ArticlePDF Available

The third-quarter phenomenon: the psychology of time in space

Authors:

Abstract

Researchers studying the psychology of space travel have long been interested in the phases of change that could occur in human performance and health during prolonged missions beyond Earth’s orbit. If patterns of mood change and performance during spaceflight could be reliably predicted, mission planners could introduce additional training and countermeasures aimed at optimising crew health and cohesion during critical phases. Nathan Smith and Gro Sandal examine the evidence for what has become known as the ‘third quarter phenomenon’ and consider its implications for space travel.
ROOM54
Astronautics
O ver 30 years ago, a review of groups in
extreme environments (Harrison and
Connors, 1984) suggested that mood and
morale would reach a low point at some
stage beyond the halfway mark of different
missions. Taking this idea further, Robert Bechtel
and Amy Berning (1991) were the rst to coin the
term the ‘third quarter phenomenon’ (TQP). Their
study, largely based on anecdotal evidence and
reections from the cold regions study project,
proposed that those undertaking deployments in
challenging scenarios are likely to experience a
reduction in mood, irritability, tension and
decreased morale after the midpoint and into the
third phase of a mission – the TQP. Further, their
review suggested that this was more a relative
than absolute phenomenon that occurred
regardless of the overall length of a mission.
Early evidence for the relative nature of the
TQP was provided by Connors et al. (1985) looking
at the results of those undertaking a year-long
stay in Antarctica, a short submarine mission, and
individuals participating in a 90-day simulation
study. What counts, psychologically, seems to
be the knowledge that the rst half of the stay is
nished, and the anticipation that an equally long
period of time lies ahead.
Deep space stressors
Consider a small crew of ve or six people living
and working together in a capsule travelling to
Mars, millions of miles into the darkness of space.
The crew will likely be the rst to experience the
so-called ‘Earth out of view’ (Kanas, & Manzey,
2008) effect, where our home planet is no longer
visible. As wonderful as the ‘overview’ effect is for
Researchers studying the psychology of space travel have long been
interested in the phases of change that could occur in human performance
and health during prolonged missions beyond Earth’s orbit. If patterns of
mood change and performance during spaceflight could be reliably predicted,
mission planners could introduce additional training and countermeasures
aimed at optimising crew health and cohesion during critical phases. Nathan
Smith and Gro Sandal examine the evidence for what has become known as
the ‘third quarter phenomenon’ and consider its implications for space travel.
Nathan Smith
Senior Research
Scientist, Ministry
of Defence Science
&Technology Laboratory,
Salisbury, UK
Gro Sandal
Professor of
Psychology, University
of Bergen, Norway
The third-quarter
phenomenon:
the psychology of time in space
ESA/IPEV/PNRA/Salam
ROOM 55
Astronautics
An international crew of
researchers (from left):
Cosmonaut Training
Centre specialist Alexei
Sitev, ESA specialists
Charles Romani of France,
Dr Sukhrob Kamol,
military doctor Alexei
Smoleyevsky, and ESA
specialist Diego Urb.
For space
agencies
and private
companies
planning
prolonged
missions into
space, not
considering
psychological
changes that
could occur
would be an
oversight
from unequivocal. In addition, the majority of
research conducted so far has taken place in so-
called analogue environments - Earthly contexts
in which people are exposed to many of the same
stressors as those experienced by astronauts
in space such as threats of danger, limited
habitability and life support, and long periods of
monotony and connement.
Earth-based space analogues typically include
Antarctic research stations, polar expeditions,
submarine deployments and simulation chambers.
Although these may be useful, they are not entirely
true representations of the space environment,
especially when it comes to issues of microgravity
and radiation.
Over the years there have been numerous
systematic attempts to test the TQP. One popular
group that has demanded a good deal of attention is
Antarctic research scientists. In 2000, Sandal found
that those stationed at Antarctic research stations
reported signicant increases in interpersonal
tension during the third phase of their expedition
with clique formation and loneliness cited as
signicant contributors to this change. Other
researchers found a decrease in mood occurring in
stages around the mid-point and third-phase of the
stay in Antarctica (Palinkas & Houseal, 2000; Palinkas
et al., 2000; Stuster et al., 2000; Steel, 2001). More
recently, reductions in stress-resilience and coping
have been reported by those overwintering at the
Concordia station in Antarctica, coinciding with the
third phase of the expedition and aligning with the
winter-over period (Sandal et al. 2016).
Concordia station, the
remotest base on Earth.
Studying the effects of
isolation there is
preparing ESA for a
mission to Mars.
EPA
promoting a sense of perspective and wellbeing
(White, 2007), seeing Earth disappear out of sight
is likely to have an equally profound psychological
impact on those who experience it. Couple those
stressors with restrictions on communication and
an up to 20-minute time delay to interact with
mission control back on Earth, and the crew will
feel truly alone.
When the crew arrives at Mars, approximately
halfway through the mission, they are likely to
separate into two factions - one staying aboard
the ship and the other beginning to explore the
Martian surface. Splitting the crew may result
in increased tension and lead to a reduction in
cohesion. Subsequently, incidences of inter-group
conict may emerge as they are reunited for the
journey back to Earth. Under these conditions,
decrements in mood, and increases in irritability
and social tension at different stages, could have a
considerable impact on mission performance and
safety and so it is important to understand at what
point the psychological experience is likely to
change, how it would present itself, and what we
can do to mitigate against it.
Analogues and expedition evidence
Although time-based information regarding
psychological state changes remains valuable to
space agencies, ndings to date have been far
ROOM56
Astronautics
However, despite the many studies in support
of a TQP, there have been exceptions with regards
to changes observed at Antarctic stations (Steel &
Suedfeld, 1991).
In the context of mobile land-based expeditions,
a third quarter effect has been less readily
observable. Findings from Kahn and Leon (2000)
suggest a peak in interpersonal stress during the
third phase of an Antarctic expedition. In a solo
sailboat circumnavigation of the globe, Kjaergaard
et al., (2013) reported reductions in positive affect
during this phase, but no change in negative affect.
A typical day in
isolation. The crew of six
spent 520 days together in
their ‘spacecraft’ for this
simulated Mars mission.
Diego Urbina looking
out from the hatch inside
Mars500 facility. The crew
of six spent 520 days
together in their
‘spacecraft’ for this
simulated Mars mission.
Similarly, when Smith et al. (2016) monitored a
small group undertaking a 49-day crossing of the
Empty Quarter desert, they found a reduction in
camaraderie and enjoyment of the environment
in the third stage of the journey. Despite some
support for the TQP though, results from mobile
expeditions suggest that positive emotions tend to
be more prominent than corresponding reports of
negative emotion (Atlis et al., 2004; Leon et al., 2011).
In addition, ndings from expedition studies
suggest that certain dimensions of stress and
mood may be more susceptible to the TQP than
others and may be outcome-specic (Decamps
& Rosnet, 2005; Palinkas & Houseal, 2000). In
attempting to explain such inconsistencies,
Sandal et al. (1996) suggested that a stage-model
of adaptation is probably more relevant for
groups undergoing prolonged connement in
which boredom and monotony are prominent
stressors. Thus, time in itself may not be a
strong predictor unless taking into consideration
aspects of the environment.
Space simulations
The Mars105 and Mars500 experiments provided
an opportunity to study individual reactions to
connement designed to replicate the conditions
of a mission to Mars. Although ndings from the
Mars simulations are less conclusive with regards
to changes in mood and the TQP (Basner et al.,
2014), evidence suggests that the groups start to
What counts,
psychologically,
seems to be
the knowledge
that the first
half of the stay
is finished,
and the
anticipation
that an equally
long period of
time lies ahead
ESA
EPA
ROOM 57
Astronautics
pattern of mood change during spaceight.
Indeed, a monitoring study of an astronaut during
a 438-day spaceight suggested an ‘impressive’
degree of stability in both performance and
mood after the rst few weeks in space (Manzey
et al., 1998). These ndings could be explained
by the intensive training astronauts and
cosmonauts undergo to prepare for missions and
countermeasures in place to avoid disruptions that
could occur during their time in space. However,
what works aboard the ISS may not be as effective
for long-duration missions into deep space and
the predicted time-based changes may emerge
when less support from the ground is available
(Kanas, 2014).
The TQP continues to raise many questions.
For instance, why should such anticipation be
accompanied by discomfort? In 1936, Hans Seyle
created the stress model ‘General Adaptation
Syndrome’, which encompasses an alarm reaction,
a stage of resistance, and nally a stage of
exhaustion. There is some evidence to support
this model, which proposes a linear relationship
between time and adverse psychological and
become less benevolent after the halfway point of
the simulations (Sandal & Bye, 2015; Sandal et al.,
2011), which may relate to interpersonal struggles
and reduced group cohesion (Sandal, Vaernes &
Ursin, 1995).
To some extent, ndings from space are as
inconclusive as simulations and expeditions.
Grigoriev et al. (1987) and Gushin et al. (1993),
suggested that cosmonauts would experience
several stages during a ve to six month mission,
the third stage corresponding to the TQP.
During this phase, cosmonauts are expected to
experience a range of problems including fatigue,
reduced motivation, and unstable mood.
Recent work by Stuster (2016) has also provided
some evidence for the TQP in space. Analyses of
International Space Station (ISS) astronaut journal
entries suggest a higher proportion of negative
to positive entries during the third phase of the
mission, somewhat similar to ndings reported
using the same method with Antarctic scientists
(Stuster et al., 2000).
Despite the ndings by Stuster, there is a body
of work negating the suggestion of a predictable
James Vaughan/Asgardia
Under the
conditions
faced during a
Mars mission,
the impact of
decrements
in mood
could have a
considerable
impact on
mission
performance
and safety
Crew members before
they ingress for a 30-day
mission simulation in
NASA’s ‘HERA’, a unique
three-story habitat
designed to serve as an
analog for isolation,
confinement, and remote
conditions in exploration
scenarios.
NASA
ROOM58
Astronautics
physiological reactions (Nicolas et al., 2013;
2015; Palinkas et al., 1998), but contemporary
stress researchers have challenged the linearity
assumption, emphasising the importance of the
person’s expectations of having the necessary
resources for handling the situation (Levine &
Ursin, 1991).
One could argue that the longer a mission lasts,
the more likely it is for a person to experience a
depletion of resources. Accordingly, the mid-point
and third quarter phase may represent the stage in
which people feel least in control. Conversely, the
closer they are to the end, the more condent a
person is likely to be regarding their own capacity
to full the mission and therefore to report better
mood, satisfaction and health. This explanation is
appealing and aligns with a considerable body of
work related to stress, appraisal and coping in the
broader psychological literature.
Knowledge on temporal changes is valuable
for developing effective countermeasures for
psychological issues. Training programmes
should introduce individually-tailored coping
strategies that deal with individual and
interpersonal challenges associated with the
critical phase. A better understanding of critical
periods may also enable mission support to
implement interventions. For example, on board
the Mir space station, celebrations were often
planned for the mid-point of a mission, based on
the assumption that the midpoint was a difcult
time for crew members.
Looking to the future, a key line of research
may be understanding the role of moderating
variables, including the impact of individual
differences (eg, personality, motivation), work
tempo, physical environment and crew size on
time-based responses to extreme environments,
isolation and connement.
A second area worthy of additional research, is
leveraging new technologies that could be used
to assess temporal changes in psychological
states. It is now possible to automate
monitoring, with linguistic analysis (Baykaner et
al., 2015), face monitoring (Dinges et al., 2007),
and digitised systems (Basner et al., 2015) that
could be applied to monitor mood, interpersonal
issues, and motivation.
Astronauts aboard the
International Space
Station experience the
benefits of the ‘overview’
effect.
If no
information
about the end
of the mission
is available,
the time
patterns in
psychological
reactions
might be
different
NASA
ROOM 59
Astronautics
Open-ended missions
Currently, it is not known whether predictable
patterns of responses would emerge during
open-ended mission scenarios but given that
interplanetary missions are likely to have a
variety of unknowns, there is a good chance
they will last longer than planned and therefore
the issue of shifting end-points and the impact
upon psychological responses should be given
due consideration. Historic accounts of early
expeditions to the Antarctic continent, where
voyages could span multiple years without a
clearly dened end-point, could provide useful
case studies for this area of research.
In the past, researchers on both sides of the
TQP fence have presented evidence to support
or negate predictable phases of change. Like
many forms of scientic enquiry, the ndings
related to the TQP are rarely straightforward
and clearly dened. Considering the complexity
of the human psyche, it may be unrealistic to
truly establish the third quarter model as the
only temporal pattern to represent changes
in performance and health during missions in
extreme settings, including in space. But across
many research projects the halfway stage and
third-to-latter phases of a mission seem to be a
risk point for disrupted functioning.
For space agencies and private companies
planning prolonged missions into space, not
considering the psychological changes that could
occur during this phase would be an oversight.
At best, issues occurring during the third quarter
could impact upon the enjoyment and overall
experience of the mission and at worst, could
have serious and signicant consequences to an
individual and the crew.
About the authors
Nathan Smith is a Senior Research Scientist at the Ministry of Defence
Science &Technology Laboratory, Porton Down, Salisbury, UK. His
research focuses on human performance and health in extreme
environmental conditions. Nathan has previously conducted research
with individuals undertaking polar, desert and mountaineering
expeditions, Antarctic research scientists, wilderness medics and
military personnel.
Gro Sandal is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Bergen,
Norway. Her research interests include examining the impact of
culture on organisational behaviour with specic focus on recruitment,
leadership, and teamwork. For many years, she has conducted
research on personnel operating in isolated, conned and dangerous
environments.
Samantha Cristoforetti
taking in the views from
the International Space
Station
It is important
to understand
at what
point the
psychological
experience
is likely to
change, how
that would
present itself,
and what
we can do
to mitigate
against it
NASA
High res needed
... Overall, our findings raise further questions regarding the nature of adaptation and the day-to-day and month-to-month functioning of expeditioners in extreme and unusual settings. The existence of "the third quarter phenomenon" characterized by low motivation, interpersonal tension and low mood has been controversial among researchers (Smith and Sandal, 2017). While this study suggests that psychological change indeed occurs in this phase, we question whether this phase is characterized by reduced resilience. ...
Article
Full-text available
Human activity in Antarctica has increased sharply in recent years. In particular during the winter months, people are exposed to long periods of isolation and confinement and an extreme physical environment that poses risks to health, well-being and performance. The aim of the present study was to gain a better understanding of processes contributing to psychological resilience in this context. Specifically, the study examined how the use of coping strategies changed over time, and the extent to which changes coincided with alterations in mood and sleep. Two crews (N=27) spending approximately 10 months at the Concordia station completed the Utrecht Coping List, the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS), and a structured sleep diary at regular intervals (x 9). The results showed that several variables reached a minimum value during the midwinter period, which corresponded to the third quarter of the expedition. The effect was particularly noticeable for coping strategies (i.e., active problem solving, palliative reactions, avoidance, and comforting cognitions). The pattern of results could indicate that participants during Antarctic over-wintering enter a state of psychological hibernation as a stress coping mechanism.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.