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What is Operational Psychology?

Operational Psychology is a new and emerging field. Its early roots can be traced back to the late 1940s when psychologists were used by the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency) to select personnel military operations counterintelligence. Operational psychology law enforcement roots stem from the late 1970s, when NYPD Detective and psychologist Harvey Schlossberg applied psychological theory and techniques to hostage situations, laying the foundation for our modern day hostage negotiation techniques. Today, operational psychologists can be found in the Law Enforcement, Intelligence, and Military Communities. With a foundation in clinical psychology, operational psychology blends clinical, forensic, social, and industrial/organizational psychology to create a unique set of applied psychology theories and techniques for consultation with security professionals. For further information on operational psychology, see the Palarea (2007) article, “Operational psychology: An emerging discipline.”

What makes operational psychology unique from other psychology disciplines is its use of the “partnership model.” From their beginnings in the police academy, police officers are trained to assist each other with investigative duties, pair up on interrogations, and cover each other during a shootout. Operational psychologists appreciate this relationship-based culture and understand the importance of “having your partner’s back.” Thus, operational psychologists seek to establish relationships with their clients and understand the culture of the clients’ organizations, with the goal of applying the psychologist’s knowledge through the eyes of the client (i.e., the operator). Whether it’s preventing a workplace violence shooting, protecting proprietary information from being disclosed, or disrupting a terrorist attack, operational psychologists partner with law enforcement and security professionals to help them understand the subject’s mindset, motivation, behavior, and intent. For an article on the law enforcement investigator – psychologist partnership in threat assessment, see the Gelles, Sasaki-Swindle, & Palarea (2002) article, “Threat assessment: A partnership between law enforcement and mental health” in the Journal of Threat Assessment.


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