In the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, long before the first missile was launched, a psychological battle was already being waged through leaflets, radio broadcasts, the Internet, loudspeakers and even cell phones.

The military has increasingly turned to psychological operations (PSYOP) during wartime to try to influence civilians' and troops' emotions, motives and behaviors through carefully planned persuasion campaigns. The key to success in these campaigns, PSYOP experts say, is tapping into social psychology research, such as the literature on learning, motivation, cognition, culture and persuasion.

Social scientists, including psychologists, are involved in various aspects of PSYOP--from helping with strategic planning and threat analysis to selecting PSYOP personnel.

But, experts say, psychology needs to play an even greater role in making these operations more effective. In fact, that's a major goal of Scott Gerwehr, an analyst at Rand, a public policy think tank, and a psychology PhD candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Psychological operations contribute more to the outcome of a conflict than they used to," Gerwehr says. Nowadays, PSYOP may alleviate the repercussions of war--for example, they can reduce casualties by encouraging opposing troops to surrender, and they can help win civilian support.

Hoping to spark such actions in the recent war with Iraq, U.S. military planes dropped more than 25 million leaflets in six months, encouraging Iraqi civilians and troops to tune into U.S. radio stations and discouraging them from fighting for Saddam Hussein's regime.

To counter the messages, Iraqi officials used some of their own psychological strategizing. They sought to dissuade Iraqi citizens from picking up leaflets by claiming that they were contaminated with chemical or biological poisons. To reinforce this, the officials wore protective suits as they disposed of the leaflets, according to news reports.

"Clearly, psychological operations are a much bigger deal now than 10 years ago during the first Gulf War," says Jay Seitz, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at City University of New York who studies PSYOP use in wartime. "Managing psychological aspects and public opinion has become critical in a war."

Seitz argues that PSYOP can be viewed as a form of mind control--meant to promote "a widespread manipulation of ideas" and get a group of people on the same page. As such, one side may try to demonize the other by using cognitive stereotypes and simplifications while making their own side appear just.

Creating an effective PSYOP

So what makes a PSYOP message stay with the target audience? A PSYOP is similar to advertising in that some messages are tailored to be "personal, persuasive and permanent," Seitz says.

The key is to use credible messages and conduct surveys on the target audience's behaviors, attitudes and beliefs, says psychologist Lt. Col. R. Scott Rodgers, PhD, who helped create PSYOP campaigns during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

For example, a target analysis conducted on the Afghani people revealed their tendency to be more regional- and family-oriented than nationalistic. "So trying to 'sell' someone on 'Afghanistan for Afghanis' isn't going to be as powerful as messages designed to hit more close to home for them," Rodgers explains.

But Iraq is different from Afghanistan, says Rodgers, director of the Information Operations Program at the Joint Military Intelligence College. "What we are finding is that it seems Iraqis stick together for nationalistic reasons," such as when there's an immediate threat from the outside, Rodgers says.

Once a target analysis identifies characteristics of a particular group's collective psyche, behavioral experts can then craft PSYOP products, Rand's Gerwehr says. For example, the military can create interventions that provide constructive alternatives to violence and other hate-inspired actions.

To effectively persuade citizens to change their political allegiances, lay down their arms and the like, the military must target their vulnerabilities and susceptibilities, Rodgers notes. That's why many PSYOP messages contain an "if-then" approach. In the war with Iraq, one of the leaflets dropped illustrates a coalition plane destroying an Iraqi tank with a caption in Arabic warning: "Take an offensive posture, and you will be destroyed." Another photo showed the Iraqi tank intact and read: "Do not take an offensive posture, and you will not be destroyed."

"It's very similar to any behavioral consequence you find in psychology on any child-rearing method--such as if you don't clean up your room, there will be consequences," Rodgers says. "PSYOP is most effective when there is a perception and appreciation of the consequences."

However, sometimes messages backfire. For example, during the first Gulf War, Iraqi officials tried to disillusion U.S. soldiers with a broadcast of a woman, Baghdad Betty, warning them that their wives and girlfriends were being seduced by actors like Tom Cruise, Tom Selleck and Bart Simpson while they were away. But, for obvious reasons, American soldiers weren't adversely affected by the misguided--ultimately rather comical--operation.

PSYOP not based on good intelligence analysis and principles of social and cognitive psychology will be ineffective, Gerwehr says. But when governments draw on such science as cognitive response theory, they can better predict how PSYOP messages will be received. They can also use such constructs as the Yale model of persuasion and the "sleeper effect" to help tailor a message, Gerwehr says. The "sleeper effect" holds that the communication source tends to fade in people's minds over time, but not the message. Therefore, if a message is sponsored by a controversial group, putting the attribution at the end might make it more persuasive, Gerwehr says.

Pointing to the value of such theories, Gerwehr maintains that, "Before we even do a PSYOP, we need to pay attention to the social psychology literature and use it as a source of guiding principles and hypotheses."

Do they work?

Once the PSYOP have been delivered, it's time to measure their effectiveness, Gerwehr says. Some effects are easier to gauge than others. For example, if a PSYOP instructs people to surrender, military officers can measure success by how many surrendered and attributed their surrender to the PSYOP instrument, such as leaflets--as in the case of the Gulf War, where PSYOP messages were credited for the surrender of 87,000 Iraqi soldiers.

On the other hand, evaluating attitude change and social influence requires longitudinal studies, polls or focus groups--rarely feasible in combat situations.

"That's one of the dilemmas with PSYOP," Rodgers says. "It takes time for the messages to have their effect. Not all attitude shifts result in behavioral change."

And the psychological war does not end when the last bomb is dropped. PSYOP often is in full-force during the reconstruction phase, Rodgers says. Civilian Affairs personnel--who help rebuild infrastructures and assist new governments--work closely with PSYOP units. In the Afghanistan reconstruction, for example, the PSYOP activity may get information out about when schools will reopen. "It has to do with the larger effect of winning the hearts and minds," Rodgers says.

Further Reading

To view the leaflets dropped during the war with Iraq, visit www.centcom.mil/ galleries/leaflets/showleaflets.asp.

APA's Public Policy Office advocates on Capitol Hill for all psychological research programs within the Department of Defense. It also helps to ensure that the military and congressional oversight committees have access to research that can guide operations when appropriate. For more information, contact Heather Kelly, PhD, at (202) 336-5932 or hkelly@apa.org