Blue Hair is Brave? Competent?

Jacquelyn Schneider’s recent [1] piece at War on The Rocks – Blue Hair in the Grey Zone – got me thinking. How does my research on the stereotype of soldiers and the principle of discrimination relate to recruitment difficulties and personnel shortages in the military?

Let’s speculate widely.

In my studies, I asked people – U.S. residents recruited through MTurk – to think about “a typical soldier”, or “a typical man”, living somewhere in the Western world today [2]. I then asked people to rate this “typical soldier” (or man) on a number of different traits: Did they perceive him as competent, sociable, brave, agentic, harmful, caring, principled, and so on? For some of these traits, previous research had lead me to form a specific hypothesis: for example, I expected soldiers to be dehumanized relative to civilians, and to be seen as less sociable and more competent [3]. For other traits – e.g. bravery – common sense and the Army Values told me to expect a difference between how soldiers and civilians were perceived, but no previous research had directly tested this.

And what did the data say? I did not find any difference in how soldiers and civilians were perceived in terms of competence, caring, or (de)humanization. However, I did find that soldiers were seen as significantly more courageous, more dangerous, and less sociable than were their civilian counterparts. [4]

I doubt any participants in my study thought about their soldier (or civilian) target as having blue hair. So how is this related? Well, research on stereotypes (in other, non-military domains) suggests that if there’s a lack of fit – a mismatch – between the individual and the stereotype of the role they are trying to inhabit, this leads to worse outcomes. It seems possible that having blue hair indicates that you’re highly sociable/outgoing, and perhaps not very dangerous (speculation #1); this would make anyone with blue hair a poor perceived fit for the soldier role; a military person might therefore be reluctant to hire someone with blue hair (speculation #3); and (even more speculatively) someone with blue hair might feel that the soldier role would be a poor fit for them.

But perhaps this issue of fit could be re-cast? Perhaps we could consider how someone with blue hair is brave, for being willing to stand out, do something unusual?

I’m just taking blue hair as an example, and it’s a bit of a stretch. The military is also perceived as more conventional (than other social groups), and blue hair is certainly unconventional, so it possible that reframing on a different dimension would be no help. But the general point remains: It might be worth trying to find ways of framing the role and the recruit using the same frame. Schneider suggests emphasising dedication to the country; my research suggests additional traits that are particularly salient when people think about soldiers.[5]

[1] I actually drafted this post quite a while ago – Schneider’s post is not that recent any more! But, two things spurred me on to wrap this up and post it now: One is that I’ll be talking about soldiers (their perceived dedication and principledness, among other things) at SPSP on Saturday; and two is that I just discovered this WOTR Podcast, on the same topic

[2] I suggested the target individual was from a hypothetical country (“Country X”), but participants’ thoughts probably drifted close to home. Also, for this study I specified that the soldier was male, because most soldiers are indeed still male.

[3] Unfortunately none of this past research is published (except as dissertations or posters by various people), so I can’t point you to it directly!

[4] These traits were composite traits – I performed a factor analysis to reduce the full number of items  to smaller sets – ‘courageous’ included individual items courageous, heroic, stands up for his beliefs, and more;  ‘dangerous’ included dangerous, aggressive, violent and more; ‘sociable’ included friendly, easy-going, sociable, etc.

[5] One of the reasons I hesitated to post this initially, was that there’s a biiiiiig gap between my research and what’s actually going on for “future military warriors”. So take all of this with a grain of salt – or better still, help me figure out where to take it next, and how! (The research I’m referring to here is currently under review, so I’ll get back to you with an update once the critiques come in.)




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