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A Lack of Effect Studies and of Effects : The Use of Strategic Communication in the Military Domain


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International Journal of Strategic Communication

ISSN: 1553-118X (Print) 1553-1198 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/hstc20

A Lack of Effect Studies and of Effects: The Use of

Strategic Communication in the Military Domain

Claes Wallenius & Sofia Nilsson

To cite this article: Claes Wallenius & Sofia Nilsson (2019) A Lack of Effect Studies and of Effects: The Use of Strategic Communication in the Military Domain, International Journal of Strategic Communication, 13:5, 404-417, DOI: 10.1080/1553118X.2019.1630413

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/1553118X.2019.1630413

© 2019 The Author(s). Published with license by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

Published online: 12 Sep 2019.

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A Lack of Effect Studies and of Effects: The Use of Strategic

Communication in the Military Domain

Claes Wallenius and Sofia Nilsson

Department of Security, Strategy and Leadership, Swedish Defence University, Stockholm, Sweden


Psychological operations (PSYOP) implies a purposeful use of communica-tion by a government or military organizacommunica-tion to fulfill its mission and is one understanding of strategic communication. The present study focuses on PSYOP effects. The few studies available on this area indicate that the effects of PSYOP generally tend to be on a minor scale, while PSYOP may have a stronger impact in specific contexts. We discuss possible explana-tions and suggest that a number of psychological factors inhibit PSYOP success. One major example is that of human cognitive conservatism. Other psychological mechanisms, mostly emotional ones, may promote PSYOP, for example, strong identification with one’s own (national, ethnic or reli-gious) group, a sense of threat to the resources, status and/or survival of own group, a perception of hostility from other groups, and the experience that another group has devalued or offended the in-group.


Received 11 Feb 2019 Accepted 07 Jun 2019 Revised 08 May 2019


It has been argued that strategic communication as an integral element of warfare is widely neglected by communication science, probably due to the negative notions of information warfare and propaganda. The discipline actually arose a hundred years ago around the term propaganda, but the association to wartime communication stimulated the rise of other terms like public relations, communication management, and present-day strategic communication (Zerfass, Verčič, Nothhaft, & Werder,2018).

It has been debated what strategic communication really is but Hallahan, Holtzhausen, van Ruler, Verčič, and Sriramesh (2007) defined it as“the purposeful use of communication by an organization to fulfill its mission.” Zerfass et al. (2018) has elaborated it to all communication substantial for the survival and sustained success of an entity. Strategic communication is the purposeful use of communication by an organization or other entity to engage in conversations of strategic signifi-cance to its goals (Zerfass et al., 2018, p. 487). Psychological operations (PSYOP), Information Operations (IO) or psychological warfare are concepts commonly used for this in the present military context. They constitute examples of purposeful use of communication by a government or military organization to fulfill its mission and are, accordingly, different understandings of the concept strategic communication.

The scientific concern in IO and PSYOP declined after the cold war, but was reemphasized with the Iraqi Gulf War, the military development in Russia since the Caucasus war in 2008, and the recruitment campaigns to Daesh. In modern hybrid warfare, PSYOP are even more important, but also more complex, since advances in information technology have changed the conditions radically. The PSYOP also plays a fundamental part in sixth-generation warfare and is presently highlighted in the Russian military doctrine and military theoretical debate (Mattsson,2016).

CONTACTClaes Wallenius claes.wallenius@fhs.se Department of Security, Strategy and Leadership, Swedish Defence University, Karlstad SE-651 80, Sweden

© 2019 The Author(s). Published with license by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (http:// creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.


It seems often assumed that PSYOP have effects on“target audiences.” This PSYOP term refers to the specific public group or community targeted by messages, intending to conform them with regard to certain aims and objectives (see for example, Yaworsky,2009). Yet, what is the scientific evidence for this assumption? Do PSYOP produce the intended effects? If yes, what psychological mechanisms may explain them? If no, what might explain the lack of impact? How do various preconditions and circumstances mitigate or magnify the effects of PSYOP? Thus, the aim of this article is twofold:

(1) To review the effects of PSYOP in the target audience. We searched a number of databases, mainly PsycINFO, PsycARTICLES, and Google Scholar using keywords consisting of a variety of combinations, including PSYOP* AND effect* AND target audience AND influen*, etc. In complement, the snowball method was used, implying that reference lists of relevant articles were screened. Journal and media articles were complemented with military doctrines, official reports and documents. General searches on PSYOP as a phenomenon resulted in a substantial amount of articles. However, only a handful of empirical effect studies were found in the searched bases.

(2) To provide a theoretical and hypothesis-generating discussion about the psychological mechanisms underlying the extent to which we see effects. This discussion includes cogni-tive, emotional and socio-psychological factors. It should be noted that this study is not intended to provide a comprehensive review of the PSYOP literature, but rather to explore and theoretically discuss articles of relevance for the subject matter at hand.

PSYOP definitions

On a general level, much has been written about the importance of information dominance, control and availability for superior command and control in the modern high-tech battlefield (Brunner & Cavelty, 2009; Crawford,1997; Hutchinson,2006; Sahgal & Anand,2007). It has even been argued that informa-tion warfare adds a fourth dimension of warfare beyond air, land, and sea (McLendon,1994). Many have also written about the importance of modern information technology and that it makes us vulnerable in several ways (Adamson,1997; Brunner & Cavelty,2009; The Ministry of Defence,1995).

However, the definitions and delimitations of IO and PSYOP (or psychological warfare) do not always appear clear and consistent. The PSYOP is no longer used only to explain the intentional efforts to manipulate an enemy’s will to fight, but has been expanded to describe attempts to influence public opinion on various issues. While IO merely involves “controlling the ‘infosphere’” (perceptions and information flows), PSYOP goes a bit further by comprising a desired effect on an overall plan to influence people’s perceptions, attitudes, emotions, motives, objective reasoning, behaviors and deci-sions in a way that favors one’s own side (see for example Hutchinson,2006; Joint Chiefs of Staff,2003). The application of PSYOP may have a number of different objectives. The classic form of PSYOP seeks to lower the morale of enemy military troops by sending various types of demoralizing messages via leaflets. A further purpose directed towards specific and distinct groups is to influence or disrupt an opponent’s decision-making processes. Related to this, is the concept of reflexive control, used primarily in the Russian military science theories (Makhnin, 2013; Thomas, 2004). A third purpose is to influence public opinion in both domestic and foreign populations through a certain form of propaganda. In addition, the development in the Middle East has shown a new pattern of psychological terror aimed at intimidating opponents by posting brutally violent acts on the Internet (Suarez,2015; Winter,2015).

In sum, PSYOP is generally defined by its purpose, to influence the attitudes, perceptions, emotions, and ultimately the behavior of a target audience. In terms of the definition of PSYOP, first it may be noted that PSYOP is not necessarily a wartime activity. It may be accomplished during both war and peace, as well as during different kinds of tensions and crises in between. Second, the specific media used


for mediating the information is not specified, but can range from loudspeakers, posters and leaflets in the battlefield to internet and mainstream media or even face to face. Third, PSYOP does not necessarily involve disinformation or lies (see e.g. Walker,1996). In fact, it could be claimed that obvious lies are easily dismantled by the opposing side and consequently, these may be considered counterproductive. Rather, PSYOP could imply the selection and framing of information, with the intent to persuade the target audience. Fourth, PSYOP could be a)“black” operations, denoting an activity that appears to emanate from a source other than the true one, b)“grey” and covert, meaning that the source is not evident, or c)“white” and overt with an transparent and identified source (Headquarters, Department of the Army,2005). It should be noted that the concept of black operations is also used in advertising (“Black Ops Advertising”). It refers to the occasional difficulty of distinguishing between fact-based journalism and advertising, especially on the Internet (Einstein,2016).

The existing literature on the receiver’s end of PSYOP is often criticized for treating the target audience as one single entity. Hence, it is argued that there will be no“one-size-fits-all approach.” It is often a matter of directing PSYOP towards various groups of individuals at the same time. For example, one PSYOP may aim at reducing the will of an adversary to fight, another to strengthen the support from friendly target groups, while a third wishes to convince neutral groups to cooperate and provide support (Konnander,2012). The effects are thus apt to differ depending on respective target audience. What is informative, persuasive and compelling among neutral, friendly or potentially friendly target audiences may be provocative, disruptive and coercive among enemy or hostile target audiences.

For the purpose of clarifying the relationship between all activities described in the literature as PSYOP, first, we suggest identifying the different levels of PSYOP (strategical, operational, and tactical) and second, the operation’s aim and target (see Table 1).

It may be noted that the literature is far from consistent with regard to definitions of the terms, “strategic,” “operational,” and “tactical.” In everyday spoken or written discourse, both tactical and strategic may connote that an activity has some deliberate purpose. Strategy is generally associated with a higher organizational level and a more long-term focus, while tactics often has a more limited perspective. In the (Swedish) military context, strategy is the art of using the military force at the highest military level to achieve political objectives. Operation is a summary term for military actions or the execution of missions or tasks, which, regardless of level of command, are aimed at achieving a specific goal within an area. Tactics is a summary term for the varying means and methods used to achieve a specific purpose in relation to a battle (see e.g., Swedish Armed forces,2014,2016).

In the strategical communication literature, definitions may differ somewhat from the military context. For example, Botan (2017) uses the concepts of grand strategy, strategy, and tactics. Grand strategy refers to the policy level decisions an organization makes regarding goals, alignments, ethics, and relationships. Strategy is the campaign-level planning and decision-making. Tactics are the specific activities and outputs through which strategies are implemented. Plowman (2017) uses the concepts of big and little strategy, where the former refers to the corporate level and the latter to the operational and tactical levels.

What should be noted in this context is that the militarily defined levels (strategical, operational, and tactical) can all be considered to use strategical communication in the sense that they use communication with the purpose of fulfilling their missions or goals.

Table 1.Source, aim and target audience for PSYOP on different levels.

Source Aim Receiver/target audience Strategical/political level Government Influence decision making Other government

Influence opinion Own or other population Operational level Higher (military) staff Influence decision making Corresponding enemy level

Influence resistance motivation Enemy (or own) civilians/military units Tactical level Local (military) staff Influence decision making Corresponding enemy level


A lack of effect studies– and of effects

The PSYOP will be part of future conflicts and affect all parts of the total defense, whereas controlling PSYOP will be a challenge to the conventional military structure. It will be essential to understand the nature of a PSYOP in order to respond in an appropriate way. Therefore, scholars find it necessary to focus more on effect analyses (Crawford, 1997; Franke, 2013; Mesch, 2014; Nissen, 2007). However, while much has been written about PSYOP, empirical studies of psycho-logical effects rare. Neither is there an overarching applicable method of how to measure such effects.

Theoretical starting points often appear closely intertwined with national political interests, national strategic objectives and national military doctrines that are not scientifically grounded. Many testimonials of the effects of PSYOP appear to be made on insubstantial grounds with regard to single case studies. It seems common to make imprecise statements regarding impact, such as, for example, that information has a“profound effect on military operations and national security” (see e.g., Crawford,1997).

Although the research base is limited and to some extent dated, it has been argued that short-term tactical operations, such as the spreading of rumors and front propaganda, may have some effect. In contrast, long-term strategic operations have had more mixed success (Landahl,1989,1990). Katz, McLaurin, and Abbot (1996) conclude that PSYOP“directed at denied or hostile areas should aspire to modify peripheral attitudes only, not fundamental ones. Our government’s persuasive commu-nications to foreign audiences enjoy very limited parameters of only potential effect.”

Munoz (2012) reviewed the effectiveness of the U.S. PSYOP in Afghanistan 2001–2010, conclud-ing that some operations were successful in achievconclud-ing the objectives, some were not, and some had counterproductive effects. He summarizes: “If the overall IO mission in Afghanistan is defined as convincing most residents of contested areas to side decisively with the Afghan government and its foreign allies against the Taliban insurgency, this has not been achieved.” Neither, he concludes, did the Taliban propaganda achieve all of its objectives. Public opinion surveys suggested that both the Taliban and U.S./NATO forces were viewed negatively.

It appears that much of the literature on PSYOP relies heavily on overconfidence in influential techniques and messages by making implicit simplified statements about human impressionability in terms of linear relationships. It is often assumed– or feared – that some effects occur, but whether these are in line with the sender’s intentions is far from clear.

Difficulties in measuring effects

The first difficulty to mention in measuring effects of PSYOP is that there appears to be an inherent lack of precision and uniformity in developing PSYOP measures of effectiveness (MOEs). Due to diverging political, doctrinal, legal, and moral aspects, there are differences in how operations are conducted and by which means (Nissen,2007). Szafranski (1995) concludes that the only constant in PSYOP is the actual effect sought. Emery (2008) argues that there is a tendency to apply empirical data in an imprecise way to measure subjective effects, while results will have little significance if success criteria are not properly defined. It is also necessary to consider the hierarchy of effects (first-, second-, and third-order effects) to be able to identify potential collateral (or unintended) effects that may result in positive or negative outcomes or even that operations may backfire (Franke, 2013; Garfield,2007; Mann, Endersby, & Searle,2002).

Second, in contrast with conventional warfare, PSYOP constitutes non-lethal combined arms aimed at “soft kills,” making it more cost-effective (Cronin & Crawford, 1999; Mallet, 1997; McConnell, 2005). At the same time, the lower lethality and destructiveness makes the damage done harder to assess accurately (Arquilla,1999). Others argue that even though information itself will not cost lives, denial or subversion will, and mastery of information and information processes may lead to an increase in precision and lethality (Crawford,1997; Henry & Peartree,1998).


Another factor that complicates matters is that PSYOP occasionally serves as a support function that reinforces the effects of other activities (i.e. military action, political initiatives, security opera-tions, reconstruction efforts). The effect is assumed only marginal if PSYOP do not permeate the entire operation, from strategic to tactical level (Emery,2008; Gibb,2000; Konnander,2012; Mallet, 1997; van Niekerk, Pillay, & Maharaj,2011). Hence, a coordinated effort is hypothesized to maximize effectiveness, but this also complicates the measuring of effects (see Livingston, 1997). In addition, there are general methodological limitations, such as difficulties in using experimental methods and randomized controlled trials that may demonstrate causality. Many also point to the difficulties in how to evaluate or measure psychological or attitude changes (see for example, Munoz,2012).

Munoz (2012) assumes that it is usually not possible to demonstrate cause-and-effect relation-ships between PSYOP actions on the one hand and observed behavior on the other, as other factors, unknown to observers, could account for the particular behavior in question (Munoz,2012; see also Helmus, Paul, & Glenn,2007). Nevertheless, Munoz points out questions to ask in future PSYOP in order to replicate past successes and avoid past failures. He starts by dividing effects into two groups: the measure of performance (MOP) and the measure of effectiveness (MOE). There is nonetheless criticism levelled against such kinds of measurements, as performance-based indicators confirm only that a message has been seen or heard, not its impact (Garfield,2007). Lamb (2005) agrees that it is impossible to prove causation when assessing the effect of PSYOP on target audiences. The main reason is that even if a desired behavior occurs in the target audience, it may have occurred anyway– even without the PSYOP. He argues further that when PSYOP requests specific behaviors, the best validation of PSYOP effects is if the desired behaviors materialize in close proximity (time and distance) to the operations. When PSYOP attempts to change attitudes and beliefs, the best evidence is surveys, polls, and anecdotal but expert opinions on population moods.

One last problem is that of confidentiality and that a majority of intelligence is unavailable due to secrecy (Mesch, 2014). Practitioners of PSYOP may furthermore lack interest in having their methods evaluated and even less interest in having the results published in international scientific journals.

Theoretical discussion: What may hinder or facilitate PSYOP?

The discussion so far emphasizes the complexity of measuring PSYOP effects. Even though a high number of potential causes are brought forward, it seems problematic that the perspectives of those being targeted for military, political or economic significance seem to be woefully neglected. Accordingly, a way to approach the methodological concerns of measuring effects ought to begin by emphasizing the underlying mechanisms of target audience impressionability. However, the apparent lack of studies emphasizing the psychological factors in human impressionability, which contribute to the success of PSYOP, is extraordinary. Examination of these factors would be particularly interesting as affecting how messages resonate with target audiences, would most likely be a more effective approach than trying to prevent groups from distributing their messages (Emery,2008).

There are several possible ways in which to structure a presentation of human impressionability in relation to PSYOP. For example, Taillard and Giscoppa (2013) discuss in their review of PSYOP methods a relatively large number of psychological models and theories. They categorize those under the headings idea, emotional, and behavioral modification. The discussion is interesting, but largely comprises a review of general psychological theories and models, with sometimes only a loose connection to PSYOP. Adams, Sartori, and Waldherr (2007), reviewing the literature on different types of effects, divide these into source, message/argument, and receiver effects (see Figure 1). They conclude that sources with credibility, power, and attractiveness are more persuasive. The impact of source credibility is higher when arguments are weak, when the receiver has minor knowledge, or when the issue is complex. The characteristics of the message also have impact on its persuasive effect. A message is – not surprisingly – more persuasive when it has strong arguments, but also other features are shown to be of importance, such as order, framing, style, and repetition. Linking


these factors is, however, not a linear or simple process. The persuasiveness of a message is also highly dependent on the receiver variables and characteristics and other contextual factors. The authors are mostly concerned with factors that may increase the likelihood of successful persuasion, rather that measuring its objective impact. This implies that even if method x is more successful than method y in persuading the target audience, both methods could still have a low effect. One limitation should also be noted in that many of the findings are based on laboratory research conducted with university undergraduates. Our focus in this study is mainly on the receiver effects, while we recognize that source and message or arguments effects may also be of importance.

Psychological mechanisms that may hinder PSYOP Denial of schema-inconsistent information

Much is written about the human ability to manage and process information. Our information processing capacity has certain shortcomings, especially when the information is unclear, unexpected or does not exist in our imagination. In addition, we have cognitive biases that may affect how we receive and process incoming information. Since the construct of cognitive bias has been extensively described and discussed elsewhere, we will not dwell on it in detail here (see e.g., Heuer,1999).

Humans have a coherent set of assumptions or schemas about the world and their role in it. Schemas are defined as preexisting theories, often formed at an early age, that guide what is noticed and remembered, as well as how new information is interpreted. They are, however, difficult to change. When an individual is faced with a new situation, they tend to have biased perceptions and memory for schema-consistent information. There is also a tendency to search for confirmation of the schema-consistent information and to avoid information that threatens these inner cognitive structures (“confirmation bias”). Well-developed schemas generally resist change and can even persist in the face of disconfirming evidence (“belief perseverance”) (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Janoff-Bulman & Timko,1987).

The cognitive conservatism that is the result of our denial of schema- inconsistent information is a general human mechanism that, in this context, aims at affecting how a target audience receives information. This kind of mechanism also affects decision-making on a higher level. For example, policy-makers are slow in revising their initial impressions of events (Tetlock & McGuire, 1986). They draw simple and biased lessons from history and once committed to a course of action, they find it very difficult to retreat from that commitment. Under high-stress conditions or in crisis situations, they tend to analyze information in especially simplistic and superficial ways.

Denial of threatening information

The PSYOP occasionally involves information with threatening content. How people react to such information is well researched (for a review, see e.g., Wallenius,2001). When people are exposed to distant threats, they tend to consider the threat as personally irrelevant. Certain aspects of the information may be denied, such as its personal relevance, urgency, and vulnerability (see for example, Breznitz,1983). This phenomenon can be related to what has been termed as an“illusion of unique invulnerability” (see Perloff, 1983, for a review). We tend to perceive ourselves as less vulnerable than others, especially if we have not been victimized by negative life events. This sense of invulnerability or defensive denial can also be related to individual dispositions (Wallenius,2001).

In situations involving more extreme danger, media sources often describe people’s reactions in terms of panic. The most common response is actually the reverse of panic, that is, inaction or postponement of any safety measure to the latest possible time (for a review, see e.g., Wallenius, 2001). Even when there are actual signs of danger, the typical response are disbelief, denial and passivity (Drabek, 1986; Glenn, 1979; Janis & Mann,1977). Any vagueness in the message may be used to reinterpret the situation in a non-threatening fashion until perceptions indicate almost indisputably otherwise.


There is, conclusively, a tendency to deny threatening information, which may have relevance in PSYOP. There is also a tendency to believe the opposite, that people easily react with panic. While the general belief is that people overreact when receiving threatening or anxiety provoking informa-tion, most research shows that the opposite problem, passivity, is far more commonplace. This implies that when using threatening information, for whatever purpose, the general risk of not fulfilling the purpose might be quite evident.

Psychological mechanisms that may facilitate PSYOP In-group identification and out-group generalizations

Our emotional reactions have evolved from the ancestors successful in reproducing their genes. Since these ancestors lived in groups and tribes and were dependent on the collective for survival, we possess several emotions that enable us to function in a group and cope with threats from hostile groups (for a review, see e.g., Buss,1999). This implies, among other things, that group norms have a strong influence on the individual. Several classic studies in social psychology show different aspects of this tendency, such as the Stanford Prison experiment (Zimbardo, 2007), Milgram’s obedience studies (Milgram,1974), Asch’s studies of group pressure (Asch,1951) and Janis’ studies of groupthink (Janis, 1972). Overall, these studies show that the single individual is strongly responsive to and influenced by in-group norms.

An in-group refers to the group we belong to or identify with while an out-group consists conse-quently of the opposite, or those we do not identify with. We tend to idealize the members of an in-group, evaluate them more positively, afford them recognition for their achievements, see them more readily as distinct individuals and perceive them as more attractive. Their failures are explained by external factors, such as bad luck. In contrast, the members of an out-group are perceived as being uniform. They are different from us, but equal among themselves. We often associate them with negative stereotypical qualities. We explain their success as dependent on temporary factors or luck. Their mistakes are blamed on their own characteristics, rather than on unfortunate circumstances. We hold them accountable when they become victims of crime, sickness or other adversity, and we find them less worthy of compassion (see e.g., Krebs & Denton, 1997). Related to this is the ultimate attribution error– a tendency to attribute negative behavior demonstrated by the rival group to personal characteristics, rather than situational factors (see e.g., Bar-Tal & Halperin,2013).

In real life, most people have more than one identity and can identify with various groups, based on various religions, races, ethnicities, languages, and nationalities (Huddy,2013). In modern social psychological research, the concept of the in-group seems to be used at several levels, from smaller groups up to national or even regional level (e.g., “Europeans”). National identity is considered important in understanding political behavior, even if people within a nation are normally hetero-geneous and divided into classes, minorities, or other groups (ibid.).

The need for an enemy

Establishing a notion that an out-group is hostile is one purpose of PSYOP and war propaganda. Are there any psychological mechanisms that will make the receiver sensitive to this type of messages? Volkan (1985) argues that humans have a need to identify some people as allies and others as enemies. He has a developmental and psychoanalytical approach and argues that this need has evolved from the individual’s efforts to protect his/her sense of self. Members of any given group in a political or military conflict revert to childhood ways of reinforcing social bonds, developing in-group platitudes, and investing objects with mystical value.

In a review of research on the psychology of U.S. images of the Soviet Union, Silverstein (1989) identifies three approaches. The first comes from the psychodynamic perspective, where enemy images are related to concepts such as projection and displacement. The state hypothesis posits that, at a given point in time, some people may suffer anger or anxiety regarding their life circumstances that may be projected onto enemies. The trait hypothesis posits that some people are more likely than


others to use projective defenses and adhere to more extreme enemy images. Research provides some support for these hypotheses, even if many studies suffer from methodological weaknesses. A study by Murray and Meyers (1999) supported, to some extent, the trait hypothesis. Findings indicated that those who had been highly suspicious of Soviet motives before the end of the cold war were more likely to view other countries with suspicion and to perceive the international environment as dangerous after the Soviet collapse. There is, however, no evidence that people have actually transferred old fears about the Soviet Union onto a replacement enemy, e.g., China.

The second approach identified by Silverstein (1989) is cognitive. Biases influenced how Americans processed information about the Soviet Union. Some examples are that American students’ evaluations of Soviet actions were more negative than their evaluations of the same actions as performed by the United States. Correspondingly, students chose motives that were more negative when actions were performed by the Soviet Union, than when the same actions were performed by the United States. A related finding is that policy makers, when estimating causes of other states’ behavior, overestimate the importance of long-term planning and underestimate the importance of chance and immediate situational pressures (Tetlock & McGuire,1986). Similarly, more often than falling into the trap of incorrectly believing that other statesmen are just like themselves, decision-makers frequently fail to empathize with the adversary. That is, they tend to pay insufficient attention to constraints and pressures faced by their opponent, including those generated by the decision-maker’s own state (Jervis,1988).

The third approach is that enemy images are primarily social constructs (Silverstein,1989). The beliefs and attitudes about the Soviet Union held by most Americans were not based on direct experience, but on information and images emanating from other people and media. Images published by newspapers, for example, influence the attitudes of the people that read those newspapers.

Besides the psychological explanations for enemy images discussed above, there are also social and political ones. Lundgren (2013) concluded in a media analysis that Russia’s military capacity is pictured as a small but clear threat in Nordic newspapers. Sweden had the highest threat perception followed by Finland, Norway, and Denmark. A stronger historical memory of Russia as an enemy was related to a more threatening media picture of Russia’s military capacity, while higher trade with Russia was related to a less threatening picture.

We can conclude that humans occasionally seem to have a need for an enemy – or rather an image of an enemy. This is termed enmification (Rieber & Kelley, 1991). To construct an enemy image means that we do not objectively register the behavior of some perceived enemy. Instead, we attribute malicious or bad qualities to them. The phenomenon can be seen in wars, where all sorts of grotesque, malevolent, or morally blameworthy qualities are occasionally attributed to the enemy. In its extreme form, the phenomenon has taken the form of blood accusations, where out-groups are groundlessly accused of ritual murder. Jews in the Middle Ages were accused of ritual murder on Christian children. Nazi propaganda also featured these kinds of accusations. Consequently, the target audience may be more susceptible to information that has some connection to group identification and tendencies for enmification. A hypothesis is, accordingly, that PSYOP will be more successful (from the sender’s point of view) if it establishes:

(1) A strong identification with an (national, ethnic or religious) in-group;

(2) Notions that the resources, status and/or survival of the in-group is threatened; (3) Notions that an outgroup is hostile and/or devalue or offend the in-group.

One recent example is the Russian propaganda in relation to their military interventions in Ukraine, their annexation of Crimea and their other conflicts with former Soviet republics. It seems to make the most of these principles. The Russian minorities become the in-group and the majority population becomes the (hostile) out-group.


A tendency to overvalue the enemy capacity

Conclusively, it has been argued that we have a tendency to construct enemy images. An additional question to consider, is if, generally speaking, we are prone to overvalue enemy capacity and hostility. Jervis (1988) argues that misperception usually accompanies war. He argues that statesmen can either overestimate or underestimate the other side’s capabilities and hostility, but the former error seems more common than the latter.

It has been established that bad is stronger than good in human perceptions of the world. Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, and Vohs (2001) conclude that“bad information is processed more thoroughly than good” and that “bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones” (p. 323). Making the mistake of overvaluing enemy hostility is surely better from a survival standpoint than doing the opposite, of undervaluing hostility. Accordingly, it could be argued that there is an evolutionary logic in the tendency to overvalue both the hostility and the capabilities of the others.


Public or collective empathy with humans that suffer from wars and crisis may clearly play a pivotal role in forming and influencing opinion (for a review, see e.g., Zaki,2014). There are some classic examples where single photos have almost changed world opinion. Two classic photographic images are considered to have had a massive impact on public opinion of the Vietnam War. Eddie Adams took one of these in 1968, picturing a police chief executing a Vietcong prisoner on a Saigon street. Nick Ut took another photo in 1972, called“The Terror of War.” It was depicting children in flight from South Vietnamese napalm bombing, featuring a naked 9-year-old girl running toward the camera. A more recent example of an influencing photo is that of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in September 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea. This photographic image is considered to have had a strong impact on the support for Syrian refugees.

At the same time, the constant flow of saddening news in the media could make audiences somewhat emotionally numb, or what is sometimes referred to as the collapse of compassion (Cameron & Payne, 2011). Obviously, we do not react to everything we see, but certain, distinct images may trigger our empathy, especially when innocent children are involved. Offspring care provides the clearest evolutionary case for empathy (Zaki, 2014). Related to this is the identifiable victim effect. Jenni and Loewenstein (1997) conclude that people are willing to expend greater resources to save the lives of identified victims than to save equal numbers of unidentified or statistical victims. Identifiable victims seem to produce a greater empathic response, accompanied by greater willingness to make personal sacrifices to provide aid.

Mechanisms that may be falsely believed to facilitate PSYOP

It is occasionally claimed that specific techniques, often referred to as brainwashing or mind control, are especially efficient in convincing people. For instance, there have been claims in popular press that Al Qaeda and Daesh are brainwashing their potential members. If such techniques exist, they would certainly be highly valuable in PSYOP.

There is, however, serious scientific criticism levelled against the concept of mind control (for an overview, see Richardson,2007). First, it is unclear how to actually practice mind control and what activities it includes. The definitions often include manipulation, control of information and environment, charismatic leadership, peer pressure, punishment, and reward. Many traditional religious beliefs/activities are also stated to be part of mind control: ceremonies, fear of a devil, speaking in tongues, long meetings, guilt, confession, notions of purity/impurity, specific dress code, the notions of absolute truth, and beliefs that humanity will be rescued. The accused movements are, however, mutually different and the existence of the alleged mind control activities varies consider-ably– if they even exist. Second, the way in which the described activities/phenomena lead to the control of people’s will and ideas is unclear. These are, in fact, not unique for the type of movements


where mind control is claimed to occur. Third, the alleged movements would be more successful if they really could accomplish the goal of brainwashing targets. They are often small and have a limited number of followers. Most of the followers leave the movements after a certain period of time without any drama.

Leaders of these movements do not conclusively know or practice any exotic techniques to control people’s will and thoughts. There are simply no such techniques available. What happens in these movements is principally the use/implementation of the same type of influence processes found in all groups.

Conclusive discussion

As was established above, the PSYOP literature comprises a mesh of definitions and concepts and applications. The PSYOP concept is used in several contexts and refers to different organizational levels, activities, and target audiences. Several concepts obviously overlap (PSYOP, propaganda, persuasion, public information, etc.) while their connotations differ. A number of related concepts, such as public affairs, should be considered as distinct from PSYOP. Public affairs, for example, focuses mainly on media relations, media management and delivering appropriate information. In contrast to PSYOP, it has no ambition to change attitudes or behavior.

There is accordingly a considerable amount of theoretical and conceptual work to be done within the field. Our contribution is presented in Table 1 above. We argue that we have to make a distinction between PSYOP on different levels (strategic, operative, and tactical), with different purposes (to influence opinion, confidence from the local population, resistance motivation, or specific enemy decisions), and with different target audiences (population, military units, or specific decision makers).

Furthermore, we conclude in our review that there are few empirical studies of psychological effects on target audiences and that existing research indicates that human impressionability is generally overrated. There is an obvious risk that we overestimate the effects of PSYOP. It is, with some exceptions, difficult to affect human attitudes, emotions, and cognitions. We are prone to deny information that conflicts with what we already believe, as well as information that makes us feel bad. Our opinions are basically hard to change and there are no easily accessible techniques with which to brainwash or control people’s minds. The mere act of exposing an individual to a message or information is far from enough. Consequently, our hypothesis is that PSYOP with the purpose of changing opinions on a population level will only be successful in exceptional cases. This is, however, an important question to address in further research.

We have argued in this review that the success of PSYOP varies with the specific context. On a general level, relating to human emotions might be more successful than relating to human reason. A factor that generally seems to increase susceptibility to propaganda is a certain type and degree of emotional frustration amongst the population. Going back in history, we have learned that the success of Nazi propaganda was related to the unemployment and the economic depression in Germany after the Wall Street crash, as well as the low national self-confidence after the Versailles treaty. For example, if Germany had not been stricken by a deep recession and perhaps more prosperous and socially stable at the time, it may be assumed that Nazi propaganda would have been less successful. A present-day example is the Daesh propaganda that appears to have had impact on groups of immigrant youth, while clearly not successful among the western majority. The basic question is why a small minority is responding to the propaganda by supporting, and even joining, a terrorist organization, while most will reject it as quasi-islamic disinformation. One answer is the experience of injustice and violations that, for different reasons, may be more common among immigrant youth. This experience may be a factor behind the attraction to the simplistic view of Jihadism, in which the world is divided into good and evil forces. We may conclude, at least from this anecdotal evidence, that frustrated and insulted people are a profitable target for PSYOP. This is,


however, an important question to address in further research as well as the relevance of obtained result to other research areas within communication science.

Some other prerequisites for successful PSYOP may be quite basic. What seems effective in making humans more impressionable is if the (perceived) sender is trustworthy and if the message is clear and relevant. This is, however, not necessarily the case. The PSYOP and propaganda of modern Russia seem less successful when the western population is the target audience. It is concluded in publications from the NATO StratCom that “a significant proportion of Russian disinformation appears clumsy, counter-productive, obvious, and easily debunked” (Giles,2016, p. 6). Still, while out on the Internet, without any proper criticism of the source, even nonsensical conspiracy theories might have some impact.

A final reflection concerns the risk for biased definitions and descriptions. Certain governments occasionally claim that they never lie or misinform, even when they are known to carry out PSYOP (see e.g., Walker, 1996). This accusation is, however, frequently made when describing the enemy. We are then left with the question of whether much of the PSYOP literature may in fact constitute a PSYOP in itself, since this usually contains accusations levelled against a certain enemy or enemies of using questionable or immoral methods within PSYOP.


We are grateful to Dr. Peter Mattsson, Swedish Defence University, Department of Military Studies, for valuable discussions, comments and feedback during the project.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


Claes Wallenius http://orcid.org/0000-0002-9990-2877


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