What is Psychological Warfare? - Definition, Techniques & Examples

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

War was once fought on the battlefield, but it seems as time has passed, physical violence has shifted to something in the mind. In this lesson we will learn about psychological warfare and examine techniques and examples to further understanding.

The Invisible Soldier

The violence of war is one thing, but what about another form of warfare that you can't even see? This is the act of psychological warfare. Read on to learn about the definition, techniques, and some historical examples.

What is Psychological Warfare?

Psychological warfare is a broad term, but in all documented cases, the concept uses actions intended to reduce an opponent's morale or mental well being. The aim is to use manipulative tactics to intimidate or persuade a person or people. This process is usually employed through propaganda. Propaganda is ideas or statements that are false or exaggerated and is deliberately spread to influence the masses. The goal of psychological warfare is to intentionally use propaganda to manipulate another and break down their will without using physical force.

To get a clearer picture, let's take a look at some techniques that have been used throughout history.

Techniques

Psychological warfare uses fear to break down the psychological well being of an opponent. Look at the list below for techniques that can be used to spread psychological uncertainty, fear, and terror.

  • News Outlets: The news is a large information source that all can tap into. Whether it's government run or independently owned, the news has the ability to spread whichever information it chooses. By infiltrating a news source, a population could be tainted by volatile information.
  • Threats: Threats of violence, restrictions of freedom, and control can be made to instill fear in the people. These could be empty threats or threats with true intention. Whatever the case, threatening a group or groups of people can psychologically damage the recipients over time, putting them in a state of constant fear, anxiety, and terror.
  • Leaflets: Leaflets are pieces of paper with manipulative messages/pictures that are dropped from the air over areas of war or political unrest. The goal is to persuade the recipients to either support or oppose the political event taking place.
  • Objects: Using objects such as t-shirts, posters, hats, pins, and more is an effective way to get a message across. The objects can become symbols for larger messages regarding politics, radical beliefs, religious philosophies, etc. These objects can become tools for promotion and even worship.
  • False flag: A false flag is when a group releases false information or carries out a fake terror attack to instill fear in people. However, the blame is put on another group or organization to gain control over the masses and shift opinion.
  • Media: While it may not seem like it, films, music, and books can act as tools for psychological warfare. The messages in media can rewrite history from a new perspective and/or put new ideas in the minds of the populous.

During WWII, Disney created a film that used cartoon characters such as Donald Duck to portray the indoctrination of youth carried out by Hitler and his men. The objective was to show Americans the horrors happening in Germany at that time.
Image of clip from Disney propaganda film.

Examples of Psychological Warfare

There are many examples of psychological warfare throughout history. Let's take a look at a few and see how propaganda and psychological attacks have affected their victims.

World War II

Leaflets were used during WWII to manipulate soldiers into thinking their wives were cheating on them. By dropping these papers on the battlefields, soldiers would see either pictures of romantic scenes or phrases that suggested infidelity which could shake the one thing pushing them forward on the battlefield.

Hitler utilized radios, microphones, and charged rhetoric that made him god-like to his people. These repeated messages wore down the people of Germany who ended up siding with the dictator.

The American military also used propaganda, such as false flags, to trick the Germans into thinking they would be in a certain location. By reporting false information over the radio, they would drive the enemy troops away from their true location.

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