Focus on Faculty: Meghan Carmody-Bubb

Posted on Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On July 3, 1988, the Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes mistook a civilian aircraft leaving Iran for an enemy F-14 Tomcat fighter and fired. The misidentification resulted in the loss of all 290 on board Iran Air Flight 265, including 66 children.

How could such a tragic mistake have occurred?

Students in Meghan Carmody-Bubb’s decision-making class study the case. They are put into a situation where they are in hostile waters and are dealing with a situation similar to one in which, months earlier, an Iraqi jet fired missiles at the USS Stark, killing 37 and wounding 21.

They learn that the computer systems aboard the USS Vincennes identified the airplane, which had taken off from a joint civilian/military airfield, as a threat, but the commander was uncertain, the information ambiguous, and the pilot of the airplane in question was not responding to queries from the Vincennes.

They learn other details and data the commander of the missile cruiser weighed at the time, along with the rules of protocol, and the fact that the commander had less than four minutes to decide the fate of his 400 crewmembers.

Then they are asked: With the same information, what would you have done in that moment?

“Many of them make the same decision that the commander of the cruiser made – to fire upon the civilian airliner,” Carmody-Bubb says.

The information available to the commander was incomplete and ambiguous. In hindsight, that is clear. As a result, the Navy formed a program called, Tactical Decision Making Under Stress.

While students in Carmody-Bubb’s decision-making class learn theory, they also learn application, largely by studying history. They learn the psychology behind decision-making under stress and how the brain processes information relevant to those decisions. They learn how to incorporate the principles of sound decision-making into their lives and professional careers.

“How humans process information under stress is very different from the boardroom type decision making,” says Carmody-Bubb, chair of the OLLU Department of Leadership Studies. “Stressful decisions are ones that tend to have ambiguous information. The information can be time-stressed and the situations tend to be high stakes.”

Students also examine famous military events during the Kennedy administration. They compare and contrast the decision-making process and outcome of the Bay of Pigs with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The psychology behind decision-making, particularly in the military, is a life-long fascination. Carmody-Bubb grew up in the shadow of Randolph Air Force Base, the youngest of nine children of a World War II pilot. An older brother who became a Marine used to take her and four sisters into the woods to play war games.

Richard Carmody, her father, not only flew planes. He reviewed aviation accidents and the factors that led to them. “He was full of stories,” Carmody-Bubb says. “A lot of what he talked about I found really interesting.”

As a psychology major at Texas A&M, she inquired about the Navy. While working on her PhD in experimental psychology at Texas Tech, Carmody-Bubb enlisted. She served for nine years, primarily as a researcher and aerospace experimental psychologist.

“Most of my research centered around two major areas,” she says. “One was survival in extreme environments. The other was human performance in the cockpit and improving human performance through cockpit design.”

She came to the Lake in 2006. At the master’s and doctoral level, Carmody-Bubb teaches research methods and decision making.

“I enjoy teaching,” she says. “I learn as much in the classroom as anybody else because we have people from so many different backgrounds. We’ve had school counselors, police officers, FBI agents, military officers. So every time I’m working with somebody on a dissertation I learn quite a bit about a new topic area. That is extremely rewarding.”