Winning the war – one story at a time

In June, 1941 the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) was created. Less than six months later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, and the USAAF was immediately ordered to ramp up its number of pilots, not by hundreds, not by thousands, but by tens of thousands.

This presented a major challenge. It wasn’t about getting enough potential pilots in the door, there were plenty of volunteers. It was actually about finding the volunteers with the right skills and temperament to survive training and eventually become pilots.

Not only were thousands of cadets killed in training accidents every year, thousands more were dropped for not being good enough. You can imagine that the decision to drop a trainee from flight school wasn’t taken lightly. It was incredibly expensive to recruit and train new recruits only to have them fail. Especially when the Air Force desperately needed every trained pilot they could get.

The USAAF began to look at why pilots were failing flight school and the reasons given on documentation were things like, “poor judgement”, “insufficient progress” or even “lack of inherent flying ability.” But what did this phrases mean? No one knew exactly, and certainly these explanations were not good enough to know who, and who not, to recruit in the future.

To address this issue the USAAF hired civilian psychologist John C. Flanagan. He quickly realised that most people, whether the trainee pilots themselves or the highly experienced instructors, were almost useless at explaining what contributed to phenomenal success or dreadful failure.

He wrote 1:

Too often, statements regarding job requirements are merely lists of all the desirable traits of human beings. These are practically no help in selecting, classifying or training individuals for specific jobs.

So Flanagan started to focus on getting people to talk about specific episodes of either triumph or failure, in forensic detail, with a particular focus on what they did. Rather than asking for general opinions as to why people think they succeed or fail, Flanagan (and his army of over 150 psychologists and 1,000 assistants) solicited descriptions of what they did . They got people telling stories.

This approach of collecting stories focuses on making things concrete. Abstractions, like “poor judgement” or “lack of inherent flying ability” give you nothing to go on. You can’t work out what to do, or not do, differently with an abstraction. It takes real world examples to make things tangible, things that give you something to go on.

Flanagan’s work make a real contribution to the war effort by allowing the USAAF to make better recruitment decisions. It allowed them to turn away candidates who were unlikely to make it through the training, or worse, likely to kill themselves in the process. For his effort he received the Legion of Merit for the outstanding contribution that he and his team made towards winning the war.

Flanagan, J. C. (Ed.). (1947). The aviation psychology program in the Army Air Force (Research Report 1). Washington, DC: US Army Air Forces Aviation Psychology Program

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