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Are veterans more self-disciplined than non-veterans?

by Matthew Barnett1 min read23rd Mar 202015 comments



I was having an argument with a friend the other day. It went vaguely like this,

Friend: "I'm not very disciplined. At some point I'm going to buckle down and train myself to be much more disciplined."

Me: "From experience and from what I know about humans, that's not going to work."

Friend: "Why? Motivation can come from within. If you can just train yourself like you're in the army, then you can become just as self disciplined as a soldier."

Me: "Yes, but the reason why people in the military are disciplined is because they have social incentives to be. In order to become disciplined, you need to create an environment for yourself that shapes your motivation. You can't just wake up one day and become a soldier."

Friend: "Sure, you might have to set up some environment like that. But once you've trained yourself, the discipline will stick, and you will be able to self motivate yourself from then on."

Me: "This theory would predict that people who were trained in the military would be much more productive three years after their service, compared to people who were never trained in the military. Do you agree?"

Friend: "Yes, I think that is likely."

Me: "I disagree. They might be slightly more productive but I'd predict it would be pretty similar."

So who is right?

I haven't been able to find direct research, but this seems like a classic instance where a debate can be settled by simply referencing a high quality experiment.

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3 Answers

Beware of the selection bias: even if veterans show more productivity, it could just be because the military training has selected those with higher discipline

I am a veteran, and my inside view suggests two things: one, the least disciplined members of the population are filtered out by the military (which is to say they are not accepted or kicked out early); two, the military experience pushes veterans towards the extremes.

Reasons to consider that veterans would be more productive than average:

  • Acclimated to long and/or strenuous work periods.
  • Better access to education through veterans programs and admission boosts.
  • Direct boost to employability in a variety of industries.

Reasons to consider that veterans would be less productive than average:

  • Higher rates of homelessness
  • Higher rates of mental illness and suicide
  • Higher rates of substance abuse
  • Etc.

My expectation is that the productivity advantage is highest when veterans enter a civilian industry that matches military tasks closely, like compliance with regulations or uncomfortable work environments. I also expect that the veterans who fail to re-adapt to civilian life suffer an almost complete collapse of productivity.

Turning to the question of discipline, I think we will benefit from a little context. Discipline in the military is very much a team phenomenon; Army training is focused overwhelmingly on establishing and maintaining a group identity. Most of the things people associate with military discipline require other people to make sense, like the chain of command, pulling security, and how tasks are divided. Even the individual things like physical fitness or memorizing trivia, are thoroughly steeped in the team environment because they are motivated by being able to help your buddy out and are how status is sorted in the group.

I believe your friend's statement:

If you can just train yourself like you're in the army, then you can become just as self disciplined as a soldier

is wrong as a consequence, because you can never train yourself like you are in the Army. That fundamentally needs a group, entirely separate from the question of social incentives and environment. Outside of the group context, discipline doesn't really mean anything more than habit formation.

My understanding is that there are a bunch of charitable efforts to try to convince employers to hire veterans, and that it's illegal in the US to discriminate against veterans in employment. If military veterans were actually more productive, I don't think these charities or anti-discrimination laws would exist.