Psychology at the end of the world

Epic adventures into the world’s last wildernesses often prompt poetic reflection about the triumph of the human spirit. Such expeditions also attract the scientific eye of psychologists, who are interested in studying what happens to the human psyche and social relationships under extreme conditions.

A new paper by Gloria Leon and her colleagues has gauged the psychological profile and experiences of two polar explorers – given the pseudonyms Bill (age 32) and Andrew (age 35) – who in 2009 became the first team from the USA to reach the North Pole without outside support. Starting out from Ward Hut Island in Canada, they reached their target in 55 days.

Personality profiles of the men prior to the challenge were largely as you might expect – they were both high-scorers in leadership and extraversion and low scorers on harm-avoidance. Andrew also scored low in conscientiousness, which may be unexpected given the preparation required for an expedition, and had a tendency to become highly engrossed in his own thoughts and surroundings.

The challenge itself was gruelling, with each man hauling a 300 pound sled. Temperatures ranged from minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit at the start to zero degrees Fahrenheit at the end. Both men lost significant amounts of weight. At one point, Bill fell through ice and was submerged up to his neck, only narrowly escaping hypothermia. The final leg of the trip was the most arduous as the duo fought to reach their destination before their helicopter arrived on Day 56 (it was to pick them up whether they’d reached their target or not). For the last 66 hours, the pair had just one hour of sleep for every 16 hours on the move. Throughout, the men filled out weekly questionnaires about their coping methods, their relationship, and mood. They were also interviewed a few weeks after their return and again six months later.

For the duration of the expedition both men scored high on positive mood and low on negative mood. They survived and succeeded by supporting each other and communicating effectively, and by adopting flexible coping strategies, including positive re-interpretation of challenges and use of relaxation and meditation. Their relationship hit a low point around day 40 when Andrew aired his grievances about planning for the trip, but they worked through this constructively. These observations contradict some earlier research suggesting that all-male groups suffer from excess competitiveness.

“We were basically one persona when it came to goal orientation,” Bill said. “We had a high degree of self-care for each other and ourselves,” he explained. Andrew said: “Anytime we expressed ourselves it brought us closer … We talked more about recognising differences and embracing our similarities and we celebrated that it was really fun.” Based on this, the researchers said it was important not to overgeneralise the effects of gender on group processes. “By focusing their interactions on supporting each other, competition between them was minimised or essentially eliminated,” they said.

The men were affected somewhat differently by their adventure. Bill’s changes were entirely positive: he felt more at peace spiritually and in his relations to other people. Andrew actually saw negative changes in his outlook, due largely to his personal circumstances on return, in terms of his work and relationships. “Seeing the same patterns emerge of the past which I did not want there anymore,” was how he put it. However, both men experienced a greater sense of unity with nature and a reduction in their need for conventional achievement, in terms of social status and prestige.

Research of this kind is used to inform the training, selection and support of teams for challenging environments, including space exploration. To find out more, check out the features Psychology at the End of the World, about mind and behaviour in the Antarctic, and New Horizons, about the psychology of space travel, published in The Psychologist magazine in 2011 and 2008, respectively.

ResearchBlogging.orgLeon, G., Sandal, G., Fink, B., and Ciofani, P. (2011). Positive Experiences and Personal Growth in a Two-Man North Pole Expedition Team. Environment and Behavior, 43 (5), 710-731 DOI: 10.1177/0013916510375039

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.