Information Processing Changes Following Extended Stress

Harris, W.C., Hancock, P.A., & Harris, S.C.(2005) Information processing changes following extended stress. Military Psychology17(2), 115-128.

The psychological states and cognitive performance capacities of military participants were assessed prior to and following 1 week of field training at a Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) School. The effect of this exposure resulted in significant cognitive performance deterioration and an increase in reported levels of subjective discomfort. Simple Reaction Time increased, and the capacity to perform information manipulation tasks such as Spatial Processing and Code Substitution deteriorated. Logical Reasoning proved the most susceptible of all tasks to the effects of the weeklong stressful exposure. These various effects were evident only in interaction with time on task. In the testing session following the stressful field exposure, participants’ immediate response was at a level similar to their pretraining baseline. However, unlike their preexposure session, performance in the later condition declined as the session progressed. This pattern suggests that immediately following the stress exposure, participants are able to sustain their normal performance but only for a limited period of time. Because the duration of any one single task, each being less than 1 min, was very brief, the results indicated that this time-based degradation was fairly rapid. Overall results indicate, therefore, that for stress assessment, Simple Reaction Time task may be usefully and pragmatically diagnostic of stress-induced deterioration. Our results further indicate that cognitive performance decrements are associated with subjective report of decreased vigor and increased difficulty in concentrating. In addressing the issue of sustained performance capacity and resilience following extended stress exposure, we seek to facilitate one goal—a modern objective force that is responsive to rapid changes in mission profile and operations. These findings indicate that crucial information processing response measures help to achieve this aim.

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