So I have a theory here… one that I cannot find a whole lot of existing research on. I’ve been brewing on this theory for some time and plan to start digging into it more thoroughly. The theory is that the Military loves Narcissists… and the Military makes Narcissists even worse.
I can remember chatting with our favorite Chaplin one day, and he told me that when he got out of the military he planned to write a book about how the Special Ops destroys Marriage. He said something along the lines of… “Think about it, we slap badges on these guys chest and tell them how special they are all the time. Then they go home and expect their spouses to treat them that special as well… they don’t think they have to be an equal partner in the marriage.” While I completely agree with the Chaplin… I think there is more to it, I think the Military targets people with certain personality disorders that create the right characteristics they need to have effective soldiers, and they makes the problem worse. Then they unleash these people on their spouses, families, and back into society.
So what do we know about Narcissists that make them ideal for the military, and even more specifically ideal for elite units of the military (Navy Seals, Green Berets, Delta, etc.)? Lets look at some of the DSM-5 criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerating your achievements and talents
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
- Requiring constant admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
The Military is seriously the perfect place for Narcissists. First of all, only .5% of Americans serve in the military at all… and Special Operations Units makeup only 5% of the total military. So when you make it to that level, you are in an extremely small and special group of elite individuals. In the military, everything is gauged on your rank… and your rank is proudly displayed on your chest so everyone knows exactly how important you are all the time. Elite units of the military have their own special ways of making you feel more important than everyone else. You get a special colored beret, a special tab on your uniform, a special uniform all together. Everyone knows that you are special. Then, when you achieve certain things, you are recognized with ribbons, medals, etc. which are also all proudly displayed on your chest for the world to see. You get a special ID, a special passport, you get to go on base where no ‘regular people’ can go. You are saluted, you are admired, you are thanked by random strangers for your service. Your lack of empathy can be a useful characteristic in dealing with war and the difficult decisions and actions that need to be taken to stay alive. Your arrogance helps you survive in difficult situations.
As I have looked deeper into this topic I have learned a few other startling things. First, I found an intriguing article linked below called “Personality Styles of Effective Soldiers” published by an Army Major in the Military Review. In this article they mentioned that what they classified as “Type B” personality clusters tend to be on the Narcissistic and slightly antisocial spectrums. He went on to explain that these personality types perform best out in war, often making good “War heroes” as they thrive on challenge and require constant stimulation. So it seems that at least one leader in the military has recognized that Narcissists work well in the military construct.
Then, I read a fascinating study that Dr. Morgan of Yale conducted on special operations soldiers undergoing stressful training. He studied their bodies physical reactions to stress and tracked heart rate, cortisol levels, and the amount of time it took them to get ‘back to normal’ after stress. He discovered that the soldiers that make it into special operations units have a different ‘normal’ state than other soldiers. Their chemical levels are different, they bounce back from stress quicker, and at normal states they have a more chemically and physically relaxed state than other soldiers. He also found that most of these men had experienced traumatic events as a child, and found that soldiers in special ops were more resilient and got that way from growing up amid serious threats. They responded to those threats with the attitude of “if I can survive this, I can do anything!”
This is interesting, because another thing that we know about narcissists is that they are made in childhood. Their narcissism develops as a survival tactic to dealing with childhood trauma, often being abandoned by one or both parents, experiencing physical abuse and other traumatic experiences. The Narcissist develops their ego as a form of protection and that ego is shaped, fed, and grows over the course of their lifetime.
What I am gathering so far is that Narcissists might develop chemical and physical reactions to stress due to the trauma they experience as children, which as adults helps serve them extremely well in the military. The military also recognizes that narcissistic personality traits make a good “war hero” style soldiers. Then, the construct of how the military operates is an ideal environment for a narcissist… they are elite, they are special, they are recognized all of the time for their accomplishments…. their ego is fed constantly.
As I mentioned before, this is just scratching the surface – but I wanted to start somewhere. I would love to hear from those of you who have experienced narcissists in the military and what your thoughts are around this. Please chime-in in the comments!
Sources and Additional Info:
Personality Styles of Effective Soldiers
The styles seen in abundance among the career military, therefore, are mainly representatives from clusters B and C. Psychologists would tend to label cluster Bs as mildly Antisocial or Narcissistic. Type B: Adventuresome, Imaginative, Innovative, Daring, Decisive. Destruction of personnel and equipment, even enemy equipment and personnel, is somewhat antisocial. To plan the ultimate defeat of an entire army or nation on the battlefield requires at least a dose of narcissism. Therefore, those personality attributes that make for a war hero are primarily from cluster B. These people do not function as well in garrison such individuals thrive on challenge and require constant stimulation.
A Mind To Survive
Dr. Morgan of Yale studied a number of soldiers in the infantry and special Ops. They discovered that the men who make it to Special Ops have a different chemical reaction to stress than others. They have more of a chemical called neuropeptide-Y (NPY) which essentially brings their cortisol stress levels back to normal at a faster rate than others. He also discovered that the individuals who made it to Special Ops had likely responded to childhood trauma different from others. He found that in Special Ops “Those who had grown up amid serious threats were more resilient.”
An examination of narcissistic personality traits as seen in a military population.
Various studies examining the prevalence of personality disorders in civilian inpatient and outpatient populations have consistently found narcissistic personality disorder to be one of the least common. In striking contrast to this, a recently published study showed narcissistic personality features to be among the most common personality features in a military outpatient clinic population. This paper examines several possible explanations for this finding. This surprisingly high relative incidence of narcissistic personality features may be related to a self-selection bias on the part of persons choosing a military career. Narcissistic personality traits may confer adaptive advantage in certain military professional roles. Kohut’s theory of specific transference requirements in individuals with narcissistic character structure serves as a useful explanatory model for these findings.