Personal Characteristics and Social Identity as Predictors of Risk Taking among Military Officers: An Empirical Study

By Firing, Kristian; Laberg, Jon Christian | International Journal of Management, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Personal Characteristics and Social Identity as Predictors of Risk Taking among Military Officers: An Empirical Study


Firing, Kristian, Laberg, Jon Christian, International Journal of Management


This study explores the relation between personal characteristics and social influence in a decision-making situation at three Norwegian military academies and the Police Academy (N=128). In a given training situation in wintertime, officers were given an offer, not an order, of either jumping or not jumping into the ocean. About 69% of the officers decided to jump. A logistic regression analysis revealed that personal characteristics explained 29.5% of the variance in behavior. Adding a sum score of the cadets 'verbal references to social relations in this situation explained an additional 33% of the variance, increasing the total explained variance to 62.5%. The variation on this variable itself estimated the probability of jumping in the .31 to .93 range. The results indicate that social identity amongst operative officers explains behavior over and beyond personal identity in a decision-making situation.

After the Second World War, the Warsaw Pact and NATO faced off against each other in Europe and other parts of the world. Different military doctrines emerged, each regulating to the final detail how and when military force should be used, i.e. "Standard Operating Procedures" (Flin, 1996, p. 35). As a member of NATO, the Norwegian Forces had to comply with these. However, the ambiguous and dynamic nature of the operations officers encounter today, for instance military actions, peacekeeping operations, and humanitarian relief missions (Forsvarsstaben, 2007), may mean that Standard Operating Procedures are less supportive in decision making (Barione, 2005; Flin, 1996).

This broad range of operations, however, have some psychological implications. From a psychological perspective soldiers have to operate along a wide scale from personal identity to social identity. One example is how Norwegian pilots voluntarily participated in operations out of the fear of being rejected from the group. One of the pilots described it like this when he was asked to participate in an operation:

What was it that was so important that I had to chose to risk my own life, and my own son's future, over Kosovo and Serbia?...But what would the boss think about me if he got a no? Would he and the others look at me as a sissy? (Dragsnes, 2007, pp. 26-27).

Social identity is made salient through the categorization of being a sissy or not. When elaborating further on this experience he lifts this categorization up to a matter of participating or not participating in war operations (Dragsnes, 2007). Bearing these cases in mind, an interesting question is then whether personal identity or social identity mediates action in situation.

Military education is a process full of conflicts; on the one hand soldiers are supposed to maintain their personal identity on the other hand they are objectified through the process of socialization into a social identity. The challenge of officer education is to cover this wide span in identity as it unfolds in the operative context. The American and Norwegian armed forces appear to have coped with this challenge in different ways.

The American armed forces seem to uphold the drill sergeant as a model for new recruits to emulate (Katz, 1990). This may mirror a traditional view on leader development within which detailed orders and control are dominating processes. For education, this means keeping the traditional perspective, the behavioristic stimulus-response approach (Skinner, 1953). The Norwegian perspective emphasizes developmental leadership, later extended to authentic leadership, where self-awareness is a central process (Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, May, & Walumbwa, 2005). Self-awareness in connection with the question of "Who am I?" points to identity in the range spanning from the personal to social identity. Such views of leadership are also reflected in the educational approach, and in Norway an experience based perspective is the basis for officer training (Skjevdal, Solheim, & Henriksen, 1 995). …

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