Also in this Issue

Bringing Psychological Science to National Security

In the counterintelligence community, there is a renewed and growing interest not just in the science of psychology, but also in related disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, communications, and cultural studies.

By Kathleen Pierce

Before I began my APA Science Policy Fellowship, I was not sure how a social psychologist with training in basic research would fit in with the fast-paced, often hectic world of the Department of Defense (DoD). When my fellowship concludes, I will leave with a great sense of optimism about the respect, patience, and appreciation that the DoD has for psychological science that is rigorous, valid, and beneficial to both the military and the discipline.

I had no previous experience in government or the military when I started work in the Behavioral Sciences Directorate of the DoDs Counterintelligence Field Activity. Most of my new colleagues are psychologists who often must travel at a moments notice to support counterintelligence operations or investigations. Other important goals of the Directorate include achieving a better understanding of the motivations of those who commit espionage or violence against the U.S., and seeking to improve the ways that newcomers (like me) are assessed during the security clearance process. Of course, these goals cannot be achieved without a thorough understanding of the personal, contextual, and cultural influences on human thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

As a social psychologist, I focus on the effect of the context on an individuals behavior. When understanding what might motivate someone to engage in destructive behaviors like espionage, we must understand that individual not only as a person, but also that individuals environment: how that individual is influenced by the information that flows from the people and culture surrounding him or her. As a professional, I find myself in the enviable position of re-learning my discipline every day, discovering innumerable novel perspectives on our science as I encounter intriguing and unusual questions in my office. It is a unique education for me as I continue to discover how broadly applicable the field of social psychology is in the intelligence community.

In the counterintelligence community, there is a renewed and growing interest not just in the science of psychology, but also in related disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, communications, and cultural studies. My most gratifying experiences have been to communicate the research I learned reading academic journals into a very real and unique context. Nearly all basic psychological research has useful and beneficial applications within the counterintelligence community, and it is a welcome challenge to translate research done primarily in laboratories to a complex, complicated context that I am just beginning to learn and understand.

It is important for psychologists working with people in federal, state, and local governments to explain to them the need for time and patience when conducting rigorous research to advance the science. (After all, how many years does it take to develop and build the next generation of night-vision goggles or communication satellites?) In my office, we are aware that such time and energy is an investment that must be made to ensure that the futures of the intelligence and defense communities are guided by valid, reliable, ethical, and accurate science. Our office has undertaken a concerted outreach effort to other research psychologists around the country; there is a strong desire to learn about state-of-the-art theory development and methodology that might otherwise be hidden inside professional journals or conferences. I have learned that the alternative to collaborating with these scientists is to go forward without the benefit of trustworthy science, or even worse, to proceed with research that is flawed or incomplete. By helping to bring rigorous, peer-reviewed science to a community that will understand and benefit from it, I am fulfilling what I believe to be the ultimate goal of psychological science.