5 minutes with... Karen Carr

We hear about the drive for a British Psychological Society Defence and Security Section.

Professor Karen Carr, Chartered Psychologist and Director of Thinkwell Training, is one of a group of psychologists hoping to garner support for a new Defence and Security Section within the British Psychological Society. We spoke to her about the goals and potential activities of such a Section.

Why do you and your colleagues see a need for a Defence and Security Section?
We think the BPS should have a greater hand in supporting the way in which professional psychologists contribute to this area of practice and we need a platform to facilitate, advise, support and challenge how psychology is used in defence and security. It may not be immediately obvious what relevance different areas of psychology may have until you consider how much depends on some aspect of defence and security. For example, our infrastructures and organisations, our personal safety, our economic stability… in other words, our way of life. To some it may seem mysterious, fraught with political and ethical issues. We believe that a Defence and Security section could help demystify, broaden dialogue and enhance the role of psychologists.

Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, our Vice President, recognised the need for this a few years ago, and has been encouraging psychologists who contribute to defence and security to come together. What is lacking, however, is a cross-sector, multidisciplinary focal point with a range of ways for bringing together the wide variety of psychological defence and security interests and activities.

So you see the Section as encompassing different areas of psychology?
I struggle to think of any area of human psychology that has no relevance to some aspect of defence or security. If we are to consider the spectrum of people affected by defence and security activities as well as those involved in carrying out defence and security tasks and responsibilities, all of human life is involved. So a range of psychology is relevant from clinical, through cognitive and neuroscience, to occupational and human factors.

What are some of the problems that the Section could get involved with?
From my own experience working in industry and academia I have encountered many human problems arising from the way we shape our environment, for example with our information, technologies, organisations or processes. In defence and security sectors it is especially difficult because often we are preparing for conditions that we really hope won’t happen. We cannot easily do experiments and tests to check how people will respond in dangerous or harmful conditions. We may not even know the conditions in which people will have to work, make decisions, or lead others. Or we may not know which people may be involved. So we need better ways of using psychology to design, train and manage for such circumstances.

Military psychology is already well known as the foundation for many established psychological practices, especially in clinical areas such as PTSD and brain injury. Current concerns include disfigurement, reproductive injury and family support. Leadership, thinking skills and cultural understanding are other military research areas.

Problems arise from the need for different professions to work together for defence and security. Organisations like the emergency services, military, security service, government departments, charities and aid workers are different in their ways of working, use of language and their knowledge. Helping them to collaborate to respond to crises involves training, designing IT and other technologies, analysis of case studies, and most importantly, finding ways of learning from past experiences to continuously improve.

Most defence and security activities inevitably involve social media and information technology, so we need to understand how people interact online, and how this relates to their behaviour elsewhere. Problems in this area include how we can use these media to predict (and hopefully avoid) problems such as crime, riots, terrorism and sabotage, all within ethical and legal constraints.

From your personal perspective, why do you think a Section like this is important for BPS members to support?
Since I qualified as a psychologist, I have always worked in some area of defence. I quickly realised that the niche I was in was rather small, and it was often hard to find colleagues with whom to share experiences. Things have certainly improved over the last 30 years, but I still feel that psychologists working in defence and security are a little isolated from the mainstream of psychological colleagues. There are a number of reasons for this: some defence or security psychologists are constrained by their working conditions and cannot share easily the issues they are dealing with, other psychologists may view the whole area of defence and security as one to avoid, and in general there is often a lack of understanding of what defence and security is all about.

I think that these are precisely the reasons that BPS members should be concerned to ensure that this area of their profession is addressed and supported, whether they’d like to get involved with the Section or not.  

- To endorse the formation of the Section please see:https://response.questback.com/britishpsychologicalsociety/defsec/

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