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Grumpy & cranky: Does the military make you less agreeable?

Apr. 25, 2012 - 10:43AM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 25, 2012 - 10:43AM  |  
(Jeff Bacon)
  • Filed Under

"Duh!!" With her one-word response, MilitaryTimes.com reader Deborah summed up what many thought of a recent study that says military service makes men less "agreeable."

The research, conducted by German scientists and a Washington University of St. Louis psychology professor, found that young men who enlisted in the military not only were less agreeable — and less neurotic — to begin with than their civilian counterparts, but they stayed that way long after they hung up their uniforms.

"Military recruits are a little less warm and friendly to begin with, and the military experience seems to reinforce this — as after service, men score even lower on agreeableness when compared to individuals who did not go into the military," says lead study author Joshua Jackson.

"This influence appears to linger long after the soldier has re-entered the workforce or returned to college."

In other words, their "give-a-damn" is busted.

But from the responses OFFduty received about the research, they're proud of it:

"They don't need a study for this. It's just a known fact," wrote former Marine Gordon Wan.

"Of course we're grumpier; we have to deal with civilians," retired Marine Bruce Williamson wrote.

"Stupid surveys and case studies make me grumpy," added Victor Mason on our Facebook page.

‘Changes in agreeableness'

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, involved 1,261 German male students, all of whom were required either to join the military or choose a civil service program after graduating from high school.

The subjects each received personality tests before entering the service and were followed for up to six years afterward, receiving additional tests.

Of the five major personality traits examined — extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness — the 245 men who entered the military did not become more agreeable with age or time.

But the volunteer cadre and the civilian populations of the same age did.

"Military service appeared to suppress the normative changes in agreeableness," Jackson observed.

It's a leap to correlate a lack of agreeableness to acting crotchety or grumpy; Jackson said the term "agreeable" refers to a person's ability to be accommodating and pleasant in social situations.

But American active-duty and retired personnel agreed that military service seemed to make them less tolerant of others, which could be construed as being difficult or grumpy.

"Military service makes men less tolerant and accommodating of undisciplined, neurotic, no-attention-to-detail civilians and the relentless barrage of frivolous crap and bullsh• inundating society," wrote a former Navy SEAL.

"Too grumpy?" he added.

Military an altering experience

Jackson says he decided to do the study to determine whether an experience such as serving in the military can change one's personality.

He said there is general consensus in the psychology field that personality remains fairly constant throughout one's life. "But not so much that individuals cannot change," he added.

With the armed forces pitching transformation as a recruiting element (Accelerate your life! Be all you can be! Aim high!) Jackson and the German government, which funded the study, thought the military could be one of those altering experiences.

The German military presented an ideal place to study the hypothesis, as at the time of the study, all German men were required to participate in the military, with "conscientious objectors" allowed to choose civil service volunteer jobs.

Conscription also eliminated some of the social and economic reasons young men choose to go into the military in nations with all-volunteer forces, Jackson said.

He concluded that the lack of agreeableness among military personnel was probably a positive trait for those who may enter combat.

"Within the context of the military, having this personality makes sense. You are training soldiers to engage in combat. If the level of agreeableness is depressed, I think it would make them a more effective soldier.

"And it's like a skill set," he added, noting that not caring what others think of you can be useful in other avenues of life, such as business.

Military Times readers set their disagreeableness aside to agree.

"Is it really being less agreeable or is it because they have more confidence and are not afraid to show it?" Al Ellis wrote on Facebook.

Retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Richard Hair suggested "pragmatism" would be a better descriptor than "less agreeable."

He said that at his civilian job, he's been called "cynical" for pointing out flaws in proposals and plans as they're being developed, but he sees this as an asset.

"A good soldier never runs out on the battlefield without knowing where the enemy has pillboxes. I'm giving the location of the pillboxes. When such an evaluation is made, we're called ‘grumpy.' I call it being pragmatic," Hair said.

Relationship conflict

Yet this no-nonsense trait may not be so great for personal relationships.

A separate study conducted in 2006 the at University of California-Riverside showed that lower levels of agreeableness correspond with higher levels of conflict in romances and friendships.

"You may see some negative consequences in terms of spouses and friends," Jackson acknowledged.

"Ya think?" tweeted lingerie football leaguer Lauren Martin Rock.

"Very interesting!" wrote the wife of a 26-year Navy veteran. "And I thought it was because of the penis!"

The authors admit the study is not without flaws. First, they said, the observations could actually reflect that the control group became more agreeable because they enjoyed the experience of their assignments (although Jackson points out that same-age individuals in other studies who did not participate in volunteer work or the military had levels of agreeableness similar to the control group).

And he conceded that other experiences may have been responsible for the military group's inability to suffer fools.

Plus, the study didn't involve women, because they don't face mandatory service in Germany.

This didn't stop military women from sending OFFduty feedback, and they feel right at home with the grumpy label.

"The military has changed me, as a female, for the better. Grumpier? Yes, I served part of my career as a drill sergeant … for those that live the Army values as the core of their lives, yes, we'll be grumpier!" declared Sgt. 1st Class Sharon Acosta Martinez.

"I do have the attitude of not needing to be liked but needing to get the job done. I don't know if the military did it to me though," Brittany Baldwin-Vonderhaar wrote to Military Times.

Study feedback

Jackson said the feedback he continues to receive on the study primarily falls into two camps: the young and offended and the middle-aged-plus and supportive.

Our feedback also reflected this.

"What a bunch of crap! I've been in for 19 years, and I am not at all grumpy! This article sucks!" wrote David Holifield, perhaps not entirely tongue-in-cheek.

"This may be valid … military service teaches one to realize that duty, particularly in a combat situation, does not allow for discussion and awaiting consensus," wrote retired Lt. Cmdr. George Bodenner, a 32-year veteran. "Success in the military does not allow for being a nice person all the time."

Then there are those who say the military made them far happier than they were before.

"I was so pleased with my service that it is hard to conceive I was grumpier. No indications from my wife either. Maybe more insistent in getting things done, but not in a grumpy way," one reader wrote.

Air Force wife Elly Brennan said her husband's pre-military, fun-loving side reappeared after he retired. "A year after his retirement the kids came to me and said ‘Now, we know why you married him!'"

Jackson said he'd like to do more research on the subject, to see whether the lessons of the German study can be applied elsewhere.

But he will be ready next time for the barrage of comments from grumpy service members.

"I heard it a lot, that I'm a liberal academic who is making a judgment or value claim on the decision to join the military. I just want the data to speak for themselves," Jackson said.

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