Psychology Military Psychology
Updesh Kumar, Swati Mukherjee
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0298


Military psychology is a specialized field of applied psychology that defines itself not through its subject content or methodological concerns, rather through its goal of optimally fulfilling the requirements of its end user, the armed forces. It is a distinctive domain where varied sub-disciplines of psychology converge in pursuance of ensuring efficiency, effectiveness, and sustained performance by the armed forces in specific contexts and under exceptional circumstances. It is focused on building, enhancing, and optimizing the human capital. Though psychological principles have always been used by humankind in warfare, military psychology as a modern discipline found expression as recently as the First World War. Remarkably, the relationship between military and psychology has been almost symbiotic, the two growing in tandem and benefitting mutually. While the German military was a pioneer in utilizing the expertise of psychologists in the war effort, using aptitude testing for recruitment into different occupation, during the First World War, utilization of psychological expertise by Britain and France remained limited. After entering the First World War in 1917 the United States effectively utilized psychological knowledge in recruitment, classification, and training. Large-scale use of psychology gave impetus to the growth of psychology and resulted in the establishment of the Division of Psychology in the office of the Surgeon General of the US Army in 1917. Psychology in the military grew exponentially during the years of the Second World War. Psychologists were recruited in various branches of the armed forces, overseeing personnel selection, health care, training, proficiency measurement, and leadership. The American Psychological Association recognized the contributions of psychology to the war effort by including the Division of Military Psychology (Division 19) as a formal sub-division in 1945. The psychologists gained a formal entry in the British civil services during the postwar period. As the world settled into an uneasy peace and a Cold War, military psychology found ever newer avenues. While ensuring person-job fit remained a prime domain, clinical intervention, human factor engineering, leadership, propaganda, and other social processes provided military psychologists with new research opportunities. In the current era of techno-centric warfare, military psychology is finding applications in varied domains of optimizing man-machine interface for enhanced operational efficiency, enhancing cognitive capabilities through artificial intelligence supported decision networks and an improved understanding of personality processes. Also, as the changing nature of warfare necessitates that the nations find alternative ways of securing their interests beyond war, military psychology today stands at a juncture facing not only methodological challenges, but also unprecedented challenges of an ethical nature.

General Overviews

Military psychology is a broad and complex domain. There are a number of handbooks and general overviews available that introduce the learner to the applications of psychological principles in the military. Gal and Mangelsdorf 1991 and Cronin 1998, though a bit dated, provide a comprehensive introduction almost like a textbook. In a similar vein, Driskell and Olmstead 1989 elaborates upon the symbiotic relationship between military and the psychological science born out of the expediencies of the First World War and discusses three core areas of psychological research and applications in the military, namely, selection and classification, training, and human factors. A relatively contemporary overview of applications of psychology in the military is given by Laurence and Matthews 2012, which describes various subfields and specialties within military psychology. Expanding beyond basic operational processes like selection and training, terror and counterterror measures, Kennedy and Zillmer 2022 provides a focused discussion on stress, trauma, injury, and other clinical issues and incorporates updated information on military mental health services and evidence-based treatments. Another recent review of history and development of military psychology is provided by Mastroianni 2022 that expounds upon the vibrancy of the discipline focusing upon a core set of stable areas of study, dynamically adapting to ever newer applications. Hacker Hughes, et al. 2019 traces the history of military psychology in the United Kingdom and reflects upon the contemporary issues of significance. Also includes relevant international illustrations. Bowles and Bartone 2017 reflects upon clinical and organizational practice in the military, extensively delves upon regular topics like role of psychology in selection and placement, well-being, and mental health. Also includes specialized areas like assault and sexual harassment in the military, use of virtual reality in military mental health programs. Kumar 2019 provides a wide-ranging overview of the discipline and also includes contributions from across the globe. Matthews and Laurence 2011 most elaborately includes expansive discussions on various aspects of research and practice in four volumes of military psychology.

  • Bowles, Stephen, and Paul T. Bartone, eds. 2017. Handbook of military psychology: Clinical and organizational practice. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.

    A compendium of articles on challenges faced by contemporary military psychologists at individual, social, and organizational levels in ensuring mental health and operational efficiency of the armed forces. Spread across thirty-six chapters divided into seven parts. Encompasses topics like soldier well-being and resilience, selection and assessment of service personnel, and pre- and post-deployment issues. Also reflects upon specialized domains like aeromedical psychology, virtual reality applications, and opportunities and challenges faced by military psychology students. Dedicates an entire section on international perspectives with contributions from India, China, Australia, Sweden, Singapore, and many more.

  • Cronin, Christopher, ed. 1998. Military psychology: An introduction. Needham Height, MA: Simon & Schuster.

    An introductory text tailored to the needs of an initial learner, highlights the areas that differentiate applications of psychology in the military from psychological practice in general. Includes chapters covering eight major domains, namely, selection, classification and assignment, human factors, environmental factors, leadership, individual and group behavior, training and education, manpower management decision making support, and clinical and consultative/organizational psychology.

  • Driskell, James E., and Beckett Olmstead. 1989. Psychology and the military: Research applications and trends. American Psychologist 44.1: 43–54.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.44.1.43

    A definitive text that traces the contours of military psychology in the United States through the two world wars and after 1945 until the late 20th century. Cites and provides references to the initial researches published in the domain. Narrates in detail the initial struggles of American military psychology to establish itself. Also discusses the contemporary research directions and funding within the defense establishment of the United States.

  • Gal, Reuven, and David Mangelsdorff, eds. 1991. Handbook of military psychology. New York. John Wiley & Sons.

    Provides an exhaustive overview of goals and methods of military psychology. Divided into seven sections and thirty-nine chapters dealing with: selection, classification and placement in military services; human factors and military performance; environmental factors and military performance; leadership in military performance; individual and group behavior; clinical and consultative/organizational psychology; and special subjects and special situations. Also indicates toward evolving specializations within the field that have come to fruition since the publication of the volume.

  • Hacker Hughes, H. Jamie, M. McCauley, and L. Wilson. 2019. History of military psychology. BMJ Military Health 165: 68–70.

    Provides an overview of the origins, history, and current composition of military psychology in the United Kingdom. Describes the major developments in research practices and applications of military psychology during the two world wars and thereafter. Focuses upon the growth of clinical domain within military psychology in the postwar years, especially since the late 20th century, and describes the modalities through which civilian and uniformed psychologists ensure technically sound and timely delivery of mental health services.

  • Kennedy, Carrie H., and Eric A. Zillmer, eds. 2022. Military psychology: Clinical and operational applications. 3d ed. New York: Guilford Press.

    Significantly revised and updated edition covering contemporary issues and challenges in clinical practice and its operational application owing to the changing nature of warfare, prolonged deployments, counterterrorism and counterintelligence efforts, peacekeeping and negotiation strategies. Covers topics like assessment and selection of high-risk operational personnel, psychology of terrorists, and crisis and hostage negotiation and disaster mental health.

  • Kumar, U. 2019. Routledge international handbook of military psychology & mental health. London and New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780429281266

    A compendium bringing forth the state of the art in military psychology theory, practice, and future prospects. With contributions spanning the globe, comprehensively elucidates international perspectives in three broad domains and thirty-five chapters. Discusses evolution of the discipline over the years; challenges to soldiering brought about by the changing nature of warfare; and mental health issues and prospects in the military.

  • Laurence, Janice H., and Michael D. Matthews. 2012. Oxford handbook of military psychology. New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195399325.001.0001

    Explores the critical link between psychology and military, covering a wide array of topics organized across five relevant sections: clinical psychology, general psychological contributions to eclectic emerging concerns, industrial/organizational psychology, applied experimental psychology, and social psychology. Provides an extensive overview of military applications of psychological science.

  • Mastroianni, George R. 2022. History and development of military psychology. In Handbook of military sciences. Edited by A. M. Sookermany. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

    Considers the historical connection between psychology and the military drawing from the ancient Greek scholars’ conceptualizations and places these in the contemporary context. Delves into selection and training, leadership, and combat trauma as three early domains of military psychology, and expands upon these to elaborate upon the contemporary applications and developments.

  • Matthews, Michael D., and Janice H. Laurence, eds. 2011. Military psychology (Reference Collection). Los Angeles: SAGE.

    A four-volume collection that aims to highlight significant developments in military psychology that have implications for psychological research and practice in general. The four volumes comprehensively bring together the scholarship on selection, training, and performance; applied experimental and engineering psychology; stress and resilience; leadership, culture and morale.

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