Simulation training is increasingly celebrated as a tool for helping people improve their emotional control. There are plenty of examples of this in the field, ranging from VR therapy for soldiers with PTSD, to immersive simulations helping children with autism develop social and emotional awareness. There’s even growing interest in using immersive simulation-based role-playing to train HR professionals.
But that doesn’t mean that simulation training also and invariably helps people develop better emotional regulation. In fact, in lab experiments, immersive technology has been used to create social anxiety in otherwise healthy people. In other words, this is a tool that can be just as easy to degrade emotional control as improve it.
Clearly, there’s a right and wrong way to design your simulation training scenarios, if your goal is to help officers, safety-sensitive vehicle operators, and emergency responders keep a level head in an emergency.
A 2014 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Brain Informatics sheds some light on this. This paper reports on research done by Tibor Bosse, Charlotte Gerritsen, Jeroen de Man, and Jan Treur as part of the STRESS (“Simulation-based Training of Resilience in Emergencies and Stressful Situations”) Project. STRESS seeks to explore “human decision-making processes in stressful circumstances and analyze the causes of incorrect decisions” in the interest of developing better training environments for emergency workers.
Exploring Emotional Control with Simulation Training
In their experiment, Bosse and his colleagues divided volunteers into three groups. Members of all three groups viewed the same series of 150 emotion-triggering images. (These were all drawn from the IAPS—”International Affective Picture System“—a collection of standardized images used in psychological research. Each image is graded by its positive/negative emotional impact and intensity.)
As participants viewed the images on a computer screen, they were asked to assign each image a subjective “intensity” rating. Each of the three groups did this exercise twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, with a six-hour break. Two of the groups were designated as “experimental groups.” They received a “training” session in the middle of the six-hour break. (The third group was the control group, and received no such training; they just looked at the series of images in the morning and afternoon and rated them.)
During their mid-day training session, Training Group 1 was asked to do a timed “choice-reaction task”: They were shown a series of images, and for each, they had to assign it a score as to how pleasant or unpleasant the picture looked. They had to do this as quickly as possible while the picture zoomed in on them, growing ever larger.
Training Group 2 was given a different task. During their mid-day training session, they were told look at each image—even the most frightening—for as long they needed to “while actively reducing their emotional response until they felt comfortable looking at the picture.”
After each training session, the groups went back for an afternoon session, rating the same 150 pictures they’d viewed that morning.
Findings: A Right and Wrong Way to Use Simulation Training for Emotional Control
Predictably, the Control group—who received no training—gave basically the same ratings to images during the afternoon session as they had during their morning session. But what about the groups who’d received simulation training?
The participants in Training Group 1—who had the timed “choice-reaction” training in the middle of the day, where they quickly assigned values to pictures—reported finding the negative images more upsetting when viewed after training.
Meanwhile, the people in Training Group 2—who looked at upsetting images for a longer period of time and in more detail—gave “significantly lower ratings for the emotional intensity of the negative pictures” when viewed after doing their training.
In other words, being trained to quickly identify images in a stressful setting resulted in people who were more easily upset. Allowing people to dwell on upsetting images for as long as they needed to lead to those people being less easily upset.
And this training proved durable: “[A] second experiment, performed with the same participants 6 months later, indicated that these effects are fairly persistent over time, and that transfer to pictures with similar characteristics takes place.”
Properly handled, even quiet rudimentary simulation training is capable of helping trainees achieve impressive—and lasting—results.
Using Simulation Training to Improve Real-World Outcomes
Results like these are part of the reason that Chuck Deakins—FAAC Training Group lead subject matter specialist (SMS)—has always aggressively advocated for simulation training.
“Right there, that’s the power of the simulator: you’re de-escalating yourself, you’re practicing your breathing, you’re practicing your task management. You’re in the situation, addressing it according to policy, while also controlling your breathing, fighting your tunnel vision, breaking up the situation, using these skills that keep you from getting over-escalated.”