The Motives and Psychology of Spies


Assignment 2: RA 1: Spy Case from PERSEREC

You work as a mental health professional in an organization that is examining methods to avoid potential intelligence compromises. You have been asked to evaluate an existing spy case in order to achieve a greater working knowledge of the motivation of espionage in an effort to avoid future compromises in the organization.

In a formal report, conduct an evaluation and case conceptualization. Identify the risk factors, vulnerabilities, and threats; identify the potential mental disorders, symptoms, and prognoses; and explain how this type of indirect assessment relates to the ethics code as prescribed by APA.


Create an 8- to 10-page report responding to the following:

Select a spy case from the Defense Personnel and Security Research Center (PERSEREC) case page. You cannot select a case that has already been examined or discussed in this course.

Conduct a case study evaluation and case conceptualization of your selected spy case as described below.

For the case study evaluation:

Summarize the case facts. Include not only the case details as outlined by evidence and a description of the act but also the characteristics of the perpetrator, such as demography, socioeconomic status, work history, and relation with the intelligence community (IC) organization where the espionage occurred. Articulate what, where, when, how, and who of the act of espionage in the case you have chosen.

Identify the risk factors and vulnerabilities in the spy and the threats of the case. Risk factors and vulnerabilities are intrinsic to the perpetrator and include factors that made the perpetrator more susceptible to committing the act of espionage. Threats are extrinsic to the perpetrator and bring dangers to the asset. In these cases, the asset is national security information.

For the case conceptualization:

Describe the cognitive processes, behavior, and emotional makeup of the spy, such as how he or she thinks, acts, or feels, using a major theoretical orientation on personality psychology (such as cognitive behavioral and psychodynamic behavioral).

Identify any potential mental disorders or symptoms that may exist and include them in your prognosis.

Explain how this type of indirect assessment meets (or does not meet) the ethics code as prescribed by APA. This section should be supported by the existing body of psychology literature.

The report should rely upon at least five scholarly resources from the professional literature. The literature may include the Argosy University online library resources; relevant textbooks; peer-reviewed journal articles; and websites created by professional organizations, agencies, or institutions (.edu, .org, or .gov)

Sample paper

The Motives and Psychology of Spies

For many years, numerous researches have been conducted to explain the reasons why people engage in espionage against their own countries. Espionage involves gathering information and giving it to the foreign intelligence services. Spies tell lies and break laws but the impact of their actions has far reaching consequences. Espionage among nations is an extensive human endeavor that has been happening for a long time. In both war and peace times, intelligence information about a country is always being handed over to their rivals for different reasons.  There do not seem to be an ethical justification for espionage. When countries have a motive of obtaining confidential and classified information about other countries, they sponsor individuals or groups to intrude into a country’s restricted space in order to gather the information.   Countries restrict their space in different ways. It could be physical, visually, digitally, legally or acoustically. Countries are always protecting classified information since leaking such information can compromise national security.

As much as nations are so determined to keep classified information private, there are many spies who are recruited, or volunteering to deliver the information to other countries. Spies are driven by different motives. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has introduced MICE (money, ideology, compromise, and ego) as the major motives of espionage. Spies do not necessarily have a certain personality that motivates them; rather espionage activity can be attributed to opportunity, circumstances or individual inclinations.  Some spies are driven by a single factor; say money or ideology, while others act under a combination of two or three different motives (Michalak, 2011).

The Defense Personnel Security Research Center (PERSEREC) has been focusing on espionage by Americans since it was institutionalized in 1986. PERSEREC’s database contains cases of 173 people who were involved in espionage activities from 1947 to2007. The research center has been doing numerous studies to try and bring out to light the reasons why the individuals were involved in espionage. The 173 individuals were either prosecuted or convicted for espionage, conspiracy to commit espionage, attempting to engage in espionage, having existing evidence about intent to engage in espionage, even though they are not yet convicted for their crimes for several reasons (Michalak, 2011). The latter category includes those who died or committed suicide before they were prosecuted, those who defected before prosecution, those with immunity from prosecution or those who have took a bargained plea for lesser charges.

The reason why prosecutors agree to offer plea bargains in such cases is to obtain information from the culprits since it is hard to have enough evidence that some espionage statutes requires. In addition, they may have the intention to protect classified information or counterintelligence methods from being discussed in open court sessions. Some of the lesser charges in plea bargains include theft of government information, being in possession or mishandling classified information, being a foreign government’s agent, conspiracy to gather information while knowing that it could be useful to another government or conspiracy to communicate to a foreign government about national defense information.

There are more factors that influence the outcomes of espionage cases rather than just charges against an individual and the plea bargaining that they take. In addition, the outcomes are influenced by prosecution choices and policies regarding espionage related offenses. Since 2001, there has been a trend of reducing numbers of individuals charged with espionage. Instead, most of them are charged with acting as a foreign power’s unregistered agents. Before an individual is prosecuted, the espionage statutes require that precise information or evidence regarding their mental health and intentions of conviction, conditions that are not demanded when one is acting a foreign power’s agent. This explains why the cases of individuals charged with acting as agents of foreign powers have doubled since 2001 than they were in earlier decades.

The following is the criteria for having any case being included in the PERSEREC Espionage database,

  1. Individuals who are convicted of espionage, those who have conspired or attempted to engage in espionage activities, or those who have admitted to have the intention of engaging in espionage activities.
  2. Individuals who were prosecuted for espionage but committed suicide before the trial was over are included.
  • Individuals who were not prosecuted even though there was clear evidence of engaging or attempting to engage in espionage activities are included. This category includes individuals who died during early investigation stages, defections, and those who have been administratively processed. The latter includes those given immunity, those allowed to retire, those exchanged and those discharged from the military.
  1. Individuals for whom clear evidence of engaging in espionage activities exists , those who were initially charged with crimes related to espionage but prosecuted for other offenses rather than espionage.
  2. Individuals who were charged for acting as a foreign country’s unregistered agents and for whom there is enough evidence that they gathered, attempted or succeeded in handing over information to the foreign power they are working for.

Researches conducted have brought a light to the spectrum of variables that can be used to describe espionage by American citizens from the times of cold war to 2007. Although it is likely that there more espionage cases by Americans that are yet to be discovered, the ones studied can comfortably describe the extent of this crime.  The following variables can be used to break down the espionage cases in order to deduce the extent and prevalence of the crime.

  1. Personal attributes


Most cases of espionage activities in the United States are associated with males. However, there are also women who have been involved in the course of the study of PERSEREC. There has also been an increased in the number of women engaging in espionage since 1947. The study is conducted in three phases, 1947-1979, 1980-1989 and 1990-2007. For the period between 1947 -1979, there were 66 individuals spying against the United States. . Out of these, 95 percent of them were male while only 5 percent of them were female. The numbers have increased to 90 percent for men and10 percent for females and 86 percent for males and 14 percent for females in the periods 1980-1989 and 1990-2007 respectively. It is important to note that the number of individuals charged with espionage activities in the period of 1990-2007 had reduced to 37 (Herbig, 2008).


Although the number of whites engaging is still high, the number was higher in 1947-1979. Out of the 66 individuals charged with espionage during this period, 59 of them were white. This attributes to 89 percent while blacks consisted of 7 percent. During the period, spies of Asian and Hispanic origin consisted of 2 percent each. From 1980 to 1989, there were 84 percent whites, 4 percent blacks, 1 percent Arab, 6 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent of Native Americans. From 1990 to 2007, there were 46 percent whites, 11 percent blacks, 8 percent Arab, 11 percent Asian, 24 percent Hispanic and 0 percent native Americans charged with espionage or related crimes. The numbers show that the dynamics of espionage cases are spreading across all races and ethnic groups and can be quite unpredictable (Herbig, 2008).


From 1947 to 1979, 5 percent of the American spies aged less than 20 years, 36 percent, 33 percent, and 26 percent were in the age brackets between 20 to 29, 30 to 39 and above 40 respectively. For the same age groups the numbers stood at 9 percent, 49 percent, 17 percent and 25 percent from 1980 to 1989. From 1990-2007 there were 0 percent, 17 percent, 37 percent and 46 percent for the respective age groups. It can be noted that the number of spies above 40 years have been engaging in espionage activities more. For the same period, 80 percent of the spies were aged 30 and above (Herbig, 2008).

Marital status and sexual preference

Recently, married spies are twice the number of their single counterparts. Most of them are in heterosexual relationships. From 1947 to 1979, 31 percent, 26 percent and 8 percent started engaging in espionage activities when they were married, single and divorced/separated respectively. From 1980 to 1989, the numbers stood at 48 percent, 40 percent and 12 percent in the respective categories.  The period for 1990 to 2007 has recorded a drastic change. 66 percent began when they were married, 22 percent were single while 12 percent were divorced/separated. In addition to this, sexual preference is a variable that can be used to show the changes that have occurred during the three time periods. For the three respective periods, there were 93 percent, 96 percent and 100 percent heterosexual spies (Herbig, 2008).


Recently, spies have had more years of learning and have college degrees compared to the earlier cohorts.  From 1947 to 1979 spies who had 10 years, 12 years, 14 years, 16 years and 18 years of education were 6 percent, 36 percent, 20 percent, 27 percent and 11 percent respectively. From 1980 to 1989 spies with the same respective years of education were 7 percent, 37 percent, 20 percent,11 percent and 25 percent. The numbers have changed drastically in the period from 1990 to 2007 with 0 percent, 35 percent, 5 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent for the respective years of education (Herbig, 2008).

Looking at the personal attributes of American spies shows that there is a lot that has changed since 1990. One of the most viable reasons for the changes is the fact that the number of people charged with espionage and related crimes has reduced. As mentioned before, there is a requirement to have enough evidence and a culprit’s mental condition provided before a case begins. In addition, some of the cases cannot be mentioned in an open court since classified information could be released.

  1. Foreign influence, foreign preferences, and divided loyalties.

Before 1990, 80 percent of the spies were natives born in the United States. Since 1990, only 65 percent of them were born in the United States with naturalized citizens increasing to 35 percent. This is because people have migrated to the United States and there are more people with foreign cultural ties than did before. As a result, the number of those engaging in espionage activities due to divided loyalties and a combination of other motives has increased.

  1. Motives

For the three cohorts of spies, 47 percent, 74 percent and 7 percent respectively have spied for money. For those with multiple motives, money has always been a major factor. Since 1990 however, the primary motivation for spying was not money. The most significant motive for spying since 1990 is divided loyalties attributing for 57 percent. The number of Americans spying with disgruntlement has been 16 percent, 6 percent and 22 percent for the three respective cohorts. Smaller percentages of spies have been motivated by coercion, thrills, ego, ingratiation or recognition (Herbig, 2008).

  1. Employment status

During the Cold War, the number of Americans who engaged in espionage activities was equal for civilians and members of the military. However, since 1990, 67 percent of the spies were civilians while only 33 percent were members of the military. Recently, individuals who have jobs that do not relate to espionage have been engaging in espionage activities. Some of the individuals who have spied since 1990 were housewives, a boat pilot, truck driver and two translators.

This study shows that national security can be destroyed by anybody. While spies in the early years had security clearance, currently anybody can access classified information. This puts the country in danger since most of the spies are the most unsuspected individuals with regular jobs. The advancement in technology has not made things easier. Cyber espionage is so rampant and is more difficult to contain that traditional espionage. People can now access classified information from any part of the world by hacking government systems. This has exposed the county to more risks than it was during the years prior to the arrival of modern technology (Shane, 2008).

Describe the cognitive processes, behavior, and emotional makeup of the spy

The cognitive behavioral theory is based on cognition (how people think), emotion (how they feel), and behavior (how they act) and can be used to treat people with mental health problems. A person’s thoughts determine how they act. As for spies, any unrealistic or negative thoughts can lead them to engaging in espionage activities. As mentioned above, there are those who engage in espionage activities for money. Huge consumerism can lead to debts which can in turn lead to distress. Wealth and the pursuit for it can change how people feel, act and think and has been linked with immoral and illegal behavior. Psychologists who conduct research about inequality of human behavior and the impact of wealth have often indicated that money can hugely influence people thoughts and actions in ways they cannot understand, irrespective of their economic circumstances (McLeod, 2008).

People who are in huge debts can easily be swayed into spying for financial compensation. This is because lack of money can lead to psychological distress and when an individual is under such circumstances, they can take up any activity that can generate money. In such circumstances, their ways on interpreting situations become skewed and their actions may have negative impact. Hence, most people who engage in espionage activities with the motive of getting money could possibly have mental health issues. As mentioned above, currently there is a requirement to have a spy’s mental health status evaluated before they are charged. Mental health issues could be the major reason why some spies have committed suicide before or after they are convicted.

Similarly, the desire for revenge can lead to aggression. Research indicates that between 10 and 20 percent of worldwide homicides are as a result of revenge. Most spies who are members of the military are driven by revenge. This means that they may have felt betrayed by their country or their superiors in their line of duty.  They might feel that betraying their country in return is a good way to avenge. Any betrayal in their line of work will influence how they think, feel and act. Some spies are motivated by a combination of several factors.

Identify any potential mental disorders or symptoms that may exist

People who betray their countries have the tendency to violate rules and regulations. They may have may be disappointed and bitter for different reasons. Some of symptoms that are associated with espionage include the following;

  1. Antisocial behavior- psychologists refer to people with such behavior as sociopaths or psychopaths. Such people manipulate and deceive people into believing or doing certain things. Antisocial behavior is a serious security concern. When such a person indentifies a illicit way to gain, selling secrets to them becomes a business opportunity rather than treason.
  2. Narcissism- a narcissistic person has a sense of entitlement, unwarranted feelings of importance and lack of empathy. In such cases, they will do anything that benefits them even if it causes harm to others.
  • Impulsiveness- immature and impulsive individuals make poor judgment that can affect the whole country. They are irresponsible and unpredictable in their actions (, 2017).

A mental health professional can detect if a spy suffers from mental illness by observing several factors. These factors include illogical thinking, nervousness, mood changes, unusual behavior, feeling disconnected, apathy, problems thinking, drop in functioning and increased sensitivity. Mental illnesses should be treated as early as they are detected in order to make sure that the individual does not engage in destructive activities. The reason why some spies commit suicide could be advancement of their mental illnesses.

In psychology, the APA‘s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of conduct provides that standards that psychologists should observe in the course of their work. This type of assessment meets the APA’s code of conduct since the psychologist promotes integrity, professional and scientific responsibility, concern for the welfare of others, social responsibility, and respects the dignity and rights of others (, 2017).


Herbig, K. (2008). Approved for Public Distribution: Distribution Unlimited Defense Personnel Security Research Center Technical Report 08-05 March 2008 Changes in Espionage by Americans: 1947-2007. Retrieved 19 March 2017, from

Shane, S. (2008). What Motivates a Spy to Betray His Country? Add Nationalism to the Equation. Retrieved 19 March 2017, from

Michalak, S. (2011). Motives of espionage against ones own country in the light of idiographic studies. Polish Psychological Bulletin, 42(1), 1-4.

McLeod, S. (2008). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy | CBT | Simply Psychology. Retrieved 19 March 2017, from,. (2017). Behavior Patterns Associated with Espionage. Retrieved 19 March 2017, from,. (2017). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Retrieved 19 March 2017, from


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