Nearly 20 years of war following the events of September 11 has resulted in advances in military psychology that stand to improve the well-being of all people, military and civilian alike. The symbiotic relationship between psychology and the military traces back to World War I. With the advent of US involvement in the war, the army and navy had to select and train hundreds of thousands of new soldiers and sailors for increasingly technical jobs. Compared to nineteenth-century wars, World War I required military personnel to operate far more advanced and complicated equipment including aircraft, tanks, and communications systems. To match military personnel to jobs in which they would excel, the military turned to psychologists to develop new aptitude tests rapidly. The tests developed for the military vastly improved the reliability and validity of aptitude testing. Such testing became common in civilian institutions after the war.
Similarly, World War II stimulated psychologists to conduct further research on how to diagnose and treat combat stress and psychological injuries of war. With millions of Americans having served in the war, this knowledge provided a significant boost to clinical psychology. World War II also created a new area of psychology, human factors engineering. Engineers needed psychologists to help them understand the limits of human perceptual and cognitive capabilities in order to design ever more complex weapons and communications systems. The Vietnam War saw the emergence of the understanding of posttraumatic stress disorder, first studied among soldiers and veterans, but soon recognized to be a risk for anyone exposed to severe trauma. Our current understanding of PTSD, its causes, and how to treat it are due in no small measure to the efforts of military psychologists.
In the same manner, the war on terrorism has resulted in a renewed effort by military psychologists to better understand factors that enable military personnel to perform at their best, as well as to better understand suboptimal adjustment or pathology. This emerging research promises benefits to civilians as well. A great example is the military’s research on character and its links to individual and team performance.
Positive character traits like integrity, determination, and courage have long been identified as essential attributes of military personnel. The emergence of positive psychology in the late 1990s provided a new science-focused perspective on character among military personnel. The results of almost 20 years of research are now providing a clearer picture of the role of positive character in leading others in dangerous contexts. For example, trust — an essential element in leadership in any domain — is heavily dependent on the character traits of integrity, caring for others, and moral courage. Both research and practical leadership experience demonstrate the critical role of character in trust and leadership.
Cadets at the nation’s service academies live under an honor code that dictates they will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do. Military affiliation trumps nationality when it comes to the ranking of top character strengths. In comparing US military academy cadets with Royal Norwegian Naval Academy cadets and US civilian college students, military psychologists discovered that US cadets were more similar to their Norwegian cadet counterparts than they were to US civilian college students. The strongest character attributes among the military cadets regardless of nationality were honesty, hope, bravery, persistence, and teamwork. For the US civilian college students, the highest strengths were kindness, sense of humor, honesty, and judgment.
Army researchers have discovered strong links between individual character and personal adjustment and have developed a program to enhance positive character among its soldiers. Military psychologists have found that positive character traits such as hope and optimism, persistence, self-regulation, social intelligence, and leadership contribute to the emotional and social sense of well-being, and to a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Soldiers high in these and related character strengths are less vulnerable to combat stress, perform better at their jobs, and are more likely to remain in the military compared to those low in these strengths.
Research on character provides just one of many intriguing examples of how military psychology continues to contribute to our knowledge of general psychology. After all, the challenges and stresses that military personnel face are far too easily found in other walks of life. Military research on both positive individual and organizational character have significant implications for how to optimize individual and team performance in law enforcement agencies, sports teams, schools, and in corporations. Thus, the efforts of military psychologists continue to provide insights into human behavior that stand to help us all to perform at our best and to live our lives to the fullest.