What it takes: could personality tests make the military more effective?

With the military-industrial complex becoming ever more complex and specialised, could more detailed personality testing could hold the key to finding the right roles for today’s recruits? Dr Gareth Evans finds out.

four lenses test

In an era of increasingly mechanised and industrialised warfare, modern high-tech military systems offer unrivalled levels of efficiency, but can the same be said about the way today's forces use their human resources?

That is the question being asked by Dr Merle Parmak, a retired captain and former research psychologist at the Estonian Defence College, now based at the University of Huddersfield, who thinks personality testing could hold the key to finding the right roles for today's recruits and make military forces more effective.

Having conducted studies in some of the fiercest battle zones of recent decades, including Afghanistan and Bosnia, she has looked at the different personalities to be found amongst the military and concluded that there is a strong case for what she calls an 'interactional approach' using sophisticated psychological tests. It would, she suggests, make it a relatively straightforward matter to decide whether new or prospective recruits would be best suited to roles in combat or behind the lines.

The limitations of self-selection

In a non-conscripted military, potential recruits can be self-selective to a large extent, choosing the regiments and roles that appeal to their own interests and aptitudes for themselves, and there is often a lot of help and information available to aid in that process. The British Army, for instance, has a very comprehensive interactive 'role-finder' online that enables individual applicants to narrow down the options out of the many and varied possibilities that are open to them.

"Self-selection works well up to the point a person is able to select his or her roles by himself," Dr Parmak concedes, but adds that it is not always the case in every military. She says that although personality testing for personnel selection is generally quite widely used in armed forces, countries apply different approaches about how extensive the test are and which traits are being included.

"In a non-conscripted military, potential recruits can be self-selective to a large extent."

"While traditional paper-pencil tests are still in use on occasions, testing increasingly takes place electronically. Tests are carefully composed, adapted and their validity monitored. Testing takes longer if the position is critical for the organisation. Results can be provided very quickly, immediately after the test is finished."

Sensation or structure?

So how big a problem is this potential recruiting mismatch between combat and behind-the-lines roles, and how can we know whether the traditional recruitment procedures and the existing forms of aptitude testing are picking these problems up adequately?

Across all age groups and both sexes, Parmak says, what is important is the actual job description and how closely the testing regime used enables the recruit to be placed in a role where he or she will ultimately be capable of being successful. "Testing fails if tests do not capture [the] candidate's fit to tasks or environments where he or she has to perform later," she says and points to two aspects of personality - the need for sensation and structure - to illustrate how things can go wrong in a way that challenges many traditional notions of courage and cowardice.

High sensation seekers tend to have a relatively low threat perception, enjoying what they see as a challenge, and so are less likely to feel fear in combat situations, while at the other end of this particular spectrum, low sensation seekers will be much more aware of the potential dangers and thus more likely to fail. There is, of course, little remarkable in that; however, add the second personality trait - structure - into the mix and things become a little more complex.

While a high sensation seeker will soon bore in an office, and such a staff role would be a particularly good fit for an individual with a high degree of structure seeking who has a low need for sensation, even in combat, good organisation still matters. As a result, Parmak says, high sensation seekers who are also comfortable with structure make the most effective frontline soldiers - and the trick for recruiters, clearly, is to be able to identify them.

Sophisticated tests have been developed to investigate individual attitudes to the need for sensation and structure, and the idea that they should be applied to determine the best role for military recruits is central to Dr Parmak's work, featuring in her doctoral thesis and her published academic papers. After her briefing note to one of NATO's Operational Medical Conferences, the 'interactional approach' she champions has also caught the attention of Allied Command Transformation which was set up in 2003 to identify new doctrines and concepts that could help improve NATO military effectiveness.

It might also have an effect on the way recruitment campaigns look in the future, and the kind of applicants that respond. An emphasis on the macho, adventuring aspects of military life tends to bring in the sensation seekers, Parmak explains, while playing up the peace-keeping and humanitarian side of the forces appeals to more structure seeking individuals.

Answering the opposition

However' Parmak's approach has not been universally embraced. Some have argued that it would run the risk of reducing an army's combat capability - something which she refutes strongly, pointing out that not all deployments to combat zones require sensation seekers looking for their next adrenaline rush. Even in Afghanistan, she says, there were roles where the level of risk was not very high; allocating personnel according to their psychological suitability would not diminish combat effectiveness.

However, perhaps the loudest criticism has come from those who suggest that at a time of declining defence budgets, the cost-benefit analysis really does have to stack up, and this approach would simply be just too expensive to implement.

"Testing becomes more relevant as the 'price' of an operator as well as [the] lethality of his or her action, and [the] risk of collateral damage will increase."

"This is mostly the reason why testing is skipped in armed forces," Parmak says. "However, the price will still be paid, but in other ways, related to increasing frequency of stress-related disorders, massive turnover and attrition."

Moreover, she argues that between the enduring need for troops on the ground and the increasing move towards more remote, mechanised warfare, personality assessment will assume even greater importance in future. "Testing becomes more relevant as the 'price' of an operator as well as [the] lethality of his or her action, and [the] risk of collateral damage will increase," she says.

Parmak believes that the nature of armed forces is about to undergo a significant change in the coming years, as demographic changes mean that all organisations - the military included - will invest more to attract the best available workforce. She envisages a time when a "motivated and qualified service member becomes a treasure and will be treated as such" and part of that will involve ensuring that each such recruit is assigned to the most appropriate role.

It is a compelling vision of the future, so which army does Dr Parmak think will lead the way?

"First will be the country where [the] military behaves as a profession and not a bureaucracy," she says.