In recruiting messages, the Army has told potential recruits that military service will help an individual maximize his or her potential: “Be all that you can be.”
But does being in the military fundamentally change people?
In a new study, researchers studied German men and discovered personality actually does change a little after military service.
A study of personality change is a difficult endeavor lasting over several years. During this time many social, psychological and economic events can conspire to change an individual’s personality.
“It makes a researcher’s job tough,” said Joshua J. Jackson, Ph.D., “but there are some methods to safeguard against such bias.”
Jackson used data on German men who were in high school at the time the study started. At that time, about 10 years ago, all German men had to either serve in the military for nine months or perform some other kind of civilian service.
First, he looked at the men’s personalities before their national service to see if personality predicted the decision to enter the military. He discovered that men who chose to serve in the military were less open to experience—they are less likely to be interested in novel and aesthetic experiences like going to an art museum, for example.
They were also less neurotic, or inclined to worry. And they were less agreeable — “less warm and cooperative, interpersonally,” Jackson said.
Following this baseline, the men were given personality tests again two years later, after they had finished their military or civilian service.
Most people’s personalities change at this age; it’s normal to become more agreeable and more conscientious, and for neuroticism to decrease. Jackson saw those changes in all the men.
Jackson discovered that men who chose to go into the military were more agreeable two years later than they’d been before.
Four years later, after many of the men had gone on to university or into the work force, they were still less agreeable if they’d spent nine months in the military.
Jackson believes how agreeable you are has a lot to do with how well you relate to other people — “establishing and maintaining positive relationships with friends and romantic partners,” he said.
“As such, having low levels of agreeableness may be considered a bad thing.” On the other hand, some evidence suggests that people who are less agreeable tend to have more career success.
“I cannot say if it’s good or bad, but it shows that these individuals — who, by and large, did not face any combat — had experiences in basic training that likely shaped the way they approach the world,” Jackson said. “The changes in personality were small, but over time, they could have important ramifications for the men’s lives.”
The study is discussed in detail in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.