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OSS Assessment

Background: In World War II the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the CIA) was assigned the task of selecting agents for a variety of espionage jobs. The task was a very difficult assessment problem and they developed a number of creative approaches. Candidates for the OSS were brought to an assessment center (Station S) and put through a variety of individual and team tasks. While at the assessment center candidates were supposed to maintain a cover or false identity (unless given a particular command to be themselves for certain psychological tests).

The Construction Situation

Individual candidates were asked to direct two assistants in constructing a simple wooden structure within 10 minutes. They were told it was a test of leadership. The helpers were supposed to do the work and the candidate was supposed to serve as a foreman.

Actually, it was more a test of emotional stability and tolerance for frustration. The two "helpers", Kippy and Buster, were anything but helpful. Kippy was passive and sluggish, doing nothing unless directly told, and easily distracted. Buster was impractical and aggressive, quick to criticize whatever weakness the candidate displayed.

The Construction Situation The helpers didn't disobey orders, particularly explicit ones. But they were supposed to be as annoying as possible. Criticizing all choices, beginning to deconstruct the edifice if not stopped, distracting the leader by trying to break his cover story if all else failed. If the leader started doing the task himself, Buster commented on it. Kippy, meanwhile, would ask to go get a drink. The construction was never completed during the entire assessment program.

What was the best solution? Explain the task, delegate specific tasks, and keep an eye on both of them while maintaining good social relations. Oh, and the staff were watching. Even if the candidate suspected the helpers, the stress was real.

A post-construction interview was introduced to provide catharsis and therapy to the candidates. It also revealed the degree of insight that the individual had into himself and how quickly he would recover. For example, some "with quivering lips and trembling hands, nevertheless insisted that they had not been the least upset by the insults and lack of cooperation of their helpers (p. 113)."

Such a severely upsetting assessment procedure would not be deemed acceptable under today's ethical standards. The OSS Assessment team faced a particularly difficult task in which the candidates and others lives would be at stake if the candidate could not handle the stress of espionage work. It was deemed better to stress them under simulated circumstances than risk lives with someone who appeared able to handle stress but was not capable. Clearly, this kind of assessment procedure raises a number of ethical concerns and would not be considered appropriate under normal conditions (see APA Code of Ethics: Today the use of deception is very closely monitored and discouraged as a means of obtaining psychological information.

Murphy, K. & Davidshofer, C. (1998). Psychological testing: Principles and applications, 4th Ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

OSS Assessment Staff. (1948). Assessment of men: Selection of personnel for the Office of Strategic Services. NY: Rinehart & Co.

OSS Assessment Page | Psychology Whimsies

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Website created: June 1996. Page Created: March, 1999. Last Modified: August 21, 1999.