Public Release: 

New research examines how people make high-stakes choices

UMass Lowell study aims to train military, first-responders in decision-making

University of Massachusetts Lowell


IMAGE: UMass Lowell faculty member Neil Shortland is leading research into how military personnel and first-responders make difficult decisions. The work aims to lay the groundwork to develop training to help... view more 

Credit: Tory Germann for UMass Lowell

LOWELL, Mass. - If armed insurgents set off a bomb that traps soldiers in a tunnel, should the military send in a rescue team immediately or wait to see if other danger exists?

How military personnel and first-responders answer questions like this is the focus of new research led by UMass Lowell.

The U.S. Army Research Institute recently awarded a $531,000 grant to UMass Lowell faculty member Neil Shortland to study what psychologists call "least-worst" decision-making in high-stakes environments. The work will evaluate and compare the reasoning skills of military personnel and civilian first-responders in situations that call for a quick choice between equally difficult or uncertain alternatives. The research aims to lay the groundwork for training in decision-making under such circumstances.

A forensic psychologist who directs UMass Lowell's Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, Shortland is frequently called upon to provide training. An assistant professor in the university's School of Criminology and Justice Studies, he will partner with UMass Lowell's Harnessing Emerging Research Opportunities to Empower Solutions (HEROES) initiative for this study. HEROES is a unique research collaboration with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center that aims to empower members of the military with the latest gear, technologies and strategies to keep them safe and agile as they fulfill their missions.

"The goals of the research are to identify the variables that may predict why certain individuals are better at making tough decisions. We also want to identify how people arrive at difficult decisions so we can train soldiers, first-responders and members of the law-enforcement community to be better at it, in an effort to produce the best outcomes," Shortland said.

When making decisions in life-threatening or other dire situations, individuals can be forced to evaluate their options in mere seconds. Sometimes they are so overwhelmed, they don't make any choice. A focus of the research will be to understand that indecision, along with what leads to it, in order to train people to avoid it.

UMass Lowell undergraduate and graduate students will also participate in the research, gaining real-world experience.

Shortland earned the American Psychological Association's Society of Military Psychology Research Award for previous research on decision-making under stress. The honor was presented to him at the society's annual meeting last month. Shortland, who is originally from Great Britain and now lives in Lowell, is the first person from outside the U.S. to be so honored.

For the award-winning research, Shortland interviewed active military personnel and veterans, asking each to describe in detail a "least-worst" decision he or she made during wartime. Based on the examples they provided, he created audio files that set the scene and recreated these predicaments for use in the next phase of his research. With these materials, Shortland then tested the decision-making skills of others, including first-responders and UMass Lowell students. The initial research suggests military personnel may find it easier to make least-worst decisions because they are most often operating with a specific objective.

"When people are better at identifying a single goal, they make better decisions. When people have multiple, competing options of equal value, these decisions are very hard to make, leading to indecision, what psychologists call 'decisional inertia,'" said Shortland, whose book on the subject, "Conflict: How Soldiers Make Impossible Decisions," is due out next year.

For the new study, the research team will broaden Shortland's investigation to evaluate the decision-making skills of greater numbers of military personnel and civilians, measuring their psychological, neurological and physical well-being at critical points in the process.


UMass Lowell is a national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its 18,000 students bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, humanities, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be ready for work, for life and for all the world offers.

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