Scientists Search for Soldiers' Sixth Sense

August 17, 2009
By Rita Boland


Dr. Jennifer Murphy, IED-2 program manager and research psychologist with the Army Research Institute,
demonstrates one of the tests her joint team of researchers used to determine the characteristics of troops who might have exceptional abilities at detecting improved explosive devices (IEDs).

Effort attempts to identify predictors of ability to find deadly exploding threats.

Researchers from military laboratories are studying the human element in detecting explosive devices, trying to determine if certain people have an instinct for locating the weapons and, if so, what characteristics they share. The results add another piece to the puzzle in the Defense Department’s efforts to counter improvised explosive devices. The work already has uncovered certain facets of information that military commanders can use to identify troops with innate abilities or to train warfighters in specific skills.

The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) initiated and funded the exploratory science and technology project after the Defense Department began to suspect that some troops had a knack for finding improvised explosive devices (IEDs). To explore that idea and find out if experts could identify the characteristics of those individuals and then train troops, JIEDDO began the IED-2 program. The name evolved from the title: identifying experts in detection—or IED—of IEDs.

The effort is led by Program Manager Dr. Jennifer Murphy, a research psychologist with the Army Research Institute. The team includes more than 20 government and contractor personnel, most of whom have or are working toward their doctorate in various human performance fields. The institute collaborated with partners such as the Army and Air Force research laboratories, which became involved after JIEDDO senior leadership addressed the issue in an open forum.

Dr. Steve Burnett, research psychologist and IED-2 program integrator at JIEDDO, says the laboratories were the organizations most interested in assisting with the work. After taking on the project, they found other help they needed. “It’s one of those rare collaborative efforts where a lot of different labs and a lot of different scientists are tackling a tough problem,” Burnett explains. He adds that his organization offered the researchers flexibility to seek outside collaboration that laboratory-sponsored projects can prohibit.

In addition to its other efforts in the project, JIEDDO personnel helped manage expectations of the outcome. Burnett explains that JIEDDO did expect to find certain characteristics of individuals in the battle environment that identified them as better suited to guiding groups through areas filled with explosives. According to him, during the Vietnam War certain troops emerged as more skilled at leading than others. Burnett’s organization believed there could be a way to evaluate that human capability but was unsure if the test could be validated as truly helpful in assisting the counter-IED fight.

Burnett states that researchers worked to determine if there were some identifiable characteristics that the military could learn about and then impart to troops. Positive findings would allow the military to equip soldiers with cognitive information and awareness to improve survivability, in addition to the gear and technology they already employ. The big win for the project would be finding abilities to detect IEDs, then being able to train troops in those skills, and the real applicability of study findings would be in a training capacity that offers warfighters another advantage on the battlefield. “You empower the warfighter through knowledge and information versus having to create a device that protects them,” Burnett explains. 

Unlike other efforts to safeguard against IEDs, this one aims to develop natural, innate human processes, not to create technologies to defeat the devices. “I think that it gets past typical solutions to a very complex problem [and] now starts to incorporate human factors characteristics,” Burnett says. “All technology has a human in the system somewhere. This is a study that really gets at those human capabilities.” Exploring every possible method to counter IEDs is important to the military because the enemy continues to use them effectively against U.S. forces and others. In addition to the numerous devices detonating in Iraq and Afghanistan, approximately 300 IEDs go off each month in other parts of the world.

Results of the study and debriefs were delivered by Murphy’s team to JIEDDO leadership in June. They identified cognitive, visual and experiential predictors of IED detection abilities, some of which commanders can begin using soon in training scenarios. Commanders could instruct warfighters in vigilance as well as decision-making and cognitive skills. Certain characteristics identified as helpful in the study are inherent, such as memory and vision, but others such as attention to details could be imparted to multiple troops. Murphy states that one very relevant characteristic is noticing situational changes. “Some guys go down the same route every day,” she explains. “The thing that could save their lives is noticing if something seems a little different today than yesterday.”

Some of the same skills apply to more than IEDs; they could detect many types of threats. That includes dangers such as snipers or targets of interest. Part of the goal of the study was not to focus specifically on the “IED threat of the day.”

Murphy says troop leaders can ask certain questions to help determine who might be a good fit for positions that involve locating explosive devices. She advises commanders to look at service members’ backgrounds such as if they hunted, one of the experience factors many of those skilled at finding IEDs possess. Intelligence, memory and good decision-making skills are traits of desired personnel, as are the abilities to pay attention and to be conscientious. People who enjoy various types of puzzles also did well in the assessments, and experience played a large role as well. Interestingly, Murphy adds, personality characteristics played only a minimal role.

During the study, scientists also had an experiment focused on assessing the impact of experience. The work did not conclude with any equations in which X percentage resulted in a certain outcome. One theory is that experience teaches people where to look first so scientists studied scanning patterns, but Murphy declines to elaborate, saying analysis is ongoing in that area.

Though most participants who did well on the assessments had a combination of innate ability and experience—“That’s pretty much the answer to any question,” Murphy says—a few cases demonstrated inexplicable success without ever deploying. Murphy shares that these participants “blew the test out of the water” but were so rare they were statistically irrelevant. She says there was “rock star performance in most of the measures” including the training lane assessment, where an outside area was set up and rigged with IED imitations that the subjects had to locate.


After being struck by an IED in Baqubah, Iraq, a Bradley infantry fighting vehicle immediately caught fire with its occupants still inside. Spc. Christopher Waiters, USA, a senior medic, attempts to climb into the burning vehicle to rescue a trapped soldier. The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization is examining every method—
from technology to human factors—to counter the deadly weapons.

During the training lane test, Murphy and her colleagues walked with subjects individually through the woods in cold, uncomfortable weather. The few outstanding warfighters were able to pick out the devices right off the bat while the scientists were experiencing trouble despite having the answer key and having gone through the course before with other participants. “Actually, it’s baffling,” Murphy states. Some of the mock devices were designed to be nearly impossible to detect, yet these rare individuals were able to find them. Murphy emphasizes that these cases were extremely uncommon, and she only witnessed one herself.

In addition to the training lane, the project’s researchers developed four other IED-detection assessments: a peer rating scale, picking out IEDs in pictures, picking out IEDs in movies and picking out IEDs in video games. In the peer assessment, warfighters evaluated each other on a structured questionnaire. During the photograph testing, subjects viewed a number of pictures and picked out the devices. The video test was shot at the Army’s National Training Center and displayed a person walking through a simulated Iraqi town. The study participants watched the film to find the hidden explosives. The video game-based criterion measure was developed using DARWARS Ambush!, a platform developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for training convoy operations. In it, troops sit in a gunner seat and pick out suspected IEDs. Additional assessments involved learning about subjects’ backgrounds, ages, military jobs, hobbies and more personal factors.

The study took place during an 18-month period, involving 700 participants from the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps. Murphy says that especially for military research, including so many subjects is a big difference from the norm. The participants in the assessments possessed a range of experience, from troops right out of boot camp who had never been exposed to an IED-filled environment, to warfighters who had deployed two or three times, so the effort could compare people with experience to those without. Study personnel focused on finding participants who at some time in their careers would be in a position where detecting IEDs was a priority.

All analyses were kept confidential to protect the participants in case the data got out. Participants received numbers and never used their names. The hypothesis for the research, according to Murphy, stated that the effort would predict performance on the criteria, and she personally thought cognitive ability would be the biggest factor. Because the research was exploratory, the hypothesis could not be based on previous studies in the field.

At the beginning of the research, the scientists took approximately 300 of the participating troops and conducted a pilot study with them, making them run through every test the scientists could think of in anticipation that they would hit the right mark. In the end, the assessments were reduced to a total of 14, which resulted in about eight hours’ worth of testing for the remaining participants. The testing included general intelligence, cognitive abilities, memory, vigilance and personality assessments, as well as four to five vision tests covering depth assessments, contrast and visual acuity. Participants also were judged on their ability to pull objects out of a background, and they answered questions on their personal history. After this testing was complete, the subjects went through the five IED-focused assessments.

Murphy explains that not knowing what to use or what will work is a challenge for exploratory research. The scientists had to come up with various tests because they had an ill-defined problem space and had to determine methods to assess and then predict IED detection. Their first challenge was determining how to measure if someone excelled at locating the devices. Murphy says no good information of such a detailed nature is coming out of theater because records of incidents rarely include who found the explosives first. Even when that information is available, it lacks statistics such as how many opportunities that person had and how many IEDs were never found but did not go off.

At the end of the study, researchers ranked the assessments in order of easiest to deploy. None of the methods is perfect, in part because of psychological factors. “As researchers, we can’t put the fear of death into you,” Murphy explains.

The characteristics identified as beneficial to IED detection came as little surprise to JIEDDO’s command sergeant major, Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Burnett, USA (no relation to Dr. Burnett). Command Sgt. Maj. Burnett has extensive in-theater experience, including performing route clearance missions, and he says he expected the person who would be best at finding the devices would be a little older and have hunting experience because that involves the ability to remain still and take in a 360-degree view of the surroundings. He also thought bird watchers would make good IED detectors. “I used to think gamers would be good, but they’re too focused on the screen, and they don’t watch the left and right,” he explains.

Command Sgt. Maj. Burnett continues that people who have experience in theater will be better suited to the scouting task because of the knowledge they have of an area. “That’s why I focused on keeping soldiers in the same area of operations,” he states, adding that the slightest change triggers warfighters to investigate.

The command sergeant major believes the results of the study have several applications to the military today. Many of the assessments, he says, “are tools ready to go to the commanders’ hands” so they can use them to find the right people for the lead vehicle and put the “right person in the right position to detect these things prior to detonating.”

He also shares that this study could lead people to think of the human aspects for different jobs in the military services. Those ideas could be incorporated into the military aptitude test. By evaluating skills and not only experience, drill sergeants could assess soldiers in basic training and advanced individual training. “I think there are many tools we could pull from [the study] right now,” Command Sgt. Maj. Burnett says.

Because the enemy has had such success with IEDs, JIEDDO and its partners have to continue looking at every aspect of defeat, Command Sgt. Maj. Burnett explains. The military needs to ensure troops have the best tools to counter the deadly threat. “We’re going to leave no rock unturned,” he shares.

The study also has other potential benefits for the military as it battles the improvised devices. In addition to the possibility of training troops in the skills helpful for finding the weapons, commanders could use effective assessments in their squads and determine which person to place in what position. The research also points out skills that could be developed individually. Murphy explains that the most critical area of action now is to find a way to train troops in the skills that her study has identified.

Ascertaining who has the abilities offers advantages, but developing a method to train warfighters across the board offers the most “bang for the buck.” Before anything actually is implemented as a selection test, it would have to receive extensive testing itself to ensure reliability and validity. The results of the research should continue to apply even as new dangers emerge. The nature of the IED is likely to change over time, but the skills used to track them—paying attention, noticing differences—probably will not, Murphy shares.

JIEDDO leadership will begin making future plans based on the effort after it obtains a clear understanding of what the research indicates. If something is discovered that officials believe needs further exploring, they first will decide if it meets JIEDDO mandates and if so, how the organization executes further actions based on the results. In a science and technology project such as this one, the organization typically alerts the military services to the findings so they can take what they feel they need in support of their missions, and JIEDDO would assist as necessary.

Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization:
Army Research Institute:
DARWARS Ambush!:
Army Research Laboratory:
Air Force Research Laboratory:


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