to respond to any, email inquiries you might have.

[00:44:29] JP: We’ll pop a copy of that in the show notes.

[00:44:31] Martin: And, and I’d, I’d, I like to add the Psychology Today blog is awesome. So definitely, uh, read some of, the articles on there if people are interested in what, what they’ve heard.

[00:44:40] Mike: Well, good. I, I enjoy writing Psychology Today. I love my readership. You would be amazed how many inquiries I get through that blog. been a very good, good of my, Mike, many thanks for your time today, bud. is been a great session and I’ve really enjoyed it.

[00:44:53] Mike: Thanks, Martin. Thanks, JP

[00:44:54] Martin: Thanks, Mike.

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