Dr Marie Cahillane is a Senior Lecturer in Applied Cognitive Psychology and Head of the Applied Psychology Group at the Centre for Electronic Warfare, Information & Cyber at Cranfield Defence and Security. Her areas of expertise include human cognition, skills retention and cognitive vulnerabilities. In this interview, we had the opportunity to learn more about Dr Cahillane’s research, her path into the defence and security sector and how our increasingly digital world might change the way we learn and retain information.

Could you tell us a little about your current research?

My research is in the field of cognitive psychology and its application across different contexts. I examine topics such as the psychological mechanisms underpinning skills retention and the analysis of skill fade. Current research, funded by DSTL through the Human and Social Sciences Research Capability (HSSRC) Framework, has considered the planning, conduct and analysis of future skill fade research, with a focus on complex cognitive skills. Other innovative research looks at Detecting the Exploitation of Human Cognitive Vulnerabilities Online (DEHCO), funded by DSTL through the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) Phase 2 Behavioural Analytics Competition. This research addresses gaps in understanding how ‘cognitive hacking’, through manipulation of informational and contextual features, may influence human decision-making and subsequent behaviours.

What was your pathway into the defence and security sector?

I followed a traditional academic pathway up to the completion of my PhD. At that stage I held a temporary full-time lectureship in the psychology department at Bath Spa University and was looking for postdoctoral research fellowship opportunities. It was then that I came across an advertisement for a Research Fellow at Cranfield Defence and Security (CDS). I had never considered the Defence and Security sector before but the opportunity to conduct applied research to solve real-world problems was something I couldn’t resist and so I applied. I’m now nearly thirteen years into working at CDS, applying my skills in cognitive psychology to different challenges within defence and security.

What has applying your expertise in cognitive psychology to the defence sector taught you – has there been anything that has surprised or particularly intrigued you?

Applying my expertise in cognitive psychology to the defence sector has really highlighted how human cognition has multiple applications across different contexts, where an understanding of human cognitive processes is required.

Memory and more broadly human information processing underpins everything. Understanding how we process information will be important given future tasks undertaken by Defence and Security personnel will be more cognitively demanding, with the use of Information Systems (IS) to support higher-order cognitive skills, such as complex decision-making, increasing.

Decision-making, analytical skills, adaptive cognition and their effective integration will provide an asymmetric edge within the information battlefield.

What do you enjoy most in your work?

I get to do my hobby for a living! I enjoy collaborating with both internal and external colleagues to solve defence and security challenges and the opportunity to take a cross-disciplinary approach.

Digital technology has become a huge part of everyday life for many people, particularly so during the Covid-19 pandemic. Do you think this increased prevalence of the use of technology/online learning will alter the way we process information, learn skills, and make decisions?

The increase in use of digital technology and online learning presents a number of challenges but also opportunities. 

Technology has the potential to influence our cognitive processes, for example Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and more broadly internet usage enables digital storage and easy access to information. Our brains are designed to minimise cognitive effort and therefore technology usage can reduce the effort applied in developing our long-term memory. The expectation of having access to information later can render us less motivated to encode and store that information in our long-term memory.

Instead, we are more inclined to hold in memory where such information can be obtained. In terms of information processing and multi-tasking, we have limited cognitive capacity. For example, where performance of two or more tasks relies on the visual modality this results in competition for the same limited visual spatial processing resources. Tasks using different cognitive processing resources are time-shared more efficiently.

Further reading: articles and conference papers

Evaluating teamwork development in combat training settings: An exploratory case study utilising the Junior Leaders’ Field Gun competition. Applied Ergonomics 2021
Novel application of a predictive skill retention model to technical VLE content production skills among Higher Education teachers: a case study. Interactive Learning Environments 2019

A case study of the barriers and enablers affecting teaching staff e-learning provision. International Conference on Information Communication Technologies in Education, Rhodes, 7-9 July 2016.

Visit the website to learn more about Dr Marie Cahillane.