Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? In the military we change our postings about every two to three years. Up until February this year I was the Commanding Officer of 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group. Our role was to try and understand behaviours, exhibited and latent, amongst audiences in Helmand in Afghanistan. So for example we would try to understand why people might grow poppies or support the Taliban. In each case we would try to positively influence that behaviour – encourage them not to grow poppy, not to support the Taliban. Despite the groups name it was a big surprise when I took command to find there were no psychologists on the team! We had to very quickly understand some quite complex social science and start applying it on military operations. However one of the first things I did in command was to bring in a trained psychologist to help us in our work – and I sent them to Afghanistan to understand the problems we faced on the ground. Armed with our research our job was to provide the commander of British forces in Afghanistan with alternative solution to his particular day-to-day operational problems. Sometimes he would like them, sometimes he did not but we had a pretty good success rate which is why my unit was awarded the Firmin Sword of Peace – a prestigious award presented to the military unit who has done the most to help and support local communities on operations.
How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? I have been involved almost continuously in military operations in either Iraq or Afghanistan since the terrible events of 9/11in 2001. I became convinced very quickly that our biggest single problem was that we did not understand the people we were working with, for and sometimes against .. Afghans and Iraqis. I became really interested in why people chose to behave in specific ways – which we often would label as being irrational. Of course it was only irrational to us; to them their behaviour was invariably completely rational. So I began a bit of a journey to try and find why people behaved as they did and why we were not very good at understanding. That journey ended in my writing a PhD on the subject and co-authoring a book (Behavioural Conflict – Why Understanding People and Their Motivations Will Prove Decisive in Future conflict). People tell me I am now an ‘expert ‘ which is a terrible title to have as the subject is too broad and too complex for anyone to become truly expert. Besides, I always say that in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king!
What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? I am absolutely fascinated by Target Audience Analysis.. The science of understanding people’s actions and motivations and then applying subtle influence interventions to make the bad good and the good better. I love the fact that the most obscure and counter intuitive interventions can often have profound effects. For example in South America the Colombian government wanted to increase the number of FARC rebels laying down their weapons and giving up violence. One of the ways they did it was by running trip wires on remote jungle paths that when triggered illuminated huge Christmas trees in the jungle with messages reminding the rebels that their loved ones missed them. The idea was that it would remind the rebels about the life they had left behind, their families, their religion and for what result – loneliness, fear and violence? And it worked.. Many rebels told government officials that the reason they had turned themselves in was because of the Christmas trees and feeling lonely at a very special time of year. People associate the armed forces with the application of controlled violence and of course ultimately that is what we are trained to do. But it is expensive and, of course, dangerous. I like the idea very much that we can use new and evolving science to achieve our objectives, perhaps even stop conflict happening in the first place, without resorting to conflict.
Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? What we do is way outside conventional military operations and is often not understood by our seniors. I am always having to try and sell to them the benefits of targeted influence campaigns and it can be a bit frustrating at times. One of the reasons for this is that results often take a long time to become apparent where as with conventional military weaponry you know pretty quickly what happened! However I am proud to say that I have had a hand in changing the British and NATO armed forces doctrine from an attitudinal outlook (i.e. if we can make people like us they will behave in a positive manner) to one that recognises that attitudes are very temporal and not really very good indicators of future behaviour.
How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? Well it’s tricky. We very much need that steady flow of new ideas and thinking but theory alone very often translates badly into actual practice on military operations so we need our researchers to have a very good understanding of what we actually do on the ground and the constraints that exist. Sometimes it can just be environmental issues – researchers may have no comprehension of what working in 50 degree temperatures in Helmand can be like and the effect it may have the programme that they have recommended. On other occasions it can be political or operational security constraints which will always trump theoretical research. That’s why when I was with 15(UK) PsyOps I made a point of sending one of our attached psychologists to Helmand to see what was going on. The rubber of theory often has a very bumpy ride on the Tarmac of reality! However it is absolutely vital that those ideas keep flowing through to us. We must remain upto date with the latest thinking, even if we cannot apply it immediately. We often say we are the best trained armed forces in the world and I think that is true – mind you I would say that wouldn’t I! – however training needs to be accompanied by good and continuous education. It’s a fast changing world out there; just look at what has happened in cyber space in the last ten years. We need people who understand the science and who are prepared to push its boundaries to help us keep abreast of it.
What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? That’s not such an easy question because research is not one of the armed forces key outputs – we are however consumers and there are a number of organisations that exist to support and help. So young researchers may want to look at careers in, for example, Defence Science Technology Laboratories (DSTL) who exist, as a government funded body across a range of departments and functions, to provide scientific support. We also work closely with the UK Defence Academy in Wiltshire and with Cranfield University – both of these organisations recruit researchers. Oh, and I can thoroughly recommend joining the Royal Navy too!
All the profits from the book go to the charity Help For Heroes.