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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 Stress Interview

The OSS assessment team was faced with the challenge of selecting who would go into the field and be at personal risk as well as risking the lives of others fighting with them behind the lines of war. Each person working behind the lines risked capture and interrogation by the Gestapo. The team developed a procedure to test the candidate's capacity to "tolerate severe emotional and intellectual strain (p. 133)."

Candidates were told this procedure would be one of the most important tests of the entire program. They were given 12 minutes to develop a plausible and innocent cover story for why the candidate was found going through secret papers in a government office building. They would have no identification papers and could not pretend to be an employee (easily proven false), although they could pretend to have on any attire they desire. They were not permitted to say "I don't know" "I am not permitted to disclose." or the like but had to answer every question. They had to avoid revealing prior personal occupations, residence, etc.

The Stress Situation

After 12 minutes they entered a dark room facing a spotlight that blinded them briefly.

"Why were you in that building?"

Initially quiet and conciliatory, (to encourag unplanned elaborations to the cover story) the interrogators escalated, pouncing on hesitations, errors, slips, forgetfulness. Sometimes the interrogator would gently suggest the candidate was just covering up to protect family-- and if the candidate agreed the interrogate would accuse "You admit to having lied!"

By the end questions were rapid fire, shifting from topic to topic, confusingly. They shifted from generalities to specific particulars, exact hours, dates, addresses, and then back to generalities of his life, forcing him to improvise. The interrogator may incorrectly repeat the candidates testimony to see if the candidate would contradict himself or lead him down a path that would result in contradiction. The candidate was kept physically uncomfortable (no smoking, "look up into the light", a hard chair).

After 10 minutes, the examiners whispered together and announced that the candidate had failed the test and, after a brief pause to observe his reaction, he was sent to another room. The staff noted signs of tension, ability to maintain security, and the quality of his story.

Investigators know that security breaks occur when a person is relaxing after being tense. In the post-stress interview the interviewer treated the candidate cordially and politely in a relaxed atmosphere but tried to break the candidates' cover by subtle means. The post interview also gave the candidate a chance to recover somewhat from the Stress Interview.

The candidates response to failing the Stress Interview revealed his motivation to work for the OSS and his capacity for tolerating frustration. Near the end of the post-stress interview the candidates were asked if conditions of secrecy still prevaled in this post-stress setting. Their response gave an indication of their security consciousness. If they had broken cover (almost half) they were reminded to be more careful in the future. If they hadn't they were complemented. Finally, the subject was debriefed regarding the true nature of the Stress Interview, the rationale for it, and asked to pardon the staff and not tell other candidates.

The Stress interview identified several individuals who looked quite promising based on personal history but failed the test, breaking down emotionally and recognizing that they could not serve behind the lines. In one case a candidate seemed an ideal potential agent, having survived an actual Gestapo interrogation (being allowed to go free) prior to coming to Station S (the OSS assessment center). His emotional reaction in the Stress Interview made it clear, however, that he would not survive a second actual interrogation and may have put himself and others at risk if allowed to go into the field. Today we would realize that this person suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Clearly, this kind of assessment procedure raises a number of ethical concerns and would not be considered appropriate under normal conditions today (see APA Code of Ethics: Today the use of deception is very closely monitored and generally 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.