Military psychology

Military psychology is the research, design and application of psychological theories and empirical data towards understanding, predicting, and countering behaviours either in friendly or enemy forces or civilian population that may be undesirable, threatening or potentially dangerous to the conduct of military operations. Military psychology transforms from sub-branch groups of different psychology disciplines into a tool used by the military, as will all tools of the military, to enable the troops to better survive the stresses of war while using psychological principles to unbalance the enemy forces for easier wins.[1] All stresses and psychological illnesses that military psychology looks at are not specific only to the military. However, the military soldiers tend to face a specific combination of these otherwise generic stresses. Military psychology then specializes in looking at this unique combination of stresses that plagues the military and war settings. These stresses include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), guilt, family difficulties with the veteran's spouse, nightmares and flashbacks, and many more. Military psychology is applied towards counselling and treatment of stress and fatigue of military personnel or military families as well as treatment of psychological trauma.[2][3]


The military is a group of individuals who are usually trained and equipped to perform national security tasks in unique and often chaotic and trauma filled situations. These situations can include the front-lines of battle, national emergencies, allied assistance, or the disaster response scenes where they are providing relief-aid for the host populations of both friendly and enemy nations. Though many psychologists may have a general understanding with regards to a humans response to traumatic situations, military psychologists are uniquely trained and experienced specialists in applied science and practice among this special population. While the soldiers may be providing direct aid to the victims of events, the military psychologists are providing specialized aid to both soldiers, their families, and the victims of the events as they cope with the often "normal" response or reaction to uncommon and abnormal circumstances.

In addition to the specialized roles previously mentioned, military psychologists often study the dynamics, train people in, and consult on hostage negotiations. In some cases the psychologists might not be the one directly handling the hostage situation, but hostage negotiators find value in resolving the hostage crisis using many of the scientific principles that are derived from the science of psychology. In addition, many of the principles of the scientific discipline of clinical psychology have their roots in the work of the early military psychologists of World War II.

Another common practice domain for military psychologists is in performing fitness for duty evaluations, especially in high risk and high reliability occupations. The set of unique challenges often faced by those in the military and the professions of arms such as: police, strategic security, and protective services personnel, the ability to perform reliable and accurate fitness for duty evaluations adds value and maximizes the human capital investment in the workplace by optimizing retention of the talents of active and prospective service men and women while minimizing risk in many areas including violence, mishap, and injury potential. The types of fitness evaluations include both basic entry examinations and career progression examinations such as those conducted when individuals are seeking promotion, higher-classification clearance status, and specialized, hazardous, and mission critical working conditions. When operational commanders become concerned about the impact of continuous, critical, and traumatic operations on those in their command, they often consult with a military psychologist. Military psychologists can assess, diagnose, treat and recommend the duty status most suitable for the optimal well-being of the individual, group, and organization. Events that affect the mental state, resilience or psychological assets and vulnerabilities of the warrior and the command are where military psychologists are most equipped to meet the unique challenges and provide expert care and consultation to preserve the behavioral health of the fighting force.[4] The fitness evaluations might lead to command directed administrative actions or provide the information necessary to make decisions by a medical board or other tribunal and must be thoroughly conducted by non-biased individuals with the experience and training necessary to render a professional opinion that is critical to key decision makers. Military psychologists must be well versed in the art and science of psychology as specialized applied practice professionals. They must also be highly competent generalists in the military profession, and be able to understand both professions well enough to examine human behavior in the context of military operations. It takes the psychologist several years beyond the doctorate to develop the expertise necessary to understand how to integrate psychology with the complex needs of the military.

Another very select and infrequent use of military psychology is in the interview of subjects, the interrogation of prisoners, and the vetting of those who may provide information of operational or intelligence value that would enhance outcomes of friendly military operations or reduce friendly and enemy casualties. Psychology's scientific principles applied here allow the interviewer, agent, or interrogator to get as much information as possible through non-invasive means without the need to resort to active measures or risk violating the rules of engagement, host nation agreements, international and military law or crossing the threshold of the Geneva Conventions' guidelines to which the United States and its allies subscribe, regardless of the status of many of the modern belligerent countries on the international laws and United Nations agreements.[5]

Area of study

The goals and missions of current military psychologists have been retained over the years, varying with the focus and strength of intensity of research put forth into each sector. The need for mental health care is now an expected part of high-stress military environments.[6] The importance and severity of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has gained more credibility than those suffering from it received in the past, and is being highlighted in treatment programs. More extensive post-deployment screenings take place now to home in on problematic recoveries that used to be passed unnoticed and untreated.

Women in military roles is an area of study receiving an increasing amount of attention. Currently women make up 10%-15% of the armed forces. As women tended to move to away from nursing and helping roles, increasing attention is given to how the brutal realities of combat would affect the women psychologically. Interesting research shows that, when affected, women tend to ask for help, more so than men, thus avoiding many of the long-term mental suffering that male soldiers face after their deployment has ended.[7]

Terrorism and counterterrorism, information management, and psychological warfare are value-added roles for the applied aspects of military psychology that are developing. For instance, contrary to the common myths and stereotypes about modern terrorists, that tend portray them as mentally disturbed individuals; most terrorists are far from that typology according to studies conducted by behavioral and social scientists who have either directly interviewed and observed terrorists or conducted meta-analytic studies of terrorism and terrorists.

Terrorists have tended to be from among the more well educated in their host countries. They often have developed a well thought out, but not very often publicized or well articulated, rigid ideology that provides the foundation for their strategy and tactics. Psychologically disturbed terrorists increase the risk of damage to the terror organization's strategic outcomes. As in any organization, mentally disturbed terrorists are a liability and the leaders of terrorist groups are well aware of the risks that these types of persons present. As any good organizational leader, the effective terrorist will try to recruit the best person for the job. It is doubtful that modern terrorist groups would adopt the affirmative action and other hiring practices dictated under employment laws in the United States or other Western countries. Words have meaning and create psychological perception.

It is important to understand when and how the label of terrorist is applied because of its psychological impact as suggested above. The causes, goals, methodology, and strategy of the terrorist mindset is well suited for psychological inquiry and the development of the strategy and tactics used to confront it. Terrorism is an ideology that uses behavioral, emotional, and group dynamics, along with social and psychological principles to influence populations for political purposes. It is a form of psychological warfare. The terrorists are experts in the use of fear, violence, threats of violence and trauma in order to advance the political agenda. Terrorists seek psychological control and use violent behavior to cause the population to behave in ways that disrupt and destroy the existing political processes and symbols of political power. They control people by using deep primal emotions to elicit a reaction and shape behavior.

The goal of a terrorist is to use violence to create the natural fear of death and dismemberment and use it to change or shape political behavior, control thought and modify speech. Military and operational psychologists are highly trained and experienced. They are experts equipped with the specialized knowledge, skills, and abilities in the art and science of the military and psychology professions that give them a great deal of potential in this unique operational environment.[8]

Operational psychology

Operational psychology is a specialty within the field of psychology that applies behavioral science principles through the use of consultation to enable key decision makers to more effectively understand, develop, target, and influence an individual, group or organization to accomplish tactical, operational, or strategic objectives within the domain of national security or national defense. This is a relatively new sub-discipline that has been employed largely by psychologists and behavioral scientists in military, intelligence, and law enforcement arenas (although other areas of public safety employ psychologists in this capacity as well). While psychology has been utilized in non-health related fields for many decades, recent years have seen an increased focus on its national security applications. Examples of such applications include the development of counterinsurgency strategy through human profiling, interrogation and detention support, information-psychological operations, and the selection of personnel for specialized military or other public safety activities.[9][10][11]

Recently, operational psychology has been under increased scrutiny due to allegations of unethical conduct by some practitioners supporting military and law enforcement interrogations. As a result, a small group of psychologists have raised concerns about the ethics of such practice.[12] Supporters of operational psychology have responded by providing an ethical defense of such activity. They argue that the American Psychological Association's ethical code is sufficient to support operational psychologists in a number of activities (to include legal interrogation by the military and other law enforcement agencies).[13][14]

Tactical psychology

Tactical psychology is "a sharp focus on what soldiers do once they are in contact with the enemy...on what a front-line soldier can do to win a battle". It combines psychology and historical analysis (the application of statistics to military historical data) to find out how tactics make the enemy freeze, flee or fuss, instead of fight. Tactical psychology examines how techniques like suppressive fire, combined arms or flanking reduce the enemy's will to fight.[15]

Health, organizational, and occupational psychology

Military psychologists perform work in a variety of areas, to include operating mental health and family counseling clinics, performing research to help select recruits for the armed forces, determining which recruits will be best suited for various military occupational specialties, and performing analysis on humanitarian and peacekeeping missions to determine procedures that could save military and civilian lives. Some military psychologists also work to improve the lives of service personnel and their families. Other military psychologists work with large social policy programs within the military that are designed to increase diversity and equal opportunity.[16]

More modern programs employ the skills and knowledge of military psychologists to address issues such as integrating diverse ethnic and racial groups into the military and reducing sexual assault and discrimination. Others assist in the employment of women in combat positions and other positions traditionally held by men. Some military psychologists help to utilize low-capability recruits and rehabilitate drug-addicted and wounded service members. They are in charge of drug testing and psychological treatment for lifestyle problems, such as alcohol and substance abuse. In modern times, the advisement of military psychologists are being heard and taken more seriously into consideration for national policy than ever before. There are now more psychologists employed by the U.S. Department of Defense than by any other organization in the world. Since the downsizing of the military in the 1990s, however, there has been a considerable reduction in psychological research and support in the armed forces as well.[16]


Psychological stress and disorders have always been a part of military life, especially during and after wartime, but the mental health section of military psychology has not always experienced the awareness it does now. Even in the present day there is much more research and awareness needed concerning this area.

One of the first institutions created to care for military psychiatric patients was St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. Formerly known as the United States Government Hospital for the Insane, the hospital was founded by the United States Congress in 1855 and is currently in a state of disrepair although operational, with revitalization plans scheduled to begin in 2010.[17][18]

Early work

In 1890 James McKeen Cattell coined the term “mental tests”. Cattell studied under Wundt at Leipzig in Germany at one point during his life and strongly advocated for psychology to be viewed as a science on par with the physical and life sciences.[19] He promoted the need for standardization of procedures, use of norms, and advocated the use of statistical analysis to study individual differences. He was unwavering in his opposition to America’s involvement in World War I.[17]

Lightner Witmer, who also spent some time working under Wundt, changed the scene for psychology forever from his position at the University of Pennsylvania when he coined the term “clinical psychology” and outlined a program of training and study.[20] This model for clinical psychology is still followed in modern times. Eleven years later in 1907 Witmer founded the journal The Psychological Clinic.

Also in 1907, a routine psychological screening plan for hospitalized psychiatric patients was developed by Shepard Ivory Franz, civilian research psychologist at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Two years later, under the leadership of William Alanson White, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital became known for research and training of psychiatrists and military medical officers. In 1911 Hebert Butts, a navy medical officer stationed at St. Elizabeth's, published the first protocol for psychological screening of navy recruits based on Franz's work.[17]

Intelligence testing in the U.S. military

Lewis M. Terman, a professor at Stanford University, revised the Binet-Simon Scale in 1916, renaming it the Stanford-Binet Revision.[19] This test was the beginning of the “Intelligence Testing Movement” and was administered to over 170,000 soldiers in the United States Army during World War I. Yerkes published the results of these tests in 1921 in a document that became known as the Army Report.[17]

There were two tests that initially made up the intelligence tests for the military: Army Alpha and Army Beta tests. They were developed to evaluate vast numbers of military recruits that were both literate (Army Alpha tests) and illiterate (Army Beta tests). The Army Beta test were designed to “measure native intellectual capacity”. The Army Beta test also helped to test non-English speaking service members.[21]

The standardized intelligence and entrance tests that have been used for each military branch in the United States has transformed over the years. Finally, in 1974, “the Department of Defense decided that all Services should use Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) for both screening enlistees and assigning them to military occupations. Combining selection and classification testing made the testing process more efficient. It also enabled the Services to improve the matching of applicants with available job positions and allowed job guarantees for those qualified”. This went fully into effect in 1976.[21]

Yerkes and war

Robert M. Yerkes, while he was president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1917, worked with Edward B. Titchener and a group of psychologists that were known as the “Experimentalists”. Their work resulted in formulating a plan for APA members to offer their professional services to the World War I effort, even though Yerkes was known for being opposed to America being involved in the war at all. It was decided that psychologists could provide support in developing methods for selection of recruits and treatment of war victims.[17] This was spurred, in part, by America’s growing interest in the work of Alfred Binet in France on mental measurement, as well as the scientific management movement to enhance worker productivity.[16]

In 1919, Yerkes was commissioned as a major in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps. In a plan proposed to the Surgeon General, Yerkes wrote: "The Council of the American Psychological Association is convinced that in the present emergency American psychology can substantially serve the Government, under the medical corps of the Army and Navy, by examining recruits with respect to intellectual deficiency, psychopathic tendencies, nervous instability, and inadequate self-control". Also in 1919, the Army Division of Psychology in the Medical Department was established at the medical training camp at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia to train personnel to provide mental testing of large groups.[17]

This was also the era when the condition referred to as “shell shock” was first seriously studied by psychologists and standardized screening tests for pilots were administered.[22]

World War II

World War II ushered in an era of substantial growth for the psychological field, centering around four major areas: testing for individual abilities, applied social psychology, instruction and training, and clinical psychology.[22] During World War II, the Army General Classification Test (AGCT) and the Navy General Classification Test (NGCT) were used in place of the Army Alpha and Army Beta tests for similar purposes.[21]

The United States Army had no unified program for the use of clinical psychologists until 1944, towards the end of World War II. Before this time, no clinical psychologists were serving in Army hospitals under the supervision of psychiatrists. This had to do with psychologists’ opposition to this type of service and also to the limited role the Army assigned to psychiatry. At this time, the only psychiatric interview that was being processed on the ever-increasing numbers of military recruits lasted only three minutes and could only manage to weed out the severely disturbed recruits. Under these conditions, it was impossible to determine which seemingly normal recruits would crack under the strain of military duties, and the need for clinical psychologists grew. By 1945 there were over 450 clinical psychologists serving in the U.S. Army.[17]

Military psychology matured well past the areas aforementioned that concerned psychologists up until this time, branching off into sectors that included military leadership, the effects of environmental factors on human performance, military intelligence, psychological operations and warfare (such as Special Forces like PSYOP), selection for special duties, and the influences of personal background, attitudes, and the work group on soldier motivation and morals.[16]

Korean War

Korean War was the first war in which clinical psychologists served overseas, positioned in hospitals as well as combat zones. Their particular roles were vague, broad, and fairly undefined, except for the U.S. Air Force, which provided detailed job descriptions. The Air Force also outlined the standardized tests and procedures for evaluating recruits that were to be used.[17]

Vietnam War

In the Vietnam War, there were significant challenges that obstructed the regular use of psychologists to support combat troops. The mental health teams were very small, usually only consisting of one psychiatrist, one psychologist, and three or four enlisted corpsmen. Quite often, medical officers, including psychologists, were working in severe conditions with little or no field experience.[17] Despite these challenges, military psychiatry had improved compared to previous wars, which focused on maximizing function and minimizing disability by preventive and therapeutic measures.[23]

Global War of Terror

A 2014 study of soldiers who had mental health problems after Overseas Contingency Operation service found that a majority of them had symptoms before they enlisted.[24]

See also


  1. "What is military psychology?". Proceedings for a symposium held on 3 September 1979 at the 87th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. New York City: 1979-09-03. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
  2. Benedict Carey; Damien Cave; Lizette Alvarez; Erica Goode; Gretel C. Kovach (7 November 2009). "Painful Stories Take a Toll on Military Therapists". New York Times.
  3. Thompson, Mark (2010). "Invisible Wounds: Mental Health and the Military". Time. Time Magazine.
  4. Frank C. Budd; Sally Harvey (2006). "Military Fitness-for-Duty Evaluations". In Carrie H. Kennedy; Eric A. Zillmer. Military Psychology: Clinical and Operational Applications (PDF) (1 ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press. pp. 35–60. ISBN 978-1-57230-724-7.
  5. "Not in MY name". Retrieved 10 June 2013.
  6. Carrie H. Kennedy and Eric A. Zillmer, ed. (2006). "Military Fitness-for-Duty Evaluations". Military Psychology: Clinical and Operational Applications (PDF). New York, NY: The Guilford Press. ISBN 978-1-57230-724-7.
  8. "Psychological Warfare and Terrorism"
  9. Staal, Mark A.; James A. Stephenson (2006). "Operational Psychology: An Emerging Subdiscipline". Military Psychology. 18 (4): 269–282. doi:10.1207/s15327876mp1804_2.
  10. Staal, M.A. & Stephenson, J.A. (2013). Operational Psychology Post-9/11: A Decade of Evolution. Military Psychology, 25(2), 93-104. DOI: 10.1037/h0094951
  11. Kennedy, C. H., & Williams, T. J. (2010). Operational psychology ethics: Addressing evolving dilemmas. In C. Kennedy and T. Williams (Eds.), The ethics of operational psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  12. Arrigo, J. M., Eidelson, R. J., & Bennett, R. (2012). Psychology under fire: Adversarial operational psychology and psychological ethics. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18, 384–400.
  13. Staal, M. A., & Greene, C. (2015). An Examination of “Adversarial” Operational Psychology. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 21, 264–268.
  14. Staal, M. A., & Greene, C. (2015). Operational psychology: An ethical practice–A reply to Arrigo, Eidelson, and Rockwood (2015). Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 21, 279–281.
  15. Murray, L., Brains and Bullets: How Psychology Wins War (London: Biteback, 2013) ISBN 978-1849545167
  16. 1 2 3 4 "Division 19 – Society for Military Psychology", (2009). About Military Psychology. Retrieved 24 November 2009.
  17. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Michels, K. (2004)." Intelligence Testing in the United States Military". Retrieved 29 October 2009.
  18. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2006). "Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital". Retrieved 1 December 2009.
  19. 1 2 Plucker, J. A. (Ed.). (2003). Human intelligence: Historical influences, current controversies, teaching resources. Retrieved 19 November 2009, from
  20. Grassetti, S. (2007). Lightner Witmer. Retrieved 3 December 2009.
  21. 1 2 3 "History of Military Testing", ASVAB. Retrieved 21 November 2009.
  22. 1 2 Xiao, H. (2007). "CWU Lecture to Outline History of Military Psychology", News and Headlines. Retrieved 24 November 2009.
  23. United States Veterans Administration and Department of Medicine and Surgery (1972). The Vietnam Veteran in contemporary society; collected materials pertaining to the young veterans. Washington, D.C.: Department of Medicine and Surgery. pp. III–55.
  24. "Study: Nearly 1-In-5 US Army Soldiers Had Mental Illness Before Enlistment". CBS DC. 4 March 2014. Retrieved 4 March 2014.

External links

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