Military and Defense - Psynso (2023)

Military psychology is the research, design and application of psychological theories and experimentation 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 is applied towards counseling and treatment of stress and fatigue of military personnel or military families as well as treatment of psychological trauma suffered as a result of military operations.

Another use of military psychology is in interrogation of prisoners who may provide information that would enhance outcomes of friendly military operations or reduce friendly casualties.

Area of study

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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. The importance and severity of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has finally 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.

Operational psychology

Operational psychology is the use of psychological principles and skills to improve a military commander’s decision making as it pertains to conducting combat and/or related operations. This is a relatively new subdiscipline categorization that has been employed largely by psychologists and behavioral scientists in military, intelligence, and law enforcement arenas. 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 special mission units.

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.

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 United States 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.


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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 Congress in 1855 and is currently in a state of disrepair although operational, with revitalization plans scheduled to begin in 2010.

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. 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.

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. 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. Elizabeths, published the first protocol for psychological screening of Navy recruits based on Franz’s work.

Intelligence testing in the United States military

Lewis M. Terman, a professor at Stanford University, revised the Binet-Simon Scale in 1916, renaming it the Stanford-Binet Revision. 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.

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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.

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 the 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.

Yerkes and war

Robert M. Yerkes, while he was president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1917, worked with E. 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. 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.

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.

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.

World War II

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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.

During this war, 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.

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. Finally, by 1945 there were over 450 clinical psychologists serving in the Army.

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 PSYOPS), selection for special duties, and the influences of personal background, attitudes, and the work group on soldier motivation and morals.

Korean War

This was the first war where clinical psychologists served overseas. They were positioned in hospitals as well as combat zones. Their particular roles were vague, broad, and fairly undefined, except for the Air Force who provided detailed job descriptions for psychologists’ positions. The Air Force also outlined the standardized tests and procedures for evaluating recruits that were to be used.

Vietnam War

There were significant challenges that obstructed the regular use of psychologists to support combat troops in this war. 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.

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