II. Soldiers’ Technical Skills under Psychological Stress in Military Maneuvers

(Cold War, Presidio of Monterrey, CA, 1962)

      “Degradation of behavior in combat has always occupied the attention of commanders” (Berkun et al, 1962, p.1). Thus began the 1962 special issue of Psychological Monographs on "Experimental Studies of Psychological Stress in Man," by Mitchell Berkun and colleagues at the United States Army Leadership Human Research Unit, Presidio of Monterey, CA. The team set out to measure the degradation of soldiers’ performance in following directions and using basic technical equipment under the stresses of combat. Citing flaws in earlier studies that had induced stress artificially (e.g., through electric shock), the researchers designed experiments in which the research participant was “actually a victim of, a potential victim of, or a party to the threat directly, rather than as result of empathizing, identifying, pretending, protecting, or introjection" (p. 3). That is, the military purpose of the study demanded experimental realism.

     In the “Ditching” Situation, the first of five simulated cognitive-stress situations, new military recruits were taken to the Presidio of Monterey airport on pretext of participating in a study of the effects of high altitude on psychomotor performance. Blood and urine samples were obtained as objective biochemical stress measures. Once aloft, the recruits witnessed one of the propellers on their own airplane stop. Through an intercom, they subsequently heard (false) reports of other malfunctions. The steward quickly directed the soldiers to fill out Emergency Data Forms (like final wills), which were to be jettisoned over the ocean in safety containers. The soldiers were also told to perform a plausible and complicated manual task, which provided the performance measure. As the airplane circled back to the airport, the soldiers witnessed fire engines and ambulances waiting below for the eventual crash, but the pilot managed a safe landing. The experimenters again took blood and urine samples from the soldiers on pretext, and then debriefed them.

     The next three experiments were designed to explore the “experimental arousal of fear of death or injury to self” (p. 7). In the simulation called “Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Warfare,” the research participant “is stationed alone at an isolated outpost and is told to report to the Command Post by radio the presence of any aircraft overhead. He later hears over his radio that an accident with radioactive material has resulted in dangerous fallout over his area” (p. 7). The setting for another manipulation, the “Forest Fire” situation, is essentially the same. However, substantial smoke is generated at a distance of 300 yards, validating the radio report of a sudden fire in the area. In the “Artillery Fire” situation, a series of explosions are approaching the research participant. These explosions validate the radio report of live shells falling outside of the target area. In the last variation, “Demolitions,” there is no threat of injury to the research participant. “Rather, as he sees it, he is made to feel responsible for an injury to someone he knows...”  (p. 23). The soldier is part of a work detail separated from his co-workers in a remote bunker. He is directed to wire in some explosives in a canyon for a training exercise. After attaching the wires, he feels the bunker rocked by an explosion, then hears over the intercom that a man has been badly injured, ostensibly due to the research participant’s own wiring error. In these four simulations, the performance measure is the soldier’s attempt to follow written instructions and diagrams in repairing (irreparable) communications equipment, which presumably offers the only chance of rescuing himself and another.

     The “Demolition” situation, in which the soldier believed himself responsible for possibly fatal injury to a co-worker, produced by far the greatest stress, evidenced in the worst task performance and by both biochemical and subjective measures. According to the report, the studies thus yielded information of operational significance.

     In regard to the ethics of the deception experiments, the researchers noted that, “In no case was there any evidence of residual tension or negative feelings” one or two weeks after the experiment (p. 29).

Issue 1:  Are ethical standards different for psychological research that has national security goals rather than purely epistemic goals or other social goals?  Should they be?  If so, how will standards apply to psychologists who go back and forth between civilian  and national security settings?

Issue 2:   The Presidio of Monterey psychological stress studies mobilized dozens of military personnel to deceive and frighten recruits. Although providing knowledge about “degradation of behavior in combat,” the studies jeopardized trust, which is crucial  to group dynamics and hierarchical structure in the military. How should collateral  institutional damages of psychological studies in national security settings be assessed?  What safeguards are appropriate?

Issue 3: To explain the need for physical stressors in their experiment, Berkun and his colleagues developed the concept of participants’ “cognitive defense” against merely cognized dangers (p. 2). However, in discounting damages to research participants, the researchers relied on mere verbal reassurances from their participants—impressionable new recruits on maneuvers in a military culture that demands stoicism—thus favoring the progress of study from one disaster to the next and the moral legitimacy of entire experiment. What is the ethical responsibility, if any, of civilian journal referees and editors in monitoring such slippage in research in national security settings?


Berkun, Mitchell M., Bialek, Hilton M., Kern, Richard P., & Yagi, Kan. (1962). Experimental studies of psychological stress in man [Special issue]. Psychological Monographs:  General and Applied, 76 (15).

Military Commentary [just an indication, incomplete]

     Arguing in favor of the Monterey experiment, soldiers will use technical equipment in situations of combat stress, so testing under controlled, experimental conditions is morally preferable to testing in actual combat. That is, the participants belong to the same social group of people who will profit from the research. And sending soldiers into combat without realistic testing of their capacity to use their equipment under field conditions could be considered criminal negligence.

Social Science Commentary [just an indication, incomplete]

     Comparison with Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments at Yale University, published the following year (Milgram, 1963), is instructive. In the classic variation of his experiment, the experimenter places a volunteer participant in the role of “teacher” to shock a “learner” (a confederate). The participant-teacher flicks a switch of increasing levels of shock when the “learner” makes errors in recalling a word list. With each error, the intensity of the (fake) shock was increased up to the final intensity of  450 volts—six levels past the label “Danger: Severe Shock” and two levels past a simple label of “XXX.”

     The “researcher”, the “authority” in this paradigm, had a script of five sequential prods, such as, “The experiment must go on,” to urge on reluctant “teachers.” In the well-known “voice-feedback” experiment, the surprising result was that about two-thirds of “teachers” shocked the “learner” to a level of 450 volts, again, beyond XXX, in spite of the “learner’s” protests, complaint of a heart condition, and eventual collapse.

     Interpreted through the lens of the Miligram experiment, the participants of interest in Berkun’s experiments would have been the myriad of army technicians—drivers, pilot, steward, ambulance drivers, artillerymen, fabricators of fraudulent communications devices, and so on—who obeyed army orders to create a theater of accidents to stress the new recruits. But Berkun did not report on their level of obedience, which appeared to be 100%, or on their responses.

     In the Milgram experiment, the unfortunate research participant, a volunteer from the general population of New Haven, perhaps went away knowing more about his own vulnerability to collaborate with evil authorities than he wanted to know. Nevertheless, he returned back to home, work, and leisure settings that were unrelated to the laboratory at Yale. Regardless of his moral performance, no one he knew was a witness to his actions, and there were no explicit or far-reaching consequences.

     In contrast, in the Monterey disaster situations, the soldier's co-workers and superiors witnessed his behavior. Whether he was fearful or stalwart they observed his reactions during this military training period, and this was likely to have far-reaching implications on his career and reputation. In the future, the soldier would have to rely on ambulance, fire truck, and air plane crews similar to those that had deceived him. Mistrust can spread a long way in military settings where trust can be a matter of life and death. Berkun did not report at all on possible damages to the numerous other role players, such as the pilots and steward in the “Ditching” Situation, nor on damage to institutional trust. Yet the “Demolition” situation had shown that soldiers experienced great stress when co-workers were believed to have been harmed through their actions.

     For obvious practical reasons, psychologists have a history of experimenting on the least powerful role-players in a system rather than on the more powerful role-players. The more powerful role-players are often better situated to optimize tasks but have the power to evade scrutiny. Nevertheless, while the Monterey study did not attend to the performance of company commanders under stress, this population was studied later by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay (2002).

References for Commentaries

Milgram, Stanley (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 371–378.

Shay, Jonathan. (1995). Achilles in Vietnam:  Combat trauma and the undoing of character. New York:  Touchstone/Simon & Schuster.