Personality Trait’s Associated with Combat Valor

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by Charles Bausman


In recent weeks, we’ve provided an overview of the techniques utilized by nations to train their soldiers to perform in combat conditions.  Our goal with this project is to identify key factors, which have proven to shorten the distance between the brand new soldier, and savvy combat experienced soldier.

With this article, we move on to personality traits and how they may provide indicators of those soldiers who are most likely to perform their duties well, or perhaps go beyond the call of duty.

Our original intent was to discover if certain personality traits displayed prior to military service had any correlation to the ability to perform while in combat. Unfortunately, this could not be found. Instead we discovered several studies, which researched personality traits of those who received medals for valor, or through peer interviews and reviews.

Traits Observed of Successful Combat Valor

The following display the characteristics of military personnel found by the respective researchers, which correlate to high performance under stress. We have underlined those that are common to two or more of the studies.

World War II Medal Winners

  • Displayed Leadership
  • Loyalty
  • Risk Taker
  • Selflessness

Second Arab Israeli War Medal Winners

  • High levels of physical fitness
  • Leadership
  • Devotion to duty
  • Decisiveness
  • Perseverance Under Stress

Korean War – Characteristics of the Fighter

  • More intelligent
  • More masculine
  • A “doer”
  • More socially mature
  • Preferred socially and in combat by his peers
  • Greater emotional stability
  • More leadership potential
  • Better health and vitality
  • More stable home life
  • Greater fund of military knowledge
  • Greater speed and accuracy in physical performance

It is important to note that all of the researchers recommended that future projects should aim to analyze recruits prior to entry in to the military to enable leadership in life-threatening professions to make the most educated decisions on personnel management.

Profiling the Heroic Leader: Empirical Lessons from Combat Decorated Veterans of World War II

This study attempted to gain empirical evidence of personality characteristics and traits, which were more often displayed by World War II veterans whose combat heroism was recognized with military awards.

The research methodology employed was a large questionnaire survey to be answered by the individual. Of 7,500 surveys mailed to randomly picked veterans, 526 respondents were selected based on the level of combat exposure by that individual. Of those, 83 were awarded medals for valor (Bronze star with “V” device or above).

The researchers found that “leadership, loyalty, and risk taking are three differentiating dimensions of combat-decorated heroism.” This was classified into the “eager hero” and the “reluctant hero.”

Broadly, the eager hero had voluntarily enlisted and looked forward to experiencing combat. The reluctant hero may have been drafted or voluntarily enlisted, yet did not have a desire to experience combat. Neither classification was statistically more likely to be awarded a medal for valor.

As the author of this study notes, the research results may be flawed based on the following:

  1. The self-reporting nature of the survey by combat veterans
  2. The award process in general and propensity for those in leadership positions to be awarded.
  3. The amount of time passed from the conflict (1941-45) to the survey (2008) may alter the views of the veterans on their own service.

Personality and Intelligence in the Military – The Case of War Heroes

In a similarly study by Reuven Gal , 283 Israeli soldiers were interviewed who had been awarded honors for heroism during the Arab-Israeli War, referred to as the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

The traits observed by those interviewed were similar to the World War 2 study, although the means for collecting the data was more qualitative in nature.

While the awardees did display higher levels of certain traits (physical fitness, leadership, decisiveness), Gal found that “…Israeli medal recipients during the Yom Kippur War do not form am unusual or deviant group, either in their personality or in their intelligence level.” In layman’s terms, they were not significantly different from those soldiers who had not received medals for heroism.

Gal did find that units which had above average levels of cohesiveness, especially in the Infantry and Paratroops, had “relatively high rate of recognized heroic behavior.” One may gain from this that the loyalty and trust built in more cohesiveness units builds an individual more likely to perform well in combat.

A last note regarding this study was number of recognized heroic actions between active duty and reserve units. While all Israeli’s are required three years of active duty service, the majority of the Israeli Defense Force is made up of reservist units, called upon in times of national emergency. Gal found that there was no difference between the “professional soldier” and the reserve soldier in rates of recognized heroic action.

Fighter I: An Analysis of Combat Fighters and Non-Fighters

The US Army Leadership Human Research Unit conducted multiple interviews and peer assessments to determine what traits differentiated “Fighters” and “Non-Fighters” during the Korean War. The research was conducted in the last year of the conflict, with personnel from units who had experienced significant ground combat exposure.

The study appears to be in response to S.L.A. Marhsall’s claim that only 15% of soldiers actually fired their weapon while in combat. The researchers aimed to provide commanders and trainers with the knowledge to identify those who would most likely perform in combat.

The list of traits, which supposedly composed a “fighter”, dug deeper into the social development of the soldier prior to their service in the military. Items such as a home stability and sociability were identified as indicators, while the other studies discredited the validity of those traits as indicators.

The largest finding was correlating intelligence levels with combat performance. Through a battery of testing (not associated with education levels), the study indicated:

“…that men who are low in intelligence tend to make poor fighters; therefore, it can be concluded that when any combat branch is allocated a disproportionate share of men from the national manpower pool who are low in ability, its fighting potential will be reduced”


Attempts at separating anecdotal stories of heroic behavior and empirical data of heroic performance is a challenge which researchers agree are incomplete. This is obviously a challenge worth investigating, as refining personnel selection can be critical to performance in combat. From comparing these studies, we can gather that the following traits seem to be most indicative of performance under fire:

  • Leadership or Leadership Potential
  • Decisiveness
  • Loyalty or Devotion to Duty
  • Assumption of risk
  • Physical fitness

In terms of leadership, unit cohesion appears to be of the utmost importance, indicating exemplary performance in combat at the squad, platoon, company, and battalion levels. Developing this bond amongst soldiers creates loyalty to one another and for the completion of the given task.

The next step in improving the study of this topic would be the surveying of raw recruits prior to military service. Do certain personalities or personality traits indicate successful military performance? Is there additional criteria that can developed which will help personnel management in allocating certain men and women to particular military occupational specialties?

We want your input. As a leader, what traits do you look for? Have you been able to develop your own system in placing soldiers in to certain jobs or tasks? Have you ever been surprised by low combat performance in an otherwise stellar soldier?

Questions or comments? Please email


Egbert, Robert, Tor Meeland, Victor Cline, Edward Forgy, and Martin Spickler. “Fighter I: An Analysis of Combat Fighters and Non-Fighters.” N.p., n.d. Web.

Gal, Reuven. “Personality and Intelligence in the Military – The Case of War Heroes.” N.p., n.d. Web.

Marshall, S.L.A “Men Against Fire”

Wansink, Brian, Collin Payne, and Koert Ittersum. “Profiling the Heroic Leader: Empirical Lessons from Combat Decorated Veterans of World War II.” N.p., n.d. Web.

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