Drone Policy (3/3): A Roadmap To Better Decisions


Missed part two? Or want to start from the beginning – click here for part 1.

Simple Suggestions for Drone Policy Improvements

Tackling these failures of drone policy seems like a daunting task, but psychological insights suggest that the solutions may be relatively simple.

Leverage the bystander effect

In a wonderful TedX talk, Dr. Ken Brown shares something important that many people miss when they talk about the bystander effect: while the largest bystander effects are seen when participants are encouraged to remain passive, instructing one bystander to step into action can completely reverse the observed bystander effect. The data show that when one person actively helps, others are more likely to step in to aide further.

Organizations like the Heroic Imagination Project are already educating individuals about the social and psychological skills required to assess critical situations and take action when needed. Such programs encourage students of all ages to be “everyday heroes,” to lead by example and help others even when helping is difficult or costly.

Tackle the problem at an institutional level

Although teaching drone teams to recognize and address moral disengagement and bystander effects would be a good start, rooting out these problems will require institutional changes to drone bureaucracies that enable teams and individuals to speak out when warranted. For example, creating team positions focused on anonymously collecting and disseminating strategic concerns throughout an operation would allow drone operators to voice hesitations and questions without fearing punishment. Policymakers are needed to figure out how to implement these kinds of changes within the traditional hierarchies of defense and intelligence organizations.

Rejecting the current agent-less and euphemistic language

Additionally, personalizing and literal language needs to replace the current agent-less and euphemistic verbiage of drone policies. This is only one tactic for instilling a greater sense of personal and moral responsibility for mission outcomes that is surely lacking given the preceding accounts. Combating moral disengagement within drone units, from inside these teams and from outside policymakers, requires honesty about civilian casualties and a shared language of responsibility and agency.


Systemic changes within drone infrastructures are needed

Given the political and economic advantages of drone warfare, it is likely to be a part of the American arsenal well beyond our lifetimes. It is obviously preferable to keep our soldiers out of harm’s way when we can, but we must be willing to acknowledge and contend with the weaknesses of this form of killing. War, by definition, reduces humanity, but in war we must aim to retain as much our humanity as possible.

As Albert Bandura explains, “To function humanely, societies must establish social systems that uphold compassion and curb cruelty. Regardless of whether social practices are carried out individually, organizationally, or institutionally, it should be made difficult for people to delete humanity from their actions,” (2016).  

Systemic changes are needed within drone infrastructures to embolden and protect individuals brave enough to dissent in the face of immense institutional pressure to remain passive. Policymakers need to openly address the psychological challenges and needs of drone operating teams in order to reduce the amount of collateral damage within control rooms and on the battlefield.

Jared Celniker
About Jared Celniker:

Jared is a PhD student in social psychology and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of California, Irvine. He studies political and moral decision-making and believes that psychological insights can help improve political discourse and policymaking.