Military Psychology

views updated May 14 2018

Military Psychology

World War I

Between the world wars

World War n—personnel operations

After World War II


Concepts and theories

Interdisciplinary relations

Place in research and development cycle

Impact on psychology


The application of psychology to military problems began in World War i, was revived in World War 11, and has continued since then as a part of military research and development and in certain military staff activities.

It has had a major impact on military personnel procedures and on the design and use of military weapons, vehicles, and other equipment, as well as considerable effect on military training and on life-support activities. It is coming to have an important effect on what is known in the military as psychological or special operations: on all those military activities, that is, in which the knowledge of other customs and cultures is important. Finally, military psychology has been a major influence on psychology itself. During two generations, psychology’s leaders served in the military, and a significant fraction of psychologists today are supported financially by the military. Military applications and activities tended, at least until the early 1960s, to associate psychology with the natural sciences and engineering rather than with the social sciences.

An understanding of military psychology may be facilitated by noting the nature of modern military operations and modern military duties. Even in peacetime, military operations are greatly varied. Practically the whole range of nonmilitary activities is represented, particularly if comparisons are in terms of kinds of activities rather than in terms of details. As Janowitz (1960, p. 65) has pointed out, modern military jobs, more often than not, are noncombat jobs. Increasingly they are specialized, technical jobs; in some instances they require knowledge from the very frontiers of science. Even in peacetime, however, the atmosphere is often one of crisis, danger, and stress. Operations are often conducted in environments that are exotic both physically and culturally, and involve complex, expensive, technically advanced, rapidly obsolescing equipment used by men whose terms of enlistment are short. Readiness to fight can be tested, and practice in the use of some weapons can be obtained, only in a simulation of war.

Thus it can readily be seen that the primary limit to the usefulness of psychology in military operations is the limit of psychology’s knowledge of human behavior. It can quickly be appreciated, as Geldard (1953) has suggested, that it is difficult to think of an area of psychology which might not prove useful to the military. And Melton’s definition of military psychology (1957) must be accepted: military psychology is coextensive with psychology and is defined primarily by the context of application.

The categories of information which are most helpful in understanding the work of military psychologists are the following: (1) the military problems for which solutions are needed; (2) the products or techniques to be developed or applied; (3) the military organization desiring help, i.e., the “client” (4) the psychological organization offering help; (5) the relevant psychological concepts and theories; (6) the nature of the interdisciplinary team within which psychologists will probably work; (7) the place of the work in the research and development cycle; and (8) the impact on psychology more generally. These points will be considered in turn.

The first four—military problems, psychological products, military organizations with problems, and psychological organizations—can most profitably be considered together and in historical development. Except as specifically stated, the discussion will concern military psychology in the United States, since all types of development have taken place in this country and on a more organized basis than elsewhere.

World War I

As a significant activity, military psychology began in World War I. In several of the warring nations, psychologists used their professional talent to assist the military. The selection and classification of recruits and specialists by means of mental tests and the development of an over-all personnel system were of primary concern.

Robert M. Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association, led in organizing a number of committees for war service. Most of these served under the auspices of the National Research Council. These committees were concerned with examination of recruits, acoustic problems, education and special training, incapacity, military training, emotional stability, motivation, recreation, special aptitudes, aviation, visual problems, psychological literature, tests for deception, a course in psychology for the Student Army Training Corps, and propaganda. (The most complete bibliographical source covering these and other World War i activities is Ferguson 1962.)

The Army Alpha Test. The outstanding accomplishment of the committees was the creation of the Army Alpha Test, a group-administered mental test given as a part of the medical examination to all recruits. A large number of the nation’s leading academic and scientifically oriented psychologists served in the Sanitary Corps, administering Army Alpha. Results had been analyzed for more than 1.7 million men by the war’s end.

Although the test was used to eliminate the unfit, to select for special duty, and to balance units in ability, its primary significance for today is its fascinating demonstration of the extent and significance of individual differences. Yerkes (1921) summarized the analyses. Laymen, military men, scientists, and even the psychologists themselves seem to have been greatly stimulated by the dramatic differences shown, by the possibilities of measuring individual differences, and by the potential impact on traditional ways of dealing with large numbers of people. [SeeIntelligence and intelligence testing.]

The Army’s personnel system. Simultaneously with the development of the Army Alpha Test, Walter D. Scott, with the assistance of Walter V. Bingham, led a number of industrial psychologists and personnel men in a program which ultimately resulted in a modern personnel system for the United States Army (U.S. War Department 1919; Ferguson 1962). Scott, working independently of the committees described above, first developed a rating scale for selection and promotion of officers. This was enthusiastically received, and its success led to the creation, under Scott and Bingham, of the Committee on the Classification of Personnel in the Office of the Adjutant General. This committee guided the development of a complete personnel system for the army, including the analyses of civilian occupations and military jobs, the trade tests, the questionnaires and record forms, and the tables of organization, without which an army of specialists could not be created and maintained on a large scale. Late in the war, the committee was militarized and became the nucleus of the Personnel Branch of the Army General Staff. After the war, many of the individuals involved became prominent in industrial relations and scientific management. [SeeAptitude testingand the biography ofBingham.]

Between the world wars

Military psychology disappeared between the two world wars. At the close of World War i, the Advisory Committee on the Problems of Military Psychology was established in the Division of Anthropology and Psychology of the National Research Council. The division itself had just been created; in large part its existence was due to the success of military psychology. At the initial organization meeting of the division, Yerkes’ list of those present showed that 11 of 22 individuals had a military title, and military problems were high on the list of items for which the division was needed. Nevertheless, the military psychology committee met with complete indifference to its task and finally went out of existence after years of inactivity.

World War n—personnel operations

One of the first activities to reappear in U.S. military psychology was the identification of similarities between civilian and military jobs, a function performed for the army in 1940 by the U.S. Employment Service. The army soon established a general personnel research and development program in the Adjutant General’s Office. The Bureau of Naval Personnel later followed suit. (The navy’s personnel program in World War n is described in U.S. Bureau of Naval Personnel 1947.) The army air forces and the navy established in their medical services special, very large psychological units to screen and classify flying officers, especially pilots. (See U.S. Army Air Forces 1947 for a description of work in this organization.) As in World War I, the academically and scientifically minded psychologists tended to move into mental testing while the industrial psychologists moved into other aspects of the personnel system.

Differing from the procedure in World War I, the military establishment rapidly created its own units. The National Research Council, through its Emergency Committee in Psychology (Dallenbach 1946), guided and assisted these personnel developments and the other developments to be described below.[SeeIndustrial relations, article Onindustrial and business psychology.]

Contract research. In World War II, extensive use was made of contracts with academic and industrial institutions to support civilian research and development for military use. The Office of Scientific Research and Development (Baxter 1946) organized natural scientists and engineers through contracts with its National Defense Research Committee, and biologists and medical men through its Committee on Medical Research. The contractors often included psychologists in their interdisciplinary teams concerned with equipment and operating procedures for such military interests as night operations, underwater sound, communications, and stereoscopic range finding. Free from the organizational restraints which were placed on psychologists within the military establishment, the psychologists under contract contributed from the earliest days of the war not only to selection of special kinds of personnel but also to training and to the design and use of equipment.

Training. Research on the selection of personnel led generally to an interest in training because selection occurred before training, and the success of selection procedures was evaluated in terms of the success of the selected personnel in training for duty. The pattern of work established by Dean Brimhall and J. G. Jenkins in the prewar National Research Council Committee on the Selection and Training of [Civilian] Aircraft Pilots had a very considerable effect on the psychologists in military units, and even more on those of the National Defense Research Committee. Achievement and proficiency tests for use in training were developed and applied, industrial training methods were carried over to the military situation, and training devices were developed and evaluated.

Human engineering. The first step in research and development for selection and training is to analyze the jobs of the personnel concerned. This step draws attention to the impact of equipment design on personnel requirements, to the design of the displays and controls used by men. Closely associated are efforts to design efficient operating procedures. Out of these activities grew the field now known as human engineering.

In 1942 and 1943 the Applied Psychology Panel of the National Defense Research Committee was created to exploit any psychological approach to the military problems created by the advance of science and engineering. (Bray 1948 describes its work.) One of its projects on gunsights, under the direction of William E. Kappauf and Franklin V. Taylor, was absorbed at the war’s end into the Naval Research Laboratory, ever since a leader in human engineering. Its other projects helped to establish the pattern for the human engineering research done by the psychology branch of the aero-medical laboratory at Wright Field, established late in the war under Paul M. Fitts.

In England a comparable series of developments occurred. Under the leadership of F. C. Bartlett and Kenneth Craik, and with the support of the Medical Research Council, attention soon turned to operating procedures and equipment design. According to Bartlett (1957), out of this work grew the Unit for Research in Applied Psychology at Cambridge and much of the present-day respect for scientific psychology in Britain.

Life support. British work, particularly that on night vision during the battle of Britain, was brought to the attention of the highest political authorities in the United States and was significant in the growth of physiological psychology in U.S. military medical laboratories. Since the war, this type of research has continued and now is part of the field known as life support. Included in the field today are psychophysiological studies on the effects of special and extreme environments, on sensory problems, on drugs, stress, fatigue, vigilance, and so on. [SeeAttention; Fatigue; Stress.]

Attitudes and motivation. World War n provided the occasion for the first major organized program of military social psychology, a program on attitudes and motivation. Within the Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army, many leading psychologists and sociologists applied the recently developed techniques of attitude and opinion study to a host of topics. The range of the army studies may be illustrated by these examples: the reasons for soldiers’ failure to use atabrine regularly in the Pacific, preferences for winter clothing, reactions to the military way of life, the probable number of neuropsychiatric casualties in particular units, and the probable cost (which turned out to be correct within a few percentage points) of the GI Bill of Rights.

The example also illustrate that this type of work leads into sensitive areas, that it is likely to be bound to a specific time and place, and that the information gathered is of interest in varying degree to any given military client. Thus the usefulness of the work depends greatly on calling it to the attention of the “right” user, one who is in the right place at the right time and is able and willing to put the information to use. As Stouffer (Social Science Research Council 1949-1950, vol. 1, p. 48) suggests, the army never found a systematic way to use this kind of information.

After World War II

Contrary to the experience after World War I, military psychology continued to be important after World War n. This resulted from the association during the war between psychology and the natural and biological sciences and from the outburst of military research and development following the atomic bomb and other scientific successes, particularly those of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. In consequence, psychological research, development, and application have continued in relation to military personnel operations, training, equipment design and use, and life support. The exception is the field of attitudes and motivation; in this instance basic research has received some continuing support, but development and application nearly died away after the Korean War. In the early 1960s, accelerating rapidly under the Kennedy administration, military social science began to develop again under the stimulus of the need for better communications with other peoples.

The postwar activities have been much influenced by organizational developments in the period, in particular by the rise in importance of the military laboratories, by the appearance of the nonprofit corporation for military research and development, by the organization and function of the Office of Naval Research, and by developments in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The impact of each of these on military psychology will be considered.

The rise of military laboratories. By comparison with the prewar period, the postwar period has witnessed an enormous increase in the resources available for scientific laboratories and related institutions within the military establishment itself. Psychology has shared in this support. Personnel operations and psychological research and development units, laboratory-like in nature if not always in name, continue in each service. These have been given relatively large funds, facilities, professional positions, technician support, and access to “human guinea pigs.” Research and development in military training likewise have found generous support through military laboratories since World War n. Human engineering units have appeared within a wider and wider range of military laboratories concerned with various types of equipment. The funding and the over-all control of these laboratories are normally a part of the more general scientific research and development activities of the services.

Nonprofit contract laboratories. A significant feature of the postwar period has been the creation of nonprofit corporations of a laboratory-like character to conduct military research under contract to some branch of the military establishment. For psychology and the social sciences the most significant of these have been the RAND Corporation and the System Development Corporation, both of Santa Monica, California; the Human Resources Research Office (HumRRO) of George Washington University; and the Special Operations Research Organization (SORO) of American University.

RAND was created by the air force to conduct long-range research and development in any of the sciences. It has provided continuous support for basic social science research for military purposes and has also been influential in the appearance of the system concept in military psychology. The significance of this concept is elaborated in Gagné(1962).

The RAND Corporation and the air force created the System Development Corporation to provide realistic synthetic training and exercise of the air defense system under attack. The System Development Corporation expanded into the world’s largest employer of psychologists, using them chiefly in research and development relevant to the use of computers in training and in complex weapon systems. Both RAND and the System Development Corporation are contributing heavily to one of the most active modern fields of research, information processing and decision making in command and control activities.

In the 1960s HumRRO came to be the major psychological organization concerned with research and development in relation to training. Organized by the army, it has established small, laboratory-like activities at a number of army training centers. HumRRO’s approach to training is described by Crawford (1962).

SORO is the army’s main organization for research and development in the field of human interaction and communication across cultural boundaries. Windle and Vallance (1964) describe the content of its work and the military activities to which it is relevant.

Office of Naval Research. One of the most significant developments of the postwar period was military support of basic research in all scientific fields, including psychology. The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) was the primary arm of the military establishment in this respect. ONR set a pattern which was widely followed in military laboratories and the other services. Darley (1957) describes its character. ONR operated through research contracts with civilian institutions, following the method used by the National Defense Research Committee during the war. ONR acted as the prototype of the National Science Foundation, now the federal government’s principal agency for the support of basic research. ONR supported university research, and the research it supported was unrestricted. It accepted research plans from the country’s leading scientists, rather than proposing research to them, and has been a major factor in U.S. military support for psychological research in other nations.

In recent years ONR has become somewhat more selective than it was originally in choosing to support those scientists who wish to do research related ultimately to navy interests, but it still imposes no direction or restrictions on those it supports. Within psychology, ONR has emphasized support for psychologists concerned with psychophysiology, psychometries, learning, engineering psychology, and group behavior. In recent years the modeling of individual behavior and of social processes has become a major interest.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research, set up in the mid-1950s on the pattern of ONR, has given continuing support to long-range social science research, as well as to psychological research. The army’s research program has been more goaloriented than those of the navy and air force.

Office of the Secretary of Defense. When, in 1947, the army, navy, and air force were brought together under the new Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Research and Development Board was established to review, evaluate, and plan for science and engineering in the military establishment as a whole. It established committees of consultants who served to integrate, or “couple,” the military and scientific communities. One such was the Committee on Human Resources. Its panels on human engineering and psychophysiology, on personnel and training, on manpower, and on human relations and morale reflect the range of topics which were covered in military research in the postwar period. A report by Lyle H. Lanier, executive director of the Committee on Human Resources, gives the best available picture of military psychology in 1949.

Although the Research and Development Board was later abolished, there remains a planning and review officer for psychology and the social sciences under the director of defense research and engineering in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Under the auspices of this officer, a number of consultants recently analyzed needs and opportunities for long-range research in military psychology and social science (see, for instance, Bray 1962). Some of the recommended programs have been activated by the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense is significant not only because it is the prime center of power over all military research and development but also because it is a natural client for social science research oriented to military operations as an element in foreign policy. This office also represents the United States in NATO military psychology activities.


It seems likely that every type of military activity and every type of weapon is receiving some psychological attention. Effort has understandably been concentrated on topics for which traditional military solutions are not available. Short-term enlistments, like rapid mobilization, have led to attention to initial personnel processing and training. Rapid change and increasing complexity of equipment have led to interest in human engineering. On the other hand, the inadequacy of traditional techniques and the proven superiority of new ones are not enough. Products must be easily used or embedded in an organizational structure.

Melton (1957) develops two related points. First, to change a person’s behavior by psychological methods often requires that a commander or instructor change his own behavior. Second, the values of new products of natural science and engineering are readily appreciated, in contrast with the products of psychology. The significance of an increase in speed or power is evident. The advantages of improved maintenance work, which might produce an equivalent change in military effectiveness at less cost, are nevertheless hard to demonstrate.

No doubt, the lack of evident advantage in many products is responsible for the continuation of the practice in military psychology of conducting “demonstration experiments.” To the extent—and it is usually considerable, or the demonstration would not be attempted—that the results of these experiments can be forecast, they are a waste of time, money, and talent. In the United States at least, products which conceptually and empirically are already known to be worth their cost must sometimes be demonstrated repeatedly in formal experiments to be accepted as superior to traditional methods.

The need for such demonstration experiments should be reduced as psychology becomes more technological. With improved scientific skill behind its concepts and products, demonstrations will no doubt give way to tests not of validity but of the degree to which the product meets the specifications laid down for it in advance of its development on the basis of sound scientific opinion. However, little progress can be expected in this respect unless the organizational relations of psychology and the other social sciences are also sound: the client organization and its relations to the research organization are significant.

Since the start of World War n, the personnel psychologist and the personnel and medical staffs have enjoyed a continuing and highly integrated relationship. Comparably, human engineering has an exceptionally close relation to its client; the user of human engineering information is the scientist or design engineer who incorporates the psychologist’s product into the design of a weapon or other piece of hardware. Thus the routine users are professional people whose backgrounds are appropriate for the evaluation of the psychological contribution. Morgan’s Human Engineering Guide to Equipment Design (1963) illustrates the extent to which human engineering information is adapted for use by other engineers.

For training the situation is different. In this instance the client is likely to be a professional military man with long experience and with a tradition of successful use of common-sense methods behind him. Probably for this reason, psychological work on training and training devices has not received very stable support in the navy and air force and has been very dependent on demonstration experiments in the army.

Social-psychological contributions appear to be even more affected by the presence or absence of an informed client and by the institutional relationships. The very successful work on attitudes and motivation in World War n expanded in the postwar period to include programs on military government, strategic planning and intelligence, and psychological warfare. By 1953 and 1954, however, this type of work was disappearing within the military establishment, although some relatively basic research studies continued under contract. There was little interest in the military and among natural scientists and engineers in defending this type of study against congressional attacks during a period in which economy in government was stressed.

Since 1960, with the revival of interest in civil defense, limited war, guerrilla war, disarmament, military aid, and nation building, behavioral science research relevant to these topics has also revived (Windle & Vallance 1964). Definite clients for this work now seem to exist in the Defense Department’s civil defense and international security activities and the army’s Special Forces.

Concepts and theories

From what has been said, it should be clear that the concepts and theories of concern to military psychology are those of psychology in general. As Hill (1955) suggests in his description of the content of military psychology at the end of the Korean War, contributions to theory are sent for publication to the scientific journals and do not appear in military reports.

It may be noted, however, that psychologists and their theories have an influence in the military far beyond that directly involved in the more obvious products. Concepts of individual differences, cultural differences, human error as determined by equipment design, and the need for motivation and reinforcement of learning have effects far beyond particular applications in aptitude tests, in military aid and guerrilla warfare, in aircraft altimeters, or in teaching machines. The very presence of significant numbers of psychologists in the military setting helps to induce the “sleeper effect” by which new concepts come to affect behavior even though the concepts are not explicitly formulated. Perhaps the most important item in this relation is the psychologist’s confidence that understanding of human behavior can be improved through the scientific approach.

Interdisciplinary relations

While specialization within psychology and within other disciplines has progressed, so too has the need to establsh interdisciplinary teams to deal comprehensively with problems of applied science. Interestingly, the various specialists within military psychology seem to form stronger alliances with nonpsychologists than with fellow psychologists.

Psychometricians seem to ally themselves with statisticians and not with job analysts. The latter tend to associate more closely with the management specialists than with training psychologists. And the human engineers, despite their current adherence to a doctrine of the importance of the complete system, rather definitely reject efforts to ally them with any but hardware engineers. These tendencies have probably contributed to the fact that no true profession of military psychology has emerged with special textbooks and graduate training of its own. Such unity as there is in military psychology today comes from common training in research methods rather than from training in application.

Place in research and development cycle

The role of the military in supporting basic research and the persistence of the demonstration experiment have been mentioned above. Recently, there has been a growth in the numbers of psychologists contributing to weapon development within defense industry. The growth has been directly spurred by the adoption, originally by the air force, of military specifications that require, first, that all new equipment receive adequate human engineering attention and, second, that the personnel requirements of new equipment and the ways of meeting these requirements be spelled out in detail. It is by no means clear that objective standards exist for the enforcement of these specifications. Enforcement depends heavily on the quality of psychologists available to inspect and test this new equipment.

Impact on psychology

Since World War n, the military establishment has consistently been a major source of funds for psychological research and development. The writer knows of no accurate estimate of the amounts involved, but they have certainly been large by any standard. Although, in the United States at least, the military establishment is becoming proportionately less of an influence in this respect, because of the rise of other government agencies to support research, it is still of the utmost importance to psychology that defense support be wisely administered.

Financial support is one way of suggesting the impact of military psychology on psychology more generally. A related type of estimation is based on a calculation of the number of psychologists involved. In 1957, Melton counted over seven hundred psychologist employees of the Department of Defense and its major nonprofit laboratory contractors. He estimated that some 5 per cent of the members of the American Psychological Association were working directly or indirectly for the department. There is reason to suppose that this figure was conservative.

It is more difficult to evaluate the impact on the quality of the development of psychology than on the quantity. There can be little doubt that military use and support of psychology was for many years a major force in associating psychology with the natural and biological, rather than the social, sciences. Psychology emerged from World War i with a position in the National Research Council. In World War n it was an organized activity in the Office of Scientific Research and Development. It emerged from World War n as part of the Office of Naval Research and the Research and Development Board. Military psychologists today are still primarily organized under technical and engineering activities.

Windle and Vallance (1964) suggest that a major shift within military psychology is now taking place and that social science aspects will be more prominent in the future. Certainly the association of psychology with social science in the higher levels of the military has been a factor in the reorganization of the Division of Anthropology and Psychology of the National Research Council into the Division of Behavioral Sciences. It seems probable, however, that such a development is better interpreted as a reflection of the need to incorporate social scientists into interdisciplinary teams of other scientists than as a simple association of psychology with social science.

Bartlett (1957, p. 49) suggests that military applications have been a major factor in establishing psychology as a science in Great Britain. He says that it took four crises—World War i, World War n, and the aftermaths of those wars—to convince the British that “unaided common sense observation is not by itself a good enough guide” to human behavior and that experiment is needed.

Issues of far-reaching importance may be raised about military psychology. Some psychologists react so strongly to the horrors of war as to wish no involvement at all of their profession with the military. Many fear bureaucratic control. Others anticipate difficulties from authoritarianism, the sometimes unsatisfactory professional status of civil servants in military laboratories, the necessity to work as part of an organized research team, the subordination of research to application, and restrictions on the range of scientific activity of individual military psychologists.

There is no question that all of these fears are justified. Like most fears, however, little is to be gained by simple withdrawal from the source. Major opportunities are likely to be lost by doing so. Psychologists can help to meet their responsibilities with respect to the horrors of war, for example, by finding a way for their work to contribute to the military desire to take social, political, and ethical criteria into account, along with destructiveness, as components of a cost-effectiveness formula in choosing weapons and methods of war.

The other fears are by no means peculiar to the military. The problems involved have repeatedly been faced and dealt with by psychologists in the military service, just as they have been met in other fields. The problems are not insoluble, and they do not inevitably arise.

Charles W. Bray

[Directly related are the entriesInternational relations; Military. Other relevant material may be found inConflict; Engineering psychology; Industrial relations; Learning, article Onacquisition of skill; Psychology, article OUapplied psychology; Simulation; Space, Outer; War; and in the biography ofYerkes.


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Baxter, James P. 1946 Scientists Against Time. Boston:Little.

Bray, Charles W. 1948 Psychology and Military Proficiency: A History of the Applied Psychology Panel of the National Defense Research Committee. Princeton Univ. Press.

Bray, Charles W. 1962 Toward a Technology of Human Behavior for Defense Use. American Psychologist17 :527-541.

Crawford, Meredith P. 1962 Research and Development for Specific Training Programs. Pages 309-324 in Robert Gagne (editor), Psychological Principles in System Development. New York: Holt.

Dallenbach, Karl M. 1946 The Emergency Committee in Psychology, National Research Council. American Journal of Psychology59 :496-582.

Darley, John G. 1957 Psychology and the Office of Naval Research: A Decade of Development. American Psychologist12 :305-323.

Ferguson, Leonard W. 1962 The Heritage of Industrial Psychology. Hartford, Conn.: Finlay.

Gagne, Robert M. (editor) 1962 Psychological Principles in System Development. New York: Holt.

Geldard, Frank A. 1953 Military Psychology: Science or Technology? American Journal of Psychology66 : 335-348.

Hill, Charles W. 1955 Military Psychology. Pages 437-467 in Abraham A. Roback (editor), Present-day Psychology. New York: Philosophical Library.

Janowitz, Morris 1960 The Professional Soldier: A Social and Political Portrait. Glencoe, ILL.: Free Press.

Lanier, Lyle H. 1949 The Psychological and Social Sciences in the National Military Establishment. American Psychologist4 :127-147.

Melton, Arthur W. 1957 Military Psychology in the United States of America. American Psychologist1 : 740-746.>

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Social Science Research Council 1949-1950 Studies in Social Psychology in World War II. Vols. 1-4. Princeton Univ. Press. → Volume 1: The American Soldier: Adjustment During Army Life, by S. A. Stouffer et al. Volume 2: The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath, by S. A. Stouffer et al. Volume 3: Experiments on Mass Communication, by Carl I. Hovland et al. Volume 4: Measurement and Prediction, by S. A. Stouffer et al.

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Military Psychology

views updated May 21 2018

Military psychology

The psychological study of military organization, military life, and combat.

Military psychology, when defined broadly, can include a vast array of activities in psychological research, assessment, and treatment. Military psychologists may be either soldiers or civilians. The field can encompass every aspect of the human mind that interests the military., but researchers focus on the psychology of military organization, military life, and the psychology of combat.

The psychology of military organization

Military psychologists are intimately involved in testing recruits for intelligence and aptitude for military specializations, and helping to find more effective ways of training them. A critical subset of such testing focuses on identifying and optimally training officers and other leadersa task that many practitioners admit is as much art as science.

A whole field of study revolves around what military psychologists call group cohesionthe difficult-to-quantify spirit of camaraderie, mutual trust, and confidence soldiers have in their unit. Studies have linked high group cohesion to soldiers performing better both as a team and individually; soldiers in units with good group cohesion are less likely to suffer psychological disability after combat.

Another military psychology subspecialty identifies people who might prove emotionally unstable in military life; in the nuclear era, this type of testing is especially crucial. In addition, military personnel who are privy to classified information are screened for psychological conditions that might make them a security risk.

One of the most controversial areas in military psychology concerns the integration of nontraditional groups into the often-conservative military society. Through World War II and Korea, military psychologists helped confirm that African Americans could be integrated into white units successfully. Today, military psychologists are trying to find ways to ease the introduction of women into front-line units; some psychologists consider acceptance of gay troops as a future goal.

The psychology of military life

Military life places unique stresses on individuals and their families. Aside from the possibility of being wounded or killed in combat, military service often involves long hours of work, extended absences from home, and frequent transfer across the globe.

Some military psychologists research the sources of marital discord among military families; interestingly enough, some studies suggest that military life doesn't destabilize families, but it can bring already unstable families to the breaking point. In some respects, clinical military psychology is not very different from civilian family practice, since military psychologists may treat both soldiers and their civilian spouses and children.

The military has traditionally taken a harsh stance with soldiers who risk their own and their comrades' lives by abusing alcohol; but the macho culture has often worked at cross-purpose to that stance. In Vietnam, abuse of other drugs also became far more prevalent among American soldiers. While harsh punishments can still occur, soldiers are now offered treatment for substance abuse as well.

The psychology of combat

Most soldiers never experience combat; but for those who do, a lifetime of learning about the rules of society and morality must be suppressed in the interests of survival. Military psychologists must help soldiers act effectively in combatand suffer a minimum of emotional fallout afterward.

One facet of the psychology of combat is integrating humans with increasingly sophisticated weapons systems. Military psychologists are researching what display formats can help soldiers make split-second sense out of complex computer-screen images that carry life-or-death importance. Others focus on the effects of harsh environmental effects such as weather on soldiers' performance. Virtual reality has become an important focus for more effective combat training.

Military psychologists also study the emotional aspects of combat. Early military psychologists suspected that combat stress reaction (CRS)a progressive psychological breakdown in response to combatwas a matter of psychological "weakness." Today, most agree that any human being will break down if exposed for long enough to enough death, fear , and violence .

Modern treatment for CSR stresses short-term desensitizing therapy and a quick return to combat. While this may seem harsh and self-serving on the part of the military, wartime studies indicate that soldiers with CSR who are treated in this fashion are less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than those pulled to rear-echelon units for treatment.

Some soldiers who have experienced battleas well as some victims of disasters or violent crimesuffer from a lingering version of CSR called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) . A person with PTSD may chronically re-experience traumatic events, in nightmares or even in waking hallucinations . Other PTSD sufferers "close up," refusing to confront their emotional trauma but expressing it in substance abuse, depression , or chronic unemployment. PTSD has proved possible but difficult to treat successfullyhence the military's focus on preventing PTSD through proper CSR treatment.

One somewhat controversial school of thought holds that the inhibition against killing is so strong that the emotional cost of killingrather than fear of death or loss of comradesis the most defining aspect of CSR and PTSD. Adherents believe that increasingly realistic weapons training conditions soldiers to kill reflexivelya desired outcome for the military, but one that can contribute to emotional problems among combat veterans in the absence of psychological support that recognizes this problem.

The ethics of military psychology

As both therapists with a duty to their patients and subordinates with a duty to the military command structure, military psychologists must sometimes carry out a tricky ethical balancing act. Patient confidentiality is a particular problem, since commanders have the right to examine their subordinates' medical files when making decisions in assignments, promotion, and punishment .

Military psychologists have been sanctioned by the American Psychological Association for following legal military orders that violated APA ethical rules; they have also been disciplined by the military for following APA rules that violate military regulations. Both the military and the APA are working to establish clear guidelines to help military psychologists avoid the trap of the "company doctor."

See also Television and aggression

Kenneth B. Chiacchia

Further Reading

Cronin, Christopher (ed.) Military Psychology: An Introduction Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Grossman, Dave On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society Little, Brown & Company, 1996.

Jeffrey, Timothy B., Robert J. Rankin, and Louise K. Jeffrey "In Service of Two Masters: The Ethical-Legal Dilemma Faced by Military Psychologists." Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 23 (2): 91-95 (1992).

Schwartz, T. P., and Robert M. Marsh. "The American Soldier Studies of WWII: A 50th Anniversary Commemorative." Journal of Political and Military Sociology 27 (1): 21-37(1999).

Oei, Tian P. S., Bernard Lim, and Brian Hennessy. "Psychological Dysfunction in Battle: Combat Stress Reactions and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder." Clinical Psychology Review 10: 355-388 (1990).

Page, Gary D. "Clinical Psychology in the Military: Developments and Issues." Clinical Psychology Review 16 (5): 383-396 (1996).

Van Breda, Adrian D. "Developing Resilience to Routine Separations: An Occupational Social Work Intervention." Families in Society 80 (6): 597-605 (1999).

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