WWII And Its Impact On Psychology

psychological effects of world war 2

Posted September 2019 by M.S. Broudy, B.A. English, B.A. Psychology; M.A. Social Psychology; Ph.D. Psychology; 7 updates since. Reading time: 7 min. Reading level: Grade 10+. Questions on WWII’s impact on psychology? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

World War II was a turning point for the field of psychology. Up until that time, psychology was largely seen as an academic and philosophical discipline with little practical utility. With the advent of psychological warfare and military screening assessments, governments found the need to use psychology as an applied science during the war. Additionally, the war created a need for the clinical treatment of soldiers with resulting mental health issues. After the war, federal funding toward psychology caused the field to grow exponentially. Let’s take a closer look at how WWII changed the study of psychology.

Psychology During WWII

The foundation for post-war psychology efforts was built during the war. Psychology began to take a clinical foothold through its involvement with the following WWII practices.

Psychological Assessment

First introduced in World War I, Psychologists implemented screening processes which they hoped would delineate which soldiers exhibited appropriate mental fitness to cope with the stress of war. The military wanted to avoid the incidence of shellshock, which had affected so many soldiers during WWI. They believed, through psychological testing, they could screen out the men that were most susceptible to breaking down. Although these measures were found to be largely unsuccessful in preventing mental health issues, the psychometric testing that was developed set the stage for the growth in psychological assessment that occurred after the war.

Psychiatric Treatment

At the beginning of WWII, military officials had hoped that screening measures would eliminate the psychological issues that soldiers experienced during WWI. Of course, that logic proved to be faulty and many war-related mental health issues developed. Wanting to return soldiers to the front lines, some clinicians implemented psychiatric treatment in order to help soldiers cope successfully with the trauma of war. For example, psychiatrists Roy G. Grinker and John P. Spiegel found success by introducing a treatment where they administered sodium pentothal to soldiers and asked them to re-experience traumatic events. The use of psychiatric treatment during the war paved the way for the growing popularity of clinical interventions seen in its aftermath.

The Effects of Trauma

After WWI, it was largely believed that the mental health issues experienced by certain soldiers were due to individual weaknesses in coping with the war. After WWII screening measures were largely unsuccessful in preventing psychological issues, however, a new belief arose: anyone could be negatively affected by the stressors of war. In other words, you did not need to be “abnormal” to develop mental health issues as a result of trauma. This was an important shift in thinking and set the stage for future PTSD research and treatment.

The Emergence of Social Psychology

The importance of environmental factors was brought to the forefront during WWII. Not only did the effects of trauma point toward the essential role of a person’s surroundings, but social scientists began to recognize the protective function of social interaction. Specifically, psychiatrists and psychologists pointed to how motivation and morale were affected by social support among their fellow soldiers. These findings would fuel the emergence of social psychology upon the post-WWII landscape.

Psychological Warfare

Although somewhat controversial, both Allied and Axis forces used psychological means to either boost or hurt morale during WWII. Psychological warfare preys upon the vulnerabilities of soldiers in order to gain an advantage. Spreading propaganda and utilizing deception were found to be useful tools in gaining a strategic and tactical edge. Psychologists, touting their expertise in the human condition, were used to develop these techniques. In addition to its effectiveness, psychological warfare served as another indication of how psychological principles could exhibit clinical applications.

Federal Assistance After WWII

After the completion of WWII, there was a great need for mental health services for combat veterans. Many of them suffered from war-related “neuroses” and required treatment. As a result, there was pressure on the federal government to establish mental health resources to address their needs. This emphasis on mental health fueled the creation and solidification of resources that were essential to the rise of psychology after WWII.

The GI Bill

The GI bill, instituted after WWII, allowed the study of psychology to flourish by increasing the number of people who could obtain a college education. Before the GI bill, very few people sought higher education due to its cost. The money afforded by the bill allowed thousands of veterans to seek degrees in various professions, including psychology. Many veterans had a desire to help their fellow soldiers with their trauma symptoms, which fueled their interest in becoming therapists, contributing to the explosion in the field of clinical psychology. It is fair to say that the establishment of clinical psychology owes a great debt to the GI bill.

The Veterans Administration (VA)

The VA was integral in broadening the scope of clinical psychology. After the war, numerous VA hospitals and clinics were created. These hospitals provided medical and mental health treatment for thousands of veterans. The VA encouraged psychologists to be therapists and provided training opportunities within their hospitals and outpatient clinics. These training programs eventually led the American Psychological Association to set up accreditation procedures for training in clinical psychology. In an effort to measure the efficacy of its treatment programs, the VA became a hotbed for the development of assessment measures. In addition, clinical psychologists affiliated with the VA helped to run research studies which established the efficacy of the first psychotropic medications. Further, psychologists working within the VA popularized the use of group therapy to treat psychological disorders.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

The National Institute of Mental Health was created in 1949 and provided a source for psychology experimentation and training. Coming on the heels of the New Deal, it was believed that the government should play an important role in the well-being of its citizens. With a booming economy and increased interest in psychology, NIMH had access to a large pool of funding to meet its goals. In the first 15 years, 17 million dollars was spent on training clinical psychologists alone. The money afforded by NIMH also helped expand the scope of psychological research into emerging fields of study, such as social psychology. Further, NIMH was responsible for much of the growth of psychology in education; it funded positions within university psychology departments and helped encourage the study of psychology across higher education.

Unifying and Expanding Psychology

Federal funding after WWII enabled the field of psychology to grow exponentially. The money provided by the federal government was able to fund psychology education, training, and research. With its broadened scope, the need to unify the disparate factions within the field of psychology was brought to light. The American Psychological Association (APA) had existed for 50 years and was by far the largest psychologist organization but it primarily represented the academic side of psychology. The applied side of psychology was growing at a fast clip and the APA needed to evolve to encompass those changes. The increasing role of women and minorities also wanted a place at the table. In 1943, the Intersociety Constitutional Convention of Psychologists was held to unify the factions of psychology into one organization. Although the union was not initially without some conflict, the smaller organizations recognized the expansion within psychology and saw that the APA could provide an overall organizing body. Thus, they acknowledged that, as a unified whole, they were better able to promote, expand, and legitimize the interests of the field of psychology. Between 1946 and 1960, APA membership increased by approximately 300 percent. Largely as a result of WWWII, psychology had gained a foothold as a stable presence within academic and clinical practice.

More Articles of Interest: