How the US military uses behavioral economics to fight ISIS

America Abroad
A helicopter drops leaflets in Afghanistan

In the war against ISIS, the battlefield has no distinct boundaries. Insurgents often live among locals. The challenge is finding ways to separate the two: getting civilians to trust American forces instead of ISIS.

One division of the military’s Special Operations Command is tasked with just that: Psychological Operations, or PSYOP. America Abroad producer Shoshi Shmuluvitz spoke with Lt. Col. Chris Stangle, the battalion commander of the 3rd Psychological Operations Battalion Airborne.

Shoshi Shmuluvitz: What is PSYOP? 
Lt. Col. Chris Stangle: PSYOP is about behavior and modifying behavior in foreign audiences — that, in the easiest sense, is what we are. We were originally created as part of the special warfare model. We did PSYOP in World War I, but it was just listed generally as propaganda, which is always interesting because propaganda is truthful information conveyed. In World War II, we really looked at how we could weaponize the psychological aspect of warfare. It was "How do we get the enemy to capitulate?" I think it then morphed into "How do we prevent war?" Or in the case of unconventional warfare, how do we increase the opportunities for success by influencing the behaviors of populations in countries where we're trying to operate?

SS: Can you give me some bullet points of what you guys do?

CS: So we are the basically the private production house for the Psychological Operations Committee. We develop products for the regional battalions around the world wherever they're conducting operations and then we we distribute those products to them and help them with dissemination whether that be recording a loudspeaker broadcast form if necessary or producing leaflets handbills posters audio visual products like TV or things that may go out on the Internet. We focus on foreign audiences and it doesn't matter whether not necessarily just military or enemy audiences it can be friendly audiences depending on what we're going on where we're at. 

SS: So what kind of content do you make?

CS: It can be anything from surrender appeals — if we're trying to get enemy formations to surrender or give in — to almost like a duck and cover type of product for the local populations, giving them a way to avoid injury during large scale military operations, telling them to stay away from the windows, stay away from external walls. Those types of things that would keep them away from stray bullets, stray shrapnel, and other types of pieces. They were really graphic imagery work. There was writing on there but there were also pictures so young kids and others could understand that even if they were illiterate. Most of those were were disseminated via leaflet bombs that were dropped from B-52s or other type of aircraft. 

So all of our products really go through a fairly rigorous process. Not only are we looking at the lines of persuasion but we also understand the culture in the region we're operating in. And so in one particular instance, we had ISIS down to about three or so acres of space. They were down to a very small area but they were still using females and children as as their human shields. And so we had to figure out a way to get a product into these populations, particularly the women and children, that would separate them from their husbands fighting on behalf of ISIS. We had to help them understand that there were safe routes and that once they came across the line, they would be well cared for and that they wouldn't be exploited. And so we were able to come up with a series of products that detailed how they should come across the line, what they should do, where they could come across safely. I think we had more than 11 women and roughly 20 or so children that came out because of the leaflet effort there. 

SS: So what did you produce there?

CS: It ended up being a locally acceptable cartoon graphic that was easy to understand in a leaflet form that we could airdrop into the area that, even if you couldn't read, you would understand how to come across the line to surrender. That would communicate safety, protection, and would increase trust, which is very tough to do with a piece of paper. 

SS: How do you know what to do, how to word these documents? Where do you get your methods from and how do you study that?

CS: So it's largely a behavioral economic approach that we take. We have folks that are sociologists, we have folks that are psychologists, folks that had simple marketing background and degrees, so we really have a wide array in the community. But I think all of us are kind of amateur behavioral economists; we're interested in what makes people move and change. 

To be honest we've done very little unconventional warfare in the truest sense of overthrowing governments and those types of things. We've spent more time preserving the existing status quo or preserving existing governments or working to modify behaviors that are particularly negative to the stability of a given region. 

We spend a lot of time thinking about nothing but impacting behavior while our lethal counterparts — the infantry, the armor, the artillery — they think very hard about how to drop steel on target. So while those guys are honing their skills on what happens if it absolutely goes bad and we end up in a shooting war, our goal is either to prevent a shooting war or set the conditions in the event of a shooting war that is most advantageous to those guys on the ground. How do we keep as many of our brothers and sisters in either the U.S. military or our coalition or a host nation or partner nation force alive and put them in the best positions to impact the enemy. How do we preserve as much life on both ends of the line as possible. So it's a delicate balance between lethal and non-lethal. We see where we fit in and what the situation requires. 

SS: When you're dealing with psychology and kind of getting into people's heads, even in what you do, it raises certain types of ethical questions. I wonder if you've thought about that, if you’ve ever dealt with it in your own work. 

CS: I see what I do as a way to prevent wars, reduce casualties, protect my brothers and sisters in arms, my coalition partners, the partner nation, and my nation, the civilian population here in the United States, from harm. So I have never been in a position where I’m like, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Am I messing with people’s minds?’ No, because ultimately we're just trying to get them to make a better choice.

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