Into the Shadows: The Psychology of the Undercover World

The special challenges of undercover operations require special understanding.

Posted Jul 31, 2020

Public Domain Pictures
Source: Public Domain Pictures

James Bond swaggers into a casino.  Bond is cool- he’s the world’s most famous secret agent.

The problem, of course, is that Bond is a fictional character.

I once asked a real secret agent, a deliberately nondescript man who has very bad dreams, what he thought of the Bond portrayals.  “He’d be dead in five minutes,” said the agent. 

Let’s face it, it’s difficult to be a famous secret agent.  Famous secret- it’s an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp.  That oxymoron could get you killed.

But Bond illustrates the divide between the glamorous, fictional undercover world, which many accept as a reality, and the gritty soul-searing reality of actual undercover operations. 

Military and law-enforcement personnel typically operate with the immediate or rapid support of their colleagues.  Human beings are deeply social creatures, and social support is hugely important to us.   However, undercover officers (UCO’s) are frequently forced to operate completely alone.  Contact with their comrades, when it occurs, is often dangerous for them; operators may be under criminal surveillance.  They must also live closely with the subjects of their investigations- and without other contacts, boundaries may become confused. 

Undercover operators live with the chronic stress of potential betrayal.  Sometimes for years.  As mentioned in previous posts in The Forensic View, human beings are not good at dealing with chronic stress.  It reduces our physical health and our mental abilities, which must be kept especially sharp in the undercover operator who must pretend consistently to be a completely different kind of person. 

Chronic stress.  A good friend of mine in a European police agency was undercover for well over two decades, maintaining completely false personalities, consistently, for a third of a human lifetime.  This particular operator was ultimately betrayed by his own command structure and had to flee his country at that time. 

Chronic stress.  Chronic stress with a side of fries. 

Real undercover officers are not fictional characters, cardboard supermen in whom the laws of psychology have been suspended.  The terrible rigors of UC duties, alone, with no confidants and at lethal hazard, can produce a level of stress practically unprecedented; but it’s very difficult to study.  Everything in the undercover world must remain secret.  If not, UCO's will die at the hands of their enemies.  Getting the essential data is not the easiest thing in the world, especially because no UC operators in their right minds would give it to you. 

But there is some information out there, so we made an attempt (Kowalczyk and Sharps, 2017; see also Sharps, 2017) to summarize what is known about undercover psychology, hopefully for the benefit of UCO’s and the psychologists who treat them. 

Undercover personnel share many of the same familial, mood, and health disturbances typical of mainstream law enforcement, but there are also factors relatively unique to UCO’s.  They’re more prone to feelings of isolation and abandonment, and of lack of command support; obvious consequences of relatively solitary operations.  But some of the consequences of the UC world are less obvious; UCO’s may be more likely to misinterpret neutral stimuli as threats, and even to suffer hallucinations (shades of PTSD-see previous Forensic View posts).  They may also suffer depersonalization; aspects of the false personas they were forced to take undercover may reemerge in their post-UC life, both on the job and off.  Of great importance to the psychologist concerned with UC personnel: this frequently occurs without the officer’s awareness.  Behavioral patterns on which an officer's life depended may become strongly ingrained. 

UCO’s  may also develop sympathy for the criminals they investigate- this may seem surprising, but if you’re thrown into close acquaintance with your adversaries, you’ll probably notice they have some good qualities as well.  Without your comrades as a stabilizing influence, things may become very confused, as predictable within cognitive balance theory (see Heider, 1946).

Something I have noticed repeatedly in UCO’s I respect- when they perceive themselves to be in relative safety, they may take terrible risks.  A UCO may give a public speech, in his city of operations, in which he proclaims his name, his rank, and his undercover status.  UCO’s may have a meeting in a public venue in the absence of any security precautions.  UCO’s in a city outside but still near their area of operations may proclaim themselves safe, and saunter along a public street with no possibility of cover.  I have seen no research on this; but the luxury of perceived safety must be hauntingly attractive to the UCO, and it may be wise to warn operators against this tendency. 

In terms of best practices for psychological assistance to UCO’s: most authorities recommend a family-like structure for team treatment, with strong, reliable contacts as a bulwark against officer burnout.  It is important for psychologists to advocate for sufficient recovery time between UC missions for a given operator; UCO’s returned to the field too soon may make lethal mistakes.  Psychoeducation should include easy, realistic coping mechanisms. (It is vital that any psychologist working in this realm become familiar with the real-world demands of undercover operations- psychologists unfamiliar with this realm, and perhaps overconfident in the application of more general principles, may do more harm than good). 

On reentry of the UCO into the mainstream world of law enforcement, the psychologist may be helpful with psychoeducation for the operator, family, and command staff on the need for patient support.  It usually takes one to three years for long-term operators to reintegrate into normal social, family, and career contexts.  It is also important for the psychologist to emphasize the UC experience as part of an ongoing career, rather than as a defining and perhaps negative experience.

Elsewhere (Sharps, 2017), I referred to the undercover world as Kurtz’s River, after the mythical journey into evil in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  The undercover journey is one of great danger, psychological and otherwise- but with appropriate understanding on the part of operators, command staff, family and psychologists, it is possible for the operator to return. 

References

Heider, F. (1946).  Attitudes and Cognitive Organization.  Journal of Psychology, 21, 107-112. 

Kowalczyk, D., & Sharps, M.J. (2017).  Consequences of Undercover Operations in Law Enforcement: A Review of Challenges and Best Practices.  Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 32, 197-202.

Sharps, M.J. (2017).  Processing Under Pressure: Stress, Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement.  Flushing, New York: Looseleaf Law.