What astronaut psychology can teach us about living in quarantine

Julia McMenamin thinks we can learn a lot from astronauts right now.

She believes that quarantines and lockdowns may have given us more in common with the people who live and work in space than we realize. 

“One of the things we can relate to a bit now that a lot of us are working from home is their workmates become their housemates.”

“Essentially you’re with the same people all day in your off-time and in your on-time.”

Living and working with the same people day-in and day-out can lead to friction, whether it’s in a family home or the International Space Station. 

What researchers wanted to examine is what psychological traits lead to better cooperation among teams.

How ‘social loafing’ can kill team spirit

Two analog astronauts simulate the social isolation of space by wearing special suits in the desert of Oman during a 2018 experiment staged by the Austrian Space Forum. (© 2017 Florian Voggeneder)

To do it, McMenamin and her team tested five astronauts on an analog Mars mission put together by the Austrian Space Forum in 2018. The field research took place in the deserts of Oman, a country on the Arabian peninsula bordered by Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. 

What the researchers found is a trait called ‘conscientiousness,’ the desire to perform tasks thoroughly and well, was the most important psychological factor that contributes to a team’s potential success. 

“Conscientiousness is important where you’re working in a team,” McMenamin said. “Because the stakes are so high in these long-term missions in space and the work is so important, these are the kinds of things that are even more important when you’re selecting crew members for space.” 

By contrast, the psychological factor that contributes most to a team’s potential failure is “social loafing,” the phenomenon of someone putting in less work in a group setting than they otherwise would working alone. 

“If you don’t have everyone pulling their weight, it can create major issues,” she said, adding some people put in less effort in the group setting because they believe the others might not notice they didn’t produce much individually when they’re so focused on the output of the group. 

McMenamin said overall, social isolation takes a toll on our health and while many of us didn’t see those stressors when the pandemic first arrived in March — at the time we believed it would end in a few months — many of us are likely feeling it now as the epidemic shows no sign of slowing down. 

“That’s very similar to what happens to people in isolated environments over these longer term missions.

“In Antarctica, there is a science station where people spend the entire winter and they find that the three-quarter mark is when those effects of isolation can really hit you. This is probably something we’re starting to feel now because it might feel like the three quarter mark now.”

McMenamin Western University PhD candidate is the first author in a paper published in the journal Astrobiology that examines what role psychology plays in how a team of people works together in isolation. 

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