How to win wars by influencing people’s behaviour

When terrorism is staged for YouTube and all sides are media-savvy, the military is turning to the behavioural sciences for help

In 1955 Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who led the project that developed the first atomic bomb, addressed the American Psychological Society. He warned that both physics and psychology could endanger humanity but that psychology “opens up the most terrifying prospects of controlling what people do and how they think”. Despite Oppenheimer’s warning, the idea that you could change human behaviour to win a war, rather than winning a war to change human behaviour, languished as an also-ran in the cold war arms race. But as information technology has begun to globalise and behavioural science has entered the mainstream, there is an increasing move to put psychology at the centre of military operations.

Techniques such as deception and propaganda have been the mainstay of warfare for thousands of years, but there is a growing belief that the modern world has changed so fundamentally that war itself needs to be refigured. Confrontations between standing armies of large nation states are becoming rare while conflicts with guerrilla or terrorist groups, barely distinguishable from the local population, are increasingly common. In other words, overwhelming firepower no longer guarantees victory.

As a result, dissuading people from taking up arms is as much of a military objective as killing the people who actually engage your troops. To the insurgent, influence is crucial, owing to the impossibility of winning the conflict through the force of arms. Violence, then, becomes not an act of war, but an illustration of resistance. For both sides, showing successful attacks on the opposition or highlighting the abuses of occupying forces is essential to forcing a withdrawal through undermining domestic support or fomenting international unpopularity.

The latest report on global strategic trends from the Ministry of Defence calls this “armed propaganda”, highlighting the fact that attacks may be staged as much for their value on YouTube as their physical effect in weakening the enemy. From this point of view, all wars are media wars and, with this in mind, the MoD predicts that “kinetic” force will become less important as social influence becomes increasingly significant in defending British interests.

Social influence has traditionally been conceptualised as winning hearts and minds, but many military thinkers are now focused on a new approach informed by the behavioural sciences. A milestone in this approach has been the book Behavioural Conflict by Major General Andrew Mackay and Commander Steve Tatham, who co-ordinated influence-informed British military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book has become a core text for a new generation of officers and argues that changing behaviour – not beliefs or perceptions – is the key to military influence. This is an alternative to the propaganda or public relations model that says that getting the target audience to share your beliefs and understand key information is central, despite well-established research showing that beliefs and attitudes are relatively poor predictors of behaviour.

Mackay and Tatham …read more    

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