What You Think About Veterans Is Likely Wrong

Research suggests that vet stereotypes are common — and harmful.

Posted Jan 24, 2018

A cursory search of the hashtags #veterans, #military, and #ptsd on social media returns an impressive array of pictures, articles, and tweets attempting to, and succeeding in, placing veterans in roughly the following categories:

1. The PTSD-ravaged, psychologically unhinged, and behaviorally unpredictable ticking time bomb.

2. The do-no-wrong, heroic all-American whom we should profusely thank for their service to our country.

3. The gun-waving bro who chastises people on social media and believes they've cornered the courage and bravery market.

Screenshot, Open Source Search #veterans, Instagram, 23 January 2018, Meaghan Mobbs
These images are what is returned when you search #veterans on Instagram. 
Source: Screenshot, Open Source Search #veterans, Instagram, 23 January 2018, Meaghan Mobbs

For ease, let us shorthand these, respectively, as the "Punisher" (Task & Purpose), "Captain America," and "outraged vet stereotypes" (OAF Nation). I will not get into the origin, perpetuation, or unique influence of each category here, nor will I touch on the particular stereotypes of female veterans. Here, I will simply attempt to shed some light on the psychological impact of a highly-stereotyped population.     

Given our sensationalistic press and our unrestricted access to highly curated veteran social media, the average American likely possesses an inaccurate understanding of the veteran experience. To that point, a recent survey found that roughly 40 percent of civilians believe that the majority of the 2.8 million post-9/11 veterans suffer from a mental-health condition.

Before we go too far down this path, it's important to clarify this is not an "us" (veterans) vs. "them" (civilian) problem. This is an everyone problem. Some culpability lies with Hollywood for cashing in on a tried-and-true character trope without much reflection, some with the press for failing at times to interject nuance, some with veterans for failing to fully assess the impact of their tweets, posts, or YouTube videos, and some with everyone in between. We are all part of the problem, so let’s endeavor to be part of the solution as well.    

If the stereotypes mentioned above feel like caricatures of the veteran population, it’s because they are. This is a byproduct of both our culture and the human tendency toward heuristics — cognitive short-cuts helpful for processing massive amounts of data. As it pertains to veterans, it is not uncommon to see headlines like “Police get help with vets who are ticking bombs” (USA TODAY), “Experts: Vets’ PTSD, violence a growing problem” (CNN), and “Veteran charged with homeless murders: Hint of larger problem for US military?” (Christian Science Monitor) (VAntage Point).

This matters, because very real psychological distress can arise from stereotypes, their perpetuation, and the stress of unintentionally confirming them. The risk of spreading a negative stereotype about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group is referred to as stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995). This type of stress or anxiety can impact a person’s ability to perform, preventing them from doing their best. And it is most likely to occur, and to have detrimental effects, when a person highly identifies with the group to which the negative stereotype applies (Schmander, 2002). 

To break it down a bit: if a veteran strongly identifies as a veteran — meaning that being a veteran or having a military identity is something they closely associate with — they might be more prone to engaging in behavior that inadvertently confirms the negative stereotype(s) held against them. Consider the Punisher stereotype referenced above: A veteran with mental-health challenges may choose not to seek out mental-health services for fear of confirming that stereotype, but by that very choice they substantiate the stereotype they were attempting to avoid in the first place. Or take the veteran who uses the GI Bill to go back to school and is asked by a classmate, “Have you ever killed anyone?” Outside of the absolute lack of social grace in that question, such an encounter can lead to stereotype activation, increasing the likelihood of stereotype threat. 

Here’s the real kicker: Regardless of whether the veteran agrees with the stereotype brought forth such a question, it can still generate anxiety or stress. What's more, anxiety can decrease educational performance by reducing working memory, or the ability to hold information for processing — a necessary component of successful academic functioning. A reckless question asked by an immature classmate has the potential, then, to negatively influence a veteran’s academic performance, simply by way of stereotyping and its consequences. You don’t have to buy in to own the consequences. 

What now? Well, there is much we don’t know. Significant research has examined the phenomenon of stereotype threat regarding race and gender within schools and workplaces, but there has been no empirical exploration or research examining it within the veteran space. This seems particularly problematic as many veterans do identify highly with the designator, they are a highly stereotyped population, and there appears to be a pervasive post-9/11 civilian-military divide. 

While we wait for academia to catch up with the veteran experience in all its myriad forms, there are a couple things we can all do to ease the stereotype burden for veterans (and other groups prone to this treatment): Veterans can embrace and cultivate a growth mindset. Thrive on challenge and attempt to see failure not as evidence of inability, but as an opportunity for growth and the stretching of existing abilities. Be open to feedback and be prepared to give it in a way that’s going to be well-received. This doesn’t mean engaging in sugar-coating or sanctimoniousness. Actively attempt to be intentional in how you engage with people. You may be the only veteran someone’s ever met: What do you want them to take away from the encounter?

For those who haven’t worn a uniform, how might you best approach a veteran and engage in a meaningful way? It's not a blanket “Thank you for your service,” or, “You’re all heroes.” Ask thoughtful questions and be curious. And if you feel the need to say thank you, take a moment to reflect on what you believe you are thanking them for, and why you feel the need to do so in the first place. Foster a sense of belonging. Most veterans want to find a sense of purpose in their new community. Give them that opportunity, and demonstrate that purpose can be found in unexpected places.

Facebook image: AJR_photo/Shutterstock

References

Schmader, T. (2002). Gender identification moderates stereotype threat effects on women's math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(2), 194-201.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.

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