Why are our perceptions about the military so far off the mark?

Mixed feelings. '7tharmyJMTC/flickr', CC BY

The image we have of our armed forces shifts between the three broad stereotypes of hero, villain or victim with different mental images dominating at different times and in different contexts.

Now, Ipsos MORI and King’s College London are publishing a new survey on what the public in Britain, the US, France, Australia and Canada get right and wrong about the armed forces. The survey tested the public’s perceptions against the facts on a range of issues: from defence spending, to the profile of recruits, the outcomes for soldiers returning to civilian life and the impacts of military service on health and behaviour.

Public (mis)perceptions

In Britain, we get a lot of things wrong about the military.

Two thirds of the British public think that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is much more common among the armed forces than among the general public. Actually, studies show that levels are similar – yet only 6% guess this fact correctly. That said, levels are higher for those in combat, which may be what is driving perceptions.

The majority of people (53%) also think that the suicide rate is higher among the armed forces than the general public, when it is in fact lower – which only 8% of those surveyed correctly identified.

Over half of the respondents also think that former armed forces personnel are more likely, or just as likely, to be in prison when compared with the population as a whole when actually, they are less likely to be.

Hero, victim, villain

Despite this, we still have a positive view of the armed forces as an institution and of soldiers as individuals: 72% have a favourable view of soldiers and 65% have a favourable view of the armed forces.

This is not quite as positive as our views of firefighters, doctors and nurses in Britain, but more favourable than our opinion of the police and teachers – and, not surprisingly, significantly ahead of our views of journalists, bankers and politicians.

On an international level, attitudes towards the armed forces in the US are more positive (where 80% say they are favourable). British views are similar to Canada and Australia, but significantly more positive than in France (where only 52% say they have a favourable view of soldiers).

Overall then, we have variable and nuanced perceptions of the armed forces, with elements of hero, victim and villain dominating in different questions. The hero narrative around soldiers is still strong, as seen in their high overall rating. Indeed, in other surveys, the public see the armed forces as one of the top sources of national pride, just behind the NHS and ahead of the royal family. But at the same time, we think ex-service personnel are much more likely to be victims (for example, in terms of their mental health) or villains (in terms of their offensive behaviour) than the facts justify.

We often find this variety of perceptions and misperceptions when we are measuring views of a broad group, as our previous work on attitudes towards immigrants shows. In this survey, depending on the focus of the question, the majority of people see immigrants as both creating jobs and taking them from others. People can have many mental images of a single group or topic, and different elements are emphasised depending on where our attention is drawn by the question.

Suckers for stories

It’s worth asking where these misperceptions come from – and whether they matter.

Some of it is simply our problem with maths. People struggle with relatively straightforward estimations, but much wider effects come from the biases and heuristics that we are all subject to when answering these types of questions – we grab for information, even if it doesn’t quite fit. Social psychologists would say that our innumeracy can also be emotional: we overestimate what worries us as much as we worry about an issue we have overestimated.

All of this points to the significance of the media, entertainment and others who present images of the armed forces, such as charities and campaign groups. Studies show that there has been a stronger link between the armed forces and the “victim” narrative in recent years, and that seems to be feeding through into public perceptions.

One of the reasons this content is effective is because people don’t really base their concerns on a proper understanding of scale. We tend to remember vivid stories and particular cases, even if the incidence is relatively rare. Of course, these stories can be helpful in highlighting the real needs of ex-armed forces personnel. For example, shows like Channel 4’s Dispatches: Battle Scarred have been vital in getting a focus on support, which is badly needed.

But it’s a difficult balance to get right. Too much emphasis could have implications for future recruitment, the life chances for armed forces as they return to the civilian world and the extent to which the public support or even “revere” the armed forces. Once mental images are formed, they can be hard to move. Misperceptions stick.