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Microphones-2-.jpg This article is part of the Propaganda Portal project of Spinwatch.

Psychological Warfare or Psywar is "The planned use of propaganda and other psychological actions having the primary purpose of influencing the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of hostile foreign groups in such a way as to support the achievement of national objectives"[1]. Simply put, Psychological Warfare involves the use of Propaganda and other measures in order to impact the behaviour of opposing factions[2].

Whilst the two concepts are often used interchangeably, Psychological Warfare refers to an overarching campaign incorporating many different facets, including Psychological Operations, False Flag, Disinformation, and various types of Propaganda; whereas Psychological Operations, or Psyops is used more to describe specific military operations and the tactical units which practice them.

Psychological Warfare involves a deep cultural understanding of the opposing force it is targeting. In order to conduct an effective assault on the hearts and the minds of the target audience, you must first get to know them intimately. Practitioners of Psychological Warfare can aim to engage their target audiences through a mixture of face-to-face and mass media communications, aiming to end/suppress conflicts with the minimum amount of bloodshed possible[3].

Types of Psychological Warfare can play huge roles in the short-term, long-term, and recuperative phases of warfare. Acts of Psychological Warfare, however, are not limited to times of declared war; they can be employed in areas of peace or conflict. They represent force multipliers, using nonviolent methods in often violent situations, relying on persuasion rather than brute force to forward the interests of the sponsor[3].

Acts of Psychological Warfare have four clear objectives:

1. Reduce the morale and combat efficiency of opposition soldiers

2. Foster mass dissension within and defections from opposition combat units

3. Support other propaganda and psychological operations carried out by allies

4. Promote cooperation and unity within friendly ranks, as well as resistance forces behind enemy lines[3].

The History of Psychological Warfare


Psychological Warfare is by no means a modern concept. Since prehistoric times, commanders such as Alexander The Great and Genghis Khan have understood the importance of inducing psychological fear in your opponents and inspiring support in your allies[3].

One of the first authoritative pieces of literature outlining Psychological Warfare tactics was written over 2000 years ago. "The Art of War", a manual detailing the use of deception and psychological manipulation as effective tools in warfare was written by a famous Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu in the 2nd Century BC[4].

First World War

The First World War is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern Psychological Warfare. This is due in large part to the availability of mass media communications like radio and the modern printing press, and the innovative means to distribute communications to target audiences. These new measures to conduct psychological warfare included leafleting aeroplanes, balloons, mortar rounds, hand grenades, and artillery shells[5].

During the Great War, Governments quickly realised that modern warfare would require the effective use of Propaganda to sway public opinion, and engage civilians as well as soldiers. The emergence of modern Propaganda during the First World War set the precedent for all future conflicts, sanctioning the widespread deception of civilians and manipulation of opposition forces.

Second World War

Psychological Warfare was used extensively by both sides of the conflict. Giant strides in the fields of behavioural sciences meant that Governments were better able than ever to understand why people behaved the way they did, and to apply this to their Psywar campaigns. Further advances in mass communication technologies greatly enhanced the capability of Governments to achieve their Psywar objectives. Whilst Psychological Warfare was pioneered during the First World War, it has been suggested that it really came into its own as an effective and efficient weapon system during the Second World War, with many of the same tactics being used, but under increased intensities. [3].



  1. Online Psychology Degree, PSYOPS – Wars Are Fought On and Off the Battlefield, Online Psychology Degree website, accessed 18 march 2015
  2. RAND Corporation, Psychological Warfare RAND Corporation website, accessed 17 March 2015
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Ed Rouse, Psychological Operations/Warfare, Psywarrior website, accessed 17 March 2015
  4. James Corbett, Psyops 101: An introduction to psychological operations, Corbett Report website, 24 October 2014, accessed 18 March 2015
  5. Herbert Friedman, German WW1 Psyop, Psywarrior website, accessed 18 March 2015