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Extroverts Could Cause Problems on a Mission to Mars

NASA-funded research found drawbacks to having extroverts on teams in isolated and confined environments
Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle on a deep space mission
Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle on a deep space mission


Artist's rendering of the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle on a deep space mission.
Credit: NASA

As NASA focuses considerable effort on a mission to send humans to Mars in the coming decades, psychology researchers are looking at what types of personalities would work the best together on such a long trip.

Now, a new study finds that on long-term space missions — such as missions to Mars, which could take as long as three years to complete a round trip — having an extrovert on board could have several disadvantages.

For example, extroverts tend to be talkative, but their gregarious nature may make them seem intrusive or demanding of attention in confined and isolated environments over the long term, the researchers say.

"You're talking about a very tiny vehicle, where people are in very isolated, very confined spaces," said study researcher Suzanne Bell, an associate professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago. "Extroverts have a little bit of a tough time in that situation."

If one person on a crew always wants to talk, while the other members are less social, "it could actually get pretty annoying," in that environment Bell said. (Remember George Clooney's character in the movie "Gravity"?) [10 Fitness Apps: Which Is Best for Your Personality?]

The researchers concluded that extroverts could potentially be a "liability" on these missions.

Extroverts and teams

NASA is interested in a number of issues related to planning long-term space missions, including how to put together the most compatible teams for the missions.

In the new study, which is funded by NASA, Bell and her colleagues reviewed previous research on teams who lived in environments similar to those of a long-term space mission, including simulated spacecraft missions of more than 100 days, as well as missions in Antarctica.

Typically, extroverts— who tend to be sociable, outgoing, energetic and assertive — are good to have on work teams because they speak up and engage in conversations about what needs to be done, which is good for planning, Bell said. And because of their social interactions, extroverts tend to have a good understanding of who knows what on a team (such as who the experts in a certain field are), which helps foster coordination.

But the researchers found several potential drawbacks to having extroverts on teams in isolated, confined environments.

In one study of a spacecraft simulation, an extroverted team member was ostracized by two other members who were more reserved, Bell said. "They thought he was too brash, and would speak his mind too much, and talk too much," Bell said.

Moreover, extroverts may have a hard time adjusting to environments where there's little opportunity for new activities or social interactions, the researchers said.

"People who are extroverted might have a hard time coping because they want to be doing a lot; they want to be engaged in a lot of things," said study researcher Shanique Brown, a graduate student in industrial and organizational psychology at DePaul. "And [on these missions], there won't be that much to do — things become monotonous after a while, and you're seeing the same people."

Don't send extroverts to Mars?

The new findings don't mean that extroverts can't go to Mars. More specific studies are needed to look at how extroverts fare on these teams, and whether certain kinds of training could help prevent problems, Bell said.

Such studies could be conducted in space-simulation environments, or on the International Space Station, Bell said.

Bell noted that a team of all introverts is likely not the solution. "The question is, where's the balance, and once we find the balance, what can we do through training" to promote team compatibility? Bell said.


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