WASHINGTON — Veterans of the armed forces often say the “real heroes” don’t come back from war. While this is a generally an admirable sign of modesty, there may be another reason civilians should avoid constantly reviewing to veterans as heroes. A new study finds that stereotyping members of the military as “heroes” often gives people the impression that they’ll work for less money when they enter the civilian workforce.
The findings reveal that when people label someone as a “hero,” they believe that person places a higher priority on serving others than receiving the salary their work deserves. The study also suggests that constantly referring to all veterans as heroes can end up pushing them into lower-paying careers associated with selflessness.
“We know that veterans face issues with unemployment and underemployment, but we also know that the public holds overwhelmingly positive views of veterans as a group. The public’s views of veterans are so positive that the entire group is often given the hero label,” says lead author Matthew Stanley, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate at Duke University, in a media release.
“We were motivated to better understand how it could be that veterans face these serious problems concerning unemployment and underemployment in spite of the public’s overwhelmingly positive perceptions.”
People think vets will avoid ‘selfish’ careers
Across 11 experiments involving 6,500 participants, researchers from Duke and Oklahoma State University examined why veterans experience lower rates of employment and earnings than their civilian counterparts — despite a large number of positive stereotypes connected to military service. In one experiment, researchers had 149 people rank common careers in the U.S. according to how selfish they believe a typical employee in that job is. This helped the team create a list of the five most and five least-selfish careers.
Another group of 311 participants had to rate each of those careers by how well they think they suit a U.S. military veteran entering the workforce. Researchers found that participants were more likely to say veterans were a better fit for careers ranking low for selfishness — such as a firefighter or a public school teacher. Participants thought these jobs would be more appealing and a better cultural fit than job ranking high for selfishness — like a real estate agent or banker.
Another experiment examined if people would still think veterans were a better fir for “selfless careers” if they thought that someone enlisted in the military for a reason other than serving their country. For example, did they enlist simply to acquire technical skills for their career after the military? Researchers introduced 407 online participants to a fictional U.S. military veteran named “Peter Miller,” who received training in information technology (IT) while serving in the military and was now preparing for a career in the civilian workforce.
Study authors told the participants that Miller was applying for IT jobs with similar starting salaries at an organization the participants perceived as “self-focused” in a pre-trial test. Miller also applied to work at an organization designated as “selfless.” When the team told participants that Miller joined the military specifically to receive training in IT, the group was less likely to consider Miller a “hero” and were more likely to think that Miller was a better fit at the self-focused company.
“We typically don’t think that describing groups in such extremely positive terms (as heroes) could actually have negative effects on group members,” Stanley says. “But in the case of veterans, people see them as a better fit at jobs, roles and organizations that they associate with selflessness, which tend to be lower paying.”
Other ‘heroic’ careers suffer the same problem
Results show that the more “heroic” participants believe veterans are, the more likely they are to think that veterans are willing to make a career out of serving others — even if it means sacrificing their own needs and the financial needs of their family.
A follow-up experiment found that the positive stereotypes about veterans and heroism can also lead to the same problems for people the public perceives as heroic, such first responders like police officers, firefighters, and nurses.
Dr. Stanley says that people who are perceived as heroic are expected to sacrifice more for others than those who are not. He adds that the persistent belief that heroes should be self-sacrificing may funnel veterans into lower-paying, service-oriented careers, rather than careers that fit their own needs and experiences.
“There are lots of reasons why Americans enlist in the military, and we should not assume that veterans want to make a career out of serving others, especially at the expense of other needs and desires,” Stanley concludes. “By funneling veterans into specific jobs, organizations, and careers associated with selflessness, we may be unfairly limiting their agency and limiting their options.”
The findings are published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.