Head Strong

How Psychology is Revolutionizing War

What is Military Psychology?

An overview of a vital and diverse subfield of psychology.

I fell in love with psychology when I was 12 years old. My brother, who was in his first year of college, came home to visit one weekend. I rummaged through the backseat of his car and discovered his introductory psychology text mixed in with the usual flotsam and jetsam found in the back seats of cars driven by college students. Since it was late in the fall term, and since the book appeared as if it had never been opened (he flunked out of college that term, so this in fact probably was the case), I took the liberty of “appropriating” his book for my own use. Over the next couple of weeks, I read it cover to cover. I found every single topic fascinating. I quickly became the family psychologist, ready to dispense psychological advice to anyone who listened. I conditioned my dog to salivate to a tone. If mom had a strange dream, I was ready to interpret. I must have been a terribly annoying kid.

My childhood interests in psychology were strongly reinforced by my undergraduate experiences at Drury College. There, I was heavily influenced by the psychologist who quickly became, and remains, my mentor, Dr. Victor Agruso. He was a staunch Skinnerian, and as a freshman had me reading Beyond Freedom and Dignity and other behavioristic tomes. My interests in animal learning and behaviorism stayed with me throughout the rest of my undergraduate and graduate education, and I ultimately completed a doctor of philosophy degree with an emphasis in these areas. 

But a funny thing happened upon my transition from graduate student to employed psychologist. Academic jobs in animal learning were few and far between, and I was desperate to find gainful employment. A brother (a different one this time) entered into the equation. He suggested that I contact the military because he thought they hired research psychologists. I did just that, found the pay and benefits were good, and soon found myself in the United States Air Force Officer Training School (OTS) in San Antonio, Texas. Upon completion, I was awarded an Air Force commission and was assigned to duty in an Air Force psychology laboratory. Almost faster than I can tell the story, I was a military psychologist!

Most people know what the military is and does. Somewhat fewer know what a psychologist is and does. But very few know what a military psychologist is and does. Introducing yourself as a military psychologist at a social event is almost the perfect icebreaker. “So, a military psychologist, eh? I guess you provide therapy to soldiers, huh?” My response is along the lines of “Well, some of us do that, but let me tell you more . . . .”

So, what is military psychology? To tell someone that you are a military psychologist does not convey much information. Military psychology includes the subdisciplines of social, experimental, industrial, organizational, human factors engineering, and clinical/counseling psychology, just to name a few. Some military psychologists are uniformed members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, or Marines. Others are civilians employed by the Department of Defense. Still others work in the private sector, from small businesses to huge corporations that support military programs. And some are traditional academic psychologists who, by virtue of their research focus, define themselves as military psychologists.

Twelve years of war have exposed some glaring deficiencies in our understanding of human behavior and adjustment. With a small, all volunteer military force, our career military men and women have deployed to war over and over again. I have friends and colleagues who have spent half of the past 12 years deployed in combat. The psychological toll of the seemingly unending deployment cycle has been immense. Among our military, suicide rates are at all time highs. Alcohol abuse and conduct disorders are common. Families suffer from discord and instability. Seldom in our history has there been such an overwhelming need for the science and practice of psychology.

War has always driven advances in science, and psychology is no exception. In World War I, the U.S. Army needed tools to classify millions of recruits to jobs in which they could succeed. Dr. Robert Yerkes, President of the American Psychological Association (APA), rallied members of the APA to support the military, and the Army Alpha and Army Beta selection tests were quickly developed and administered to millions of recruits. Technology developments in World War II gave rise to engineering psychology. And common to all wars, there is the need to better understand combat stress. This may entail strategies to train soldiers to be more resilient, as well as to provide clinical psychologists with more effective tools for treating combat stress disorders.

The wars of the 21st century have and will continue to challenge psychological science and practice. I argue in my book, Head Strong: How Psychology is Revolutionizing War, that psychology will be the deciding science in these wars. Nations that embrace psychology and turn to it to improve military selection, training, decision making, resilience, leadership, and cultural understanding will succeed compared to nations that focus only on building bigger and more lethal weapons. As Brigadier General (retired) Tom Kolditz writes, “If war is, as Carl von Clausewitz so elegantly stated, ‘politics by other means,’ then those politics and means are inherently psychological. War only exists in the human dimension.”

Military psychology, then, is simply psychology applied in a military context. It is an exciting time to be a military psychologist. And how do you become a military psychologist? The best answer is to study whatever area of psychology you find most interesting. Clinical, learning and cognition, biopsychology, stress and resilience, engineering psychology —it doesn’t matter. Go to graduate school and immerse yourself in the material that excites you the most. When you emerge with your advanced degree in hand, there will be a place for you in military psychology. And, it won’t hurt to listen to your older brothers or sisters.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Michael D. Matthews, Ph.D., is Professor of Engineering Psychology at the United States Military Academy and author of Head Strong: How Psychology is Revolutionizing War.

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