Saturday, February 25, 2012

Changing personalities?

A story in a journal that unfortunately I have no access to is reported to claim that military service makes, on average, a slight but permanent change in one's "agreeableness." This was a longitudinal study in Germany of 1300 young men, 250 of whom joined the military at one point. Longitudinal studies are a good thing, but those numbers worry me a little: a slight effect in only 250 men is a bit hard to measure.

But imagine for the moment that their numbers are OK. It could be that the intense nature of military training does what you might naively expect, and makes men more aggressive. (I don't think that would be quite as useful as training them to obey orders and how to react under fire. Just being more aggressive seems like a bad thing for discipline.) Or it could be that the military, which attracts more aggressive men in the first place, gives them life-or-death training that leaves them less interested in little white lies; and they fill out the questionnaires more accurately.

The report's author draws a different conclusion from the one you expect:

It’s striking that military service can have this long-lasting effect on people. But, on the other hand, this research also underscores that it’s really difficult to change a person’s personality. If military service is one of the most intensive experiences imaginable, and the best the military can do is a modest change on the one dimension of agreeableness, what does that say about our individual prospects for becoming, say, more outgoing, or to exercise more regularly, or to finally quit smoking?

"It kind of flies in the face," Jackson said, "of how some people wish that they had more control over changing just who they are."

How outgoing you are is personality-based, and likewise how self-controlled you are, but habits are sometimes amenable to preparation, so I'm not sure his examples are good.


Texan99 said...

"Agreeableness" is an interesting quality to try to measure and evaluate. I wonder what they mean by it? A tendency to go along rather than cause a stir? I can imagine that military training could put a dent in that. You give people the idea that some things can be fought for and that your goal is more important than your fear of conflict, and who knows what can happen?

james said...

Apparently only a little, if the report of the study is to be believed.
Since I presume they also focus on "your goal" being a legitimately assigned goal, that helps the impulse control. (I was never in the military; turned draft age just as the Vietnam was was winding down.)

Glowing Face Man said...

I think the results people expect are clouded by a common misconception that military life consists of endless bootcamp interrupted only by deployment. Actually, boot camp is a couple months at most, and tech school a few months more, and then what you have after that is pretty much just a typical job like you'd have in the civilian world. I was never deployed so I can't speak about that, but my case (of never being deployed) isn't rare anyway. It's been said that one of the purposes of the modern military is to raise the employment rate for young adults.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The disagreeableness may come from interacting with a large, often pointlessly stupid bureaucracy, when your original plan was to have adventures.