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Study on deployed soldiers indicates that personalities are surprisingly stable even in the face of dramatic adversity

Military deployment does not appear to greatly enhance character development over time, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality. The study suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, adverse experiences do not result in lasting positive changes in personality for most people.

“We were primarily interested in the idea of whether people’s personalities could change for the better after potentially stressful events,” explained study author William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University and director of the Close Relationship Lab.

“A lot of previous research has focused on changes in things like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and well-being. But, when soldiers reflect on their deployments, they often frame it as this transformational experience — pushing their limits, challenging them, changing their worldview, and forming long-lasting friendships. Others report coming back as very different people. So we had the question, does deploying fundamentally change who soldiers are (e.g., their personalities).”

For the study, more than 212,000 Army active duty, Reserve, and National Guard soldiers completed questionnaires that measured different psychological characteristics before their deployment for the first time and up to three times after returning from combat.

The researchers found that about 60% of the soldiers scored highly in character strengths prior to deployment, changed little following deployment, and maintained their character post-deployment. The other 40% of soldiers, however, had relatively lower character strengths and experienced declines following deployment.

“One of our findings was that the majority of soldiers’ personalities was resilient and didn’t change much on average from before to after a deployment. The few that did change did so for the worse — they became less intellectually curious, less warm, and found it harder to take other people’s perspectives,” Chopik told PsyPost.

The findings suggest that “for better and for worse, our personalities are pretty stable even when dramatic things happen to us.”

“Some people might think that is a good thing. Others might find that disappointing. For the group that changed for the worse, they often had a series of characteristics that put them at risk for a tough transition (e.g., existing mental or physical health problems),” Chopik said.

The researchers lacked data on the soldiers’ perceptions of their deployment experiences, which could help explain different trajectories of personal growth following adversity.

“We did not have really fine-grained information about what exactly happened over the course of the deployment. We do have some broad indicators, such as whether they were involved in active combat or sustained an injury. But soldiers respond to these experiences in all sorts of different ways, so we don’t have a clear understanding of, right when something stressful happens, how they felt in the moment,” Chopik explained.

“In future work, we need to know more about what’s so special (or not) about adversity — some people weather it just fine and maybe we can figure out what those people are doing and teach it to the rest of us.”

The Army is using the research to boost its efforts in developing resources that will help those struggling to return to civilian life. “It was a really fun project to work on and one of the most important projects I’ve done. My hope is that it’ll touch the lives of soldiers and those they are close to,” Chopik said.

The study, “Development of character strengths across the deployment cycle among U.S. Army soldiers“, was authored by William J. Chopik, Whitney L. Kelley, Loryana L. Vie, Jeewon Oh, Douglas G. Bonett, Richard E. Lucas, and Martin E. P. Seligman.



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