15 Psychology in the Military

Damian O’Keefe

Samantha Urban

Wendy Darr[1]



Applied psychology was first practiced in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) over 80 years ago when a group of Canadian psychologists met to discuss how they could contribute to the Second World War effort (see Anderson, 1991; Lamerson, 2002; Prociuk, 1988). What the Canadian military needed most at the time was an efficient way to select volunteers for the many occupations in the armed services. Psychologists have been involved in the selection of military personnel ever since (see McMillan, Stevens, & Kelloway, 2009), though applied psychology has expanded to a lot of other areas and has influenced many programs and policies in the CAF and the Department of National Defence.

This chapter provides an overview of psychology in the CAF and National Defence from three perspectives. In the first section, we look at social science from the perspective of career opportunities in defence. The three main careers in psychology are CAF personnel selection officers (PSOs), defence scientists, and clinical psychologists.  In the second section, we look at the many kinds of applied personnel research that take place in the CAF and National Defence, and in the third we look at opportunities for education in applied military psychology.[2]

Social Science Careers in the Canadian Armed Forces and National Defence

Personnel selection officers[3] (PSOs) are military officers who apply behavioural science in areas such as ethics, recruiting, retention, selection, leadership, performance appraisal, family and personal mental health and well-being research, and in other human resource domains (CAF, 2019).

Entry-level PSOs typically have an undergraduate degree in psychology when they join the CAF, and following completion of basic and occupation-specific military training, spend the first part of their careers working one-on-one with CAF members from recruitment through release from the military. PSOs conduct suitability screening for over 100 CAF occupations at recruiting centres with civilian applicants. The CAF has many internal programs that allow its members to pursue new careers, so members often change occupations. Junior PSOs assess the suitability of those interested in switching occupations by examining their aptitudes, personality traits, and work relationships (person–job fit) through psychometric tests and structured interviews, after which they write suitability reports. As part of this process, PSOs counsel CAF members on how to reach their career goals, explaining the educational programs or technical certifications they will need to work in specific fields.

PSOs provide a host of services to help retiring CAF members transition from military to civilian life. This can involve administering and interpreting a number of vocational interest inventories, going through a structured set of sessions to help members figure out their post-military careers or educational plans, conducting different types of transition workshops (e.g., resume writing, job search techniques), and providing them with other information they need to prepare themselves for returning to civilian life.

As PSOs progress in their careers, opportunities expand both professionally and academically. They become eligible for subsidized full-time education up to a doctorate in psychology. The CAF prefers that PSOs complete an industrial/organizational psychology program, given the emphasis on personnel selection. Once they have a master’s degree, PSOs are normally employed to conduct applied research in three broad areas: personnel selection, personnel and family support, and operational and organizational dynamics.

Regardless of the type of research PSOs conduct, the work is dynamic and PSOs have a chance to travel across Canada to the CAF’s many wings and bases and to travel internationally to collaborate with other military organizations. PSOs are also encouraged to develop research skills through conferences and workshops.

This strong research background and wealth of experience allows PSOs to do different jobs, such as teaching applied military psychology at the Royal Military College of Canada, conducting research, providing personnel selection guidance and advice to senior staff, and developing and maintaining personnel selection policy.

Defence scientists are not members of the military but civilian public servants employed by National Defence. Defence scientists have a broad range of academic backgrounds and work across various science domains, but those engaged in personnel research typically have graduate degrees in various specializations in psychology (e.g., cognitive psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, social psychology) or in sociology.

In the personnel research domain, defence scientists work alongside PSOs, to address people-related challenges; conducting independent and collaborative applied research for their CAF and National Defence clients using a range of research methods (e.g., surveys, focus groups) and analytical techniques (e.g., qualitative thematic analysis, structural equation modeling). In addition to preparing internal reports and conducting oral presentations, defence scientists publish their research findings externally in books, conferences, and peer-reviewed journals, and they act as internal and external peer-reviewers of work in their research domains (e.g., ethics, family support, selection).

Most defence scientists’ work is client-driven, but they can propose new research and analysis capabilities, and they are encouraged to collaborate with academia, industry, and other government departments (e.g., Veterans Affairs Canada) to realize their ideas. As defence scientists progress through their careers, they can join international collaborations, which are critical to ensuring the most current scientific research is being used to conduct military personnel research in Canada and to benchmark Canadian findings against similar research in allied nations. Some of these international collaborators include The Technical Cooperation Program, the NATO Human Factors and Medicine Research Task Groups, the International Military Testing Association, and the European Research Group on Military and Society.

Unlike most job classifications in the Canadian Public Service, the DS group is incumbent oriented. Advancement, following initial recruitment is based on merit and occurs within the context of the incumbent’s own position. The seven facets of state of professional development include: knowledge and expertise, personal interactions and communication, creativity, productivity, impact, recognition, and responsibility. Advancement requires an assessment of state of professional development, which is then compared with professional development indicators that define each of seven characteristics at each of the DS levels. They chart their progress through an annual professional development plan, which can include participating in conferences, methods and analysis courses, and military familiarization exercises (e.g., visiting a base or spending time on a Royal Canadian Navy ship). Some defence scientists have had opportunities to voluntarily to deploy on overseas missions (e.g., Afghanistan), upon invitation by military allies, to present their work as subject matter experts in their field.

Being a defence scientist is a rewarding experience that provides graduates in psychology (and other disciplines) with the opportunity to learn and develop new skills, travel to interesting places, and make a difference in the lives of the men and women who serve their country.

Clinical psychologists[4] in the CAF are not members of the military but civilians employed as public servants or contracted by National Defence. They typically have a master’s or doctorate with a specialization in adult clinical psychology, though a few have degrees in counselling psychology. These psychologists work in military health care clinics and certain specialized units such as those with the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM).  The vast majority of psychologists work in the 31 military health care clinics located across Canada, which include seven Operational Trauma and Stress Support Centres and provide mental health services very similar to what is delivered in hospitals.

The CAF has a comprehensive mental health program for ill and injured members and psychologists work on multidisciplinary teams with psychiatrists, social workers, mental health nurses, addiction counsellors, chaplains, physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners. Psychologists assess CAF members in order to identify mental health treatment needs.  They do this by administering psychometric tests, conducting clinical interviews and, if warranted, making mental health diagnoses and treatment recommendations. Then they provide the psychological treatment interventions, all of which are guided by evidence-based best practices. Most of the time, the psychologists work with patients one-on-one but sometimes they deliver psychological interventions in a group format.  Occasionally, they work with patients’ families as well. Regardless of how services are delivered, psychologists are always involved in the constant evaluation of their treatment interventions through the use of outcome measurement practices.

The most common mental disorders that psychologists treat are depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, trauma- and stressor-related disorders (e.g., Posttraumatic Stress Disorder), and substance use disorders. In addition to these core duties, psychologists in military health care clinics may also participate in mental health research and they often sit on local, national, or international psychology working groups and committees.

Some clinical psychologists work in specialized units, such as the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. These psychologists have responsibilities both in mental health and operational psychology. As subject matter experts in operational psychology, they conduct suitability and risk assessments of military members applying to these units, and provide recommendations to leadership as part of the selection process for high-risk duties. They also advise military leadership on psychological risk and mitigation strategies related to high-risk training, operations and initiatives, and on the psycho-social factors that affect members’ psychological health, morale, and retention. In direct support of the mental health of members, they develop and deliver educational programs for psychological health and wellbeing and provide psychological intervention to members, including crisis intervention, diagnostic assessment and psychotherapy.  Special operations psychologists are active in international psychology working groups and committees, and they collaborate with other operational psychologists from allied nations on professional practice issues and advances. They are also often asked to travel to perform their duties, sometimes on short notice.

Applied Personnel Research in the Canadian Armed Forces and National Defence

[5]Two scientific organizations in National Defence and the CAF, Defence Research and Development Canada and Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis, conduct social science research as part of the Personnel Readiness Program, which supports the CAF’s operational and strategic initiatives. These organizations provide senior leaders in National Defence and the CAF with timely scientific evidence grounded in an understanding of the defence context.

Research for the Personnel Readiness Program comprises a number of broad domains: recruitment, selection, training, career management, retention, and attrition; personnel and family support and quality of life for military members and their families; employment equity and diversity; and psychological health and operational and organizational dynamics, including ethics, military leadership, and organizational effectiveness. Teams of defence scientists and PSOs work on new and ongoing projects within these domains. Most of the data come from surveys of serving military personnel. In each of the following subsections, we highlight examples of research by defence scientists and PSOs for the Personnel Readiness Program. We describe the challenge for the CAF and National Defence, how defence scientists and PSOs apply their social science knowledge to address the challenge, and the impact of these efforts on members and the organization.

Measuring psychosocial readiness and resilience[6]

The challenge.

Psychosocial hazards in the workplace can threaten employees’ mental health and well-being, leading to absenteeism, turnover, and lower job performance. The CAF and National Defence have undertaken a number of initiatives to create and maintain a healthy workplace, but an effective tool to measure psychological hazards in the workplace has been needed for some time.

Applying social science.

The Canadian government enacted the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace in 2013, which identifies 13 workplace resilience and risk factors that contribute to psychological health and safety at work. The list includes psychological and social support, organizational culture, clear leadership and expectations, civility and respect, psychological competencies and requirements, growth and development, recognition and reward, involvement and influence, workload management, engagement, work–life balance, and psychological protection and physical safety (from violence, bullying, and harassment). Using the standard as a guide, Ivey, Blanc, Michaud, and Dobreva-Martinova (2018) applied a job-demands resources framework to the 13 factors, and then set out to find validated scales in the academic literature to measure each factor. The result was a comprehensive survey battery called the Unit Morale Profile, Version 2.0, which was adapted to create the Defence Workplace Well-Being Survey. The survey was administered, in the spring of 2018, to a large sample of National Defence employees and CAF members to assess the psychosocial workplace.

The impact.

Data are still being analyzed by the research team, but the results will (a) establish a baseline for psychological health and safety in Defence, and (b) they will identify key risk and resilience factors that affect well-being, which in turn will inform organizational interventions. Moreover, the cutting edge techniques used have positioned DND as an international leader in the assessment of workplace well-being.

Client-reported mental health monitoring in Canadian Armed Forces health clinics[7]

The challenge.

In routine outcome measurement, mental health care providers use patient-report tools to monitor outcomes and adapt treatments to patients’ needs. Inviting patients to complete questionnaires increases their involvement and provides data about treatment targets, tracks progress, and helps address gaps in service. In a range of clinical settings, routine outcome measurement has been linked with patient and provider satisfaction and improved mental health outcomes, such as reduced symptom profiles and enhanced quality of life (Krägeloh, Czuba, Billington, Kersten, & Siegert, 2015; Scott & Lewis, 2015; Steinfeld, Franklin, Mercer, Fraynt, & Simon, 2016).

In light of this research, Veterans Affairs Canada created the Client-Reported Outcomes Monitoring Information System (CROMIS; Canadian Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Canada, 2017). CROMIS was implemented in phases at CAF health clinics across Canada in 2018 to support the use of measurement-based care with CAF members. CROMIS uses information technology to administer and interpret the brief Outcome Questionnaire (Lambert, 2007), which captures client feedback to improve their mental health outcomes.

Nonetheless, research has shown that several factors, such as provider attitudes (e.g., cost, time), and lack of training and staff engagement, can influence the implementation and adoption of evidence-based practices (McHugh & Barlow, 2012; Steinfeld et al., 2015). In particular, aspects of organizational culture and organizational readiness for change have been linked with barriers to implementation which limits achievements towards measurement-based care (Williams, Glisson, Hemmelgarn, & Green, 2017).

Applying social science.

National Defence researchers’ objective was to identify key barriers and facilitators of CAF health clinic providers’ use of CROMIS. In response, they adapted and administered the Organizational Readiness to Change Assessment tool, a 77-item questionnaire that assesses the following key organizational determinants of readiness for implementing evidence-based practice (i.e., CROMIS): the strength of the evidence base for the practice, the quality of the organizational context to support the practice, and the organizational capacity to support the practice (Helfrich, Li, Sharp, & Sales, 2009). The tool was administered to over 200 mental health care providers across 20 CAF health clinics.

The impact.

The findings have had important implications for mental health care in the CAF. Compared with the general population, CAF Regular Force members have higher rates of depression and generalized anxiety disorder (Pearson, Zamorski, & Janz, 2014). Combined with evidence that there are gaps in achieving expected outcomes in routine mental health care and in detecting deteriorating symptoms (Fortney et al., 2016), the CAF needs to engage clients in improving their care and to change the way mental health services are delivered. In particular, helping clinicians implement standardized outcome measures and abide by specific clinical practice guidelines will help achieve more tailored patient care, provide just-in-time recommendations for both clients and clinicians, and improve outcomes for CAF members (Canadian Armed Forces  and Veterans Affairs Canada, 2017; Harding, Rush, Arbuckle, Trivedi, & Pincus, 2011).

Promoting an ethical and respectful military culture[8]

The challenge.

In 2014, media coverage suggested that the incidence of sexual misconduct in the CAF was much higher than reported in CAF research (Davis, 2015). As a result, the Chief of the Defence Staff commissioned an external review, which identified numerous cultural practices and processes contributing to sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in the CAF (Deschamps, 2015). The external review led the Chief of the Defence Staff to initiate Operation HONOUR, the strategy to eliminate inappropriate sexual behaviour in the CAF (National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, 2015). Canada’s defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, also called for institutionalized culture change to promote a culture of leadership, respect, and honour that reflects high standards of ethical conduct (National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, 2017).

Applying social science.

National Defence researchers developed a comprehensive research plan to better understand the culture and leadership dynamics contributing to inappropriate sex- and gender-based behaviour in the CAF (Davis, 2015, 2016). Incorporating quantitative and qualitative methodologies, the research plan contained the following objectives, which drew on recommendations from the external review (Deschamps, 2015) and a later report by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada (OAG, 2018):

  • Measuring the incidence of sexual misconduct in the CAF. The CAF contracted Statistics Canada to develop, administer, and analyze a survey to measure three forms of inappropriate sexual behaviour in the CAF: sexual assault (experienced), sexual harassment (witnessed or experienced), and discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity (witnessed or experienced). Knowledge of directives and programs related to sexual misconduct and perceptions of CAF responses to sexual misconduct were also examined. The survey was administered in 2016 and 2018, with another administration anticipated in 2021. Results from the survey are currently used to inform CAF policies, procedures, and programs aimed at addressing sexual misconduct in the CAF.
  • Victim support. Using qualitative interviews, the goal of this project is to understand the experiences of serving and retired military members seeking support after being affected by inappropriate sexual behaviour in the CAF. Recently completed, the results will help identify existing gaps and challenges in seeking support, and improve training, programs, and policies aimed at supporting those affected by inappropriate sexual behaviour (Deschamps, 2015; OAG, 2018).
  • Bystander behaviour. Using qualitative interviews, focus groups, and surveys, the goal is to understand psychological, social, and organizational factors that affect military members’ responses to incidents of inappropriate sex- and gender-based misconduct. Results will help inform bystander training and organizational cultural practices and assumptions that discourage reporting (Deschamps, 2015; Davis, 2015).
  • Socialization. Using qualitative interviews and focus groups, the goal is to understand the impact of gender-related values and conduct on socialization during entry-level and post-entry level training, and within military units and deployed operational units. The results are currently being applied to help identify informal cultural learning that shapes assumptions and behaviours during socialization (Davis, 2015).
  • Leadership dynamics. Using qualitative interviews and focus groups, the goal is to understand challenges and barriers faced at and across different levels of leadership. As various phases of analyses are completed, the results contribute to an understanding of how different levels of leadership respond to sexual misconduct (Davis, 2015).
  • Measuring and monitoring culture change (OAG, 2018). By examining current literature and ways to measure culture change, the goal was to identify the antecedents and impacts of sexual misconduct and other types of unethical behaviour in the CAF workplace climate and across dimensions of the culture. This work resulted in the development of a strategy to measure and monitor culture change in the CAF (Davis & Squires, under review), which will integrate a range of research initiatives across the Personnel Readiness Program.

In tandem with this research, the Defence Ethics Research Program supports National Defence and the CAF by examining the causes of unethical behaviour, ethical risk factors and outcomes in the organization, and evidence-based approaches to minimizing ethical risk. Drawing on social and organizational psychology, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis uses a variety of methods to answer research questions related to these issues. These methods include surveys and experimental research (Blanc, Warner, Ivey, & Messervey, 2018; Messervey & Davis, 2016; Messervey & Peach, 2014; Messervey & Squires, 2014; O’Keefe, Messervey, & Squires, 2018; O’Keefe, Peach, & Messervey, 2019).

The impact.

The research discussed above is integral to broader initiatives that support an ethical and respectful military culture, contributing to the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre and the CAF Strategic Response Team on Sexual Misconduct. This research additionally supports policy and prevention strategies, cultural change, and a more effective response to incidents of sexual misconduct. Ethics research by Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis has also influenced ethics training and education internally (e.g., Defence Ethics Programme, Canadian Army Ethics Programme) and externally (e.g., Australian Defence Force, Carleton University, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence, the United States Army War College).

Astronaut selection[9]

The challenge.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) was about to launch a nation-wide recruitment campaign in 2016, with the aim of selecting two new astronaut recruits. CSA asked National Defence for its selection and fitness expertise to evaluate astronaut candidates. With 3,772 Canadians applying for just two positions, it was critical that the selection system be standardized, objective, and defendable.

Applying social science.

In developing a selection system, defence researchers first reviewed the previous job analysis from CSA’s 2008 campaign. With long-range missions to Mars fast approaching and Chris Hadfield’s explosive impact on social media, the job of an astronaut had changed enough to warrant an updated job analysis.

Selection experts conducted a focus group with current and retired astronauts to discuss the typical outputs and tasks of an astronaut, including the knowledge, skills, abilities and other attributes (KSAOs), as well as the physical requirements of the job (Klammer & Collins, 2016). Several researchers then grouped the KSAOs into 17 competencies. Given the large number of competencies required and the selection process’s high visibility on social media, the system had to be flexible enough to assess multiple behavioural and physical attributes across a large number of applicants within a short time.

Defence researchers decided to use the assessment centre methodology, a process which includes the development and use of a variety of different tools (e.g., roleplay exercises, structured interviews) to assess attributes linked to successful performance in a particular job or role (Thornton & Rupp, 2006). In a typical assessment centre, candidates perform a variety of job-related exercises designed to simulate realistic situations faced by individuals working in the occupation (e.g., astronauts).

CSA reviewed all applications and selected 1,000 applicants for online testing, further reducing the number of applicants to the 100 who completed a medical screening. Simultaneously, National Defence selection experts developed definitions for each of the 17 competencies, along with behavioural anchored rating scales and exercises to assess the competencies. Two separate and complementary assessment centres were created (Klammer, Collins, Gagnon, & Walsh, 2018; Collins, Klammer, Gagnon, & Walsh, 2018). Seventy-two applicants who passed the medical screening were first invited to St. Jean, Quebec, where trained assessors observed the applicants in a variety of team exercises, physical fitness tests, and objective measures, such as a working memory test. Those who were successful (n ­ = 32) went on to complete the second assessment centre, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they underwent additional assessment which included leadership assessments and exercises with high fidelity to induce stress. Each candidate was presented to a selection board who decided on which applicants continued on in the selection process.

In both assessment centres, candidates received several realistic job previews—including a session with a current serving astronaut—to give them a picture of the commitment required to become a Canadian astronaut.

The impact.

Following the two assessment centres, CSA conducted a further selection session on robotics, media assessments, in-depth medicals, and a final selection interview, which resulted in the selection of Dr. Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons and Joshua Kutryk.

Joint Task Force North[10]

The challenge.

Members of the CAF are relocated from one base to another throughout their careers. Called “postings,” the number and frequency of relocations depend on the member’s occupation and rank. One posting is to Joint Task Force North (JTFN) in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Because JTFN is classified as an isolated posting, members have to undergo screening before being posted to this location. Despite this, personnel arriving at JTFN were not prepared for the realities of life in a northern environment, resulting in increased work stress, financial hardship, marital and family problems, and mental health issues. The Joint Task Force leadership was concerned that the unique challenges of living and working in the north were not well known to personnel posted to JTFN and that the unique stressors were not well understood by the personnel who conducted the screenings.

Applying social science.

Researchers suggested developing a realistic living conditions preview, an extension of the realistic job preview (Ebel-Lam & MacArthur, 2015), which would show the unique living conditions of the north as well as the realities of working in a highly operational unit. Focus groups with military members, National Defence employees, and military spouses were used to collect key themes about the living conditions at JTFN and the challenges and opportunities that come with a posting to Yellowknife.

The impact.

This research resulted in an education tool that provides military members with an honest view of the challenges and benefits of a posting to JTFN in Yellowknife. The tool provides a candid overview of postings in this location as well as advice from current Team North personnel on how incoming members can increase their chances of adjusting to (and thriving in) their new working and living conditions. Although subsequent research has not been conducted to assess the impact of the realistic preview, anecdotal evidence from support staff in this location indicates that there have been fewer issues with personnel adjustment and unmet expectations since this resource was implemented.

Project Horizon: Early career retention in the Canadian Armed Forces[11]

The challenge.

The effectiveness of any military depends on its success in recruiting individuals to a variety of occupations. Thus, the retention of military personnel during the early career period has been a long-standing interest of the CAF’s. The current personnel retention strategy focuses on addressing job dissatisfiers and creating a positive work environment to foster long-term commitment and retention of CAF members. This is typically done through the development of personnel programs and policies that promote quality of life, job satisfaction, and employee recognition (Chief of Military Personnel, 2009). Psychological research into factors influencing personnel commitment and retention informs these programs and policies.

Applying social science.

One particular research initiative, called Project Horizon, focused on early career retention (i.e., retention within the first few years of enrollment in the military). Following a review of various research methods (e.g., Day, Bourgeois, & Catano, 2012), researchers proposed using a longitudinal panel research design, which involves repeated measurements of constructs and factors using surveys administered at various points in members’ careers to assess changes in attitudes over time and to investigate factors that cause such changes (Goldenberg, 2012; Laplante, Otis, & Goldenberg, 2016).

Project Horizon assessed factors relevant to predicting attrition and retention, such as psychological conditions (e.g., anxiety, depression), dispositional factors, such as the Big Five personality factors, as well as traits such as hardiness and positive and negative affect, social factors (e.g., organizational support, social support, supervisor support), and members’ expectations (e.g., perceived fit, psychological contract). Other factors related to prior exposure to, or familiarity with, the military were also studied. Several outcome measures were used as indicators of retention and attrition, including newcomer adjustment, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and turnover intentions.

Longitudinal tracking was done through a series of surveys administered to all CAF recruits who started the basic training course over a period of two years (three years in the case of officer cadets). Between September 2014 and July 2018, surveys were administered at the beginning of the basic training course, at the end of basic training, three months after basic training, and six months after that—thus covering the entire first year of a recruit’s life in the CAF. Planning is underway for the next phase of data collection (when participants reach five years of service).

Although data from the various phases and from auxiliary data sources (e.g., selection measures, attrition data) are currently in the process of being linked to each other, cross-sectional data (from within each phase) have been analyzed and have provided some insights into the factors affecting retention. For example, morale (e.g., level of motivation, drive and enthusiasm during training) and intentions to stay in the CAF were most strongly related to person–organization fit (i.e., a recruit’s perceptions of the fit between their own values and the CAF’s), a calling work orientation (i.e., the extent to which recruits’ work is integral to their lives and identity), and the extent to which recruits felt they were given sufficient information and support on the first day of their basic training (Laplante et al., 2016). Six months later, the variables most strongly associated with morale, organizational commitment, and intentions to stay in the CAF were person–job fit, the meaningfulness of work, and work–life balance (i.e., the extent to which recruits were able to balance the demands of training and their personal life; Goldenberg, Laplante, Otis, & Pearce, 2019).

The impact.

Findings like these not only help us understand recruits’ intentions to stay in the CAF, but they have also informed the CAF’s personnel retention strategy and the programs and policies that affect retention.

Using behavioural insights in personnel research

The challenge.

Behavioural insights is a multidisciplinary approach that draws on psychology, behavioural economics, and social marketing to influence positive behavioural change and policy implementation at the grassroots level (see Ariely, 2008; Kahneman, 2011; Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). The challenge for the CAF and National Defence was to make the most of this research to effect positive changes in the organization.

Applying social science.

In August 2017, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis established a behavioural insights team, the Personnel Research in Action (PRiA) team, with a mandate to translate behavioural insights into policy and practice to influence behaviour toward positive ends. The key functions of PRiA are as follows: develop and maintain expertise in behavioural economics, program assessment, science–policy integration, and iterative design methods; bring together stakeholders from research, policy, and practice to design, implement, assess, measure, and quantify the cost–benefit behavioural economics interventions; and develop networks or clusters with other government departments, academia, industry, and allied research organizations to apply behavioural insights to CAF and National Defence issues.

The impact.

Among PRiA’s first initiatives was to help strengthen the CAF’s recruitment process. PRiA developed a series of email messages—called “nudges,” which influence decision making without constraining freedom of choice—to encourage applicants to remain in the recruitment process (Gooch & Kemp, 2018; O’Keefe, Gooch, & Kemp 2018a; O’Keefe, Gooch, & Kemp, 2018b). A second contribution to the recruiting process was the Practice Canadian Forces Aptitude Test, which was made available to prospective CAF recruits (Kemp, 2018; Kemp & Gooch, 2019). The practice test simulates the conditions and questions on the official Canadian Forces Aptitude Test, so prospects can experience a realistic version of the official test before taking it at a recruiting centre. The purpose of the practice test is to lessen test-takers’ anxiety, to build their confidence, and to encourage test-takers to continue with the recruiting process.

Other initiatives supported by PRiA include encouraging self-declaration among visible minority applicants to ensure that the CAF is representative of the Canadian population; encouraging CAF members to attend their annual fitness test; and encouraging retiring members to use all available resources as part of their career transition from military to civilian life.

Advancing personnel research with multiple disciplinary approaches[12]

With the increasing complexity of defence and security issues, researchers from various disciplines are being called upon to take more robust theoretical approaches and methods to advance the military research that informs policies, programs, and senior leaders’ decision making.

Interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches provide a more holistic understanding of problems and capability gaps. An interdisciplinary approach synthesizes different methods and theoretical approaches across disciplines to solve a particular problem. A multidisciplinary approach uses different disciplines to examine a particular problem but provides potential solutions through the respective disciplines. A transdisciplinary approach considers multiple disciplines in identifying optimal and holistic solutions to a given problem but also takes into consideration stakeholder and community perspectives. By incorporating multiple disciplinary approaches, researchers are able to generate additional knowledge, skills, abilities, and expertise to advance evidenced-based solutions to research problems.

It is important for researchers to examine the merits of working in collaborative teams and settings composed of people who come from various disciplines (e.g., clinical psychologists, psychological scientists, sociologists, economists, engineers, computer scientists, and physicists) to better address research problems. In the military context, multiple disciplinary approaches help researchers to advance their knowledge, skills, and capacity in addressing complex research problems. Multiple disciplinary approaches lead to better integration of knowledge, skills, and expertise, and can further provide a more holistic approach to understanding organizational, national, and international priorities impacting defence and security.

Education in Applied Military Psychology

The Royal Military College of Canada[13]

The Royal Military College of Canada (RMC), established in 1876, is widely recognized as a “university with a difference.”  Most universities in Canada operate within provincially established guidelines, but RMC, as a federal university, receives funding and control via the federal government of Canada.  Undergraduate students attending RMC become members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) prior to commencing studies and their job for the next 4 – 5 years is to be a student.  This means that their education is free and the students receive a salary while in attendance.  These students represent the future leadership of the CAF and, upon completing their degrees; the graduates receive a Queen’s commission as officers in the CAF.  A broad range of degree options in the Arts, Sciences and Engineering are available, with the understanding that the degree choice must compatible with the CAF occupation they have been assigned.  The focus at RMC is on more than simply academics.  In order to graduate, students must achieve acceptable standards in the “Four Pillars.”  These four distinct pillars include academics, fitness, military/leadership and bilingualism (Canada’s two official languages, English and French).  In addition to the undergraduate program, which educates students for careers in the CAF, RMC offers university courses to hundreds of military and civilian members of the Department of National Defence by distance through its Division of Continuing Studies.  Finally, at the graduate level, RMC offers Masters and PhD programs in Arts, Sciences and Engineering. Some of these programs are open to non-government civilian applicants. Graduates of RMC possess unique abilities and capabilities and universally occupy positions of responsibility and leadership throughout Canada and the world.

Undergraduate degrees in psychology

The undergraduate program in psychology at the Royal Military College of Canada meets the needs of those enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts Honours Psychology or a Bachelor of Arts Psychology degree (RMC, 2018). The program offers a mix of foundational courses in psychology and required courses in leadership, ethics, and military professionalism that focus on the military workplace and military operations. Courses in the program examine topics in military psychology, personnel psychology, leadership and ethics, as well as basic experimental psychology. Optional courses include group dynamics, counselling, cross-cultural psychology, and persuasion and influence. As much as possible, the psychology professors use military examples to illustrate the principles discussed in courses.

Academic Positions at the Royal Military College of Canada

With respect to academic positions, the Department of Military Psychology and Leadership at the Royal Military College of Canada has eight civilian psychologists with doctorates. These positions are similar to those in civilian universities in that they entail teaching, conducting research, and holding some administrative positions.  For about 15 years, psychology faculty members at the Royal Military College of Canada have also provided 360 degree leadership assessments to experienced military personnel taking the year-long Joint Command and Security Program, and National Security Program. The confidential assessments, which are conducted for developmental purposes, have participants complete a self-report questionnaire on their leadership behaviours and habits, and then provide the names of subordinates, peers, and supervisors to evaluate them on the same questionnaire. Individual reports are prepared and sent to participants about one or two weeks before a coaching session. Coaches are either faculty members at the Royal Military College of Canada or CAF veterans with a minimum of a master’s degree and an appropriate set of skills and experience. Coaching focuses on the areas in which participants or their raters have identified as areas for improvement. At the end of the coaching session, there is a course requirement for participants to prepare and submit a developmental plan to their coach.


Applied psychology in the CAF has evolved significantly from its early days during the Second World War when it focused on personnel selection. As this chapter shows, psychology now plays a variety of roles, such as clinical and counselling support, applied research, and the CAF now provides teaching opportunities. We hope that this chapter has piqued the interest of aspiring psychologists to consider a career helping the brave people who serve Canada!


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Please reference this chapter as:

O’Keefe, D., Urban, S., & Darr, W. (2019). Psychology in the Military. In M. E. Norris (Ed.), The Canadian Handbook for Careers in Psychological Science. Kingston, ON: eCampus Ontario. Licensed under CC BY NC 4.0. Retrieved from https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/psychologycareers/chapter/psychology-in-the-military/


The following individuals, in alphabetical order, contributed to this book chapter:

Dr. Sylvie Bourgeois, Canadian Special Operations Forces Command

Dr. Danielle Charbonneau, Royal Military College of Canada

Major Lenora Collins, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Dr. Karen Davis, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Dr. Susan Dowler, Canadian Armed Health Services

Dr. Anna Ebel-Lam, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Dr. Eva Guerin, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Dr. Krystal Hachey, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Dr. Joelle Laplante, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Dr. Manon LeBlanc, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Dr. Jennifer Lee, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Dr. Allister MacIntyre, Royal Military College of Canada

Dr. Deanna Messervey, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Lieutenant Colonel Rob Morrow, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Dr. Stacey Silins, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Lieutenant Colonel Cindy Suurd Ralph, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Dr. Barbara Waruszynski, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

  1. All three authors played a lead role in the compilation of this chapter, and are indebted to all those who contributed to this chapter (acknowledged in footnotes to each respective section; see list of contributors at the end of the chapter), including Waylon Dean for his review of the initial chapter drafts.
  2. For a more in-depth overview of military psychology, please see Kennedy and Zillmer (2006), Laurence and Matthews (2012), and Gal and Mangelsdorff (1992).
  3. Lieutenant Colonel Rob Morrow contributed to this section of the chapter.
  4. Dr. Susan Dowler and Dr. Sylvie Bourgeois contributed to this section of the chapter.
  5. Lieutenant Colonel Rob Morrow contributed to this section of the chapter.
  6. Lieutenant Colonel Cindy Suurd Ralph contributed to this section of the chapter.
  7. Dr. Eva Guerin and Dr. Jennifer Lee contributed to this section of the chapter.
  8. Dr. Krystal Hachey, Dr. Karen Davis, Dr. Deanna Messervey, Dr. Manon LeBlanc, and Dr. Stacey Silins contributed to this section of the chapter.
  9. Major Lenora Collins contributed to this section of the chapter.
  10. Major Lenora Collins and Dr. Anna Ebel-Lam contributed to this section of the chapter.
  11. Dr. Joelle Laplante contributed to this section of the chapter.
  12. Dr. Barbara Waruszynski contributed to this section of the chapter.
  13. Dr. Allister MacIntyre and Dr. Danielle Charbonneau contributed to this section of the chapter.


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