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The psychology of risk and safety in the military: A balancing act


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The psychology of risk and safety in the military:

A balancing act

Marcus Börjesson

The psychology of risk and safety in the military: A balancing act

The human ability to deal with risks has increasingly been coming into focus in our society. However, the research has to a great extent focused on everyday or social risks. Considerably less attention has been directed towards the individuals and groups that have to deal with dangerous and extreme environments in their professional roles, such as the military.

The primary purpose of this thesis was to examine how individual, leadership, group, and situational factors affect the risk and safety perceptions and behaviors of military personnel. A secondary purpose was to examine how first-line military leaders perceive and deal with risk and safety issues in their leadership roles.

The thesis comprises three articles that show the significant impact that both internal and external factors can have on the perceptions of risk and safety held by military personnel. Factors are identified that jointly could create a

“vulnerability-chain” for maladaptive risk-taking, and others that jointly form a

“strengthening-chain” for adaptive risk-taking and safety efforts.

The findings have practical implications for military selection, team composition, leadership education, and military training.

DOCTORAL THESIS | Karlstad University Studies | 2020:34 Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Psychology DOCTORAL THESIS | Karlstad University Studies | 2020:34

ISSN 1403-8099

ISBN 978-91-7867-167-0 (pdf) ISBN 978-91-7867-163-2 (print)


DOCTORAL THESIS | Karlstad University Studies | 2020:34

The psychology of risk

and safety in the military:

A balancing act

Marcus Börjesson


Print: Universitetstryckeriet, Karlstad 2020 Distribution:

Karlstad University

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Department of Social and Psychological Studies SE-651 88 Karlstad, Sweden

+46 54 700 10 00

© The author ISSN 1403-8099


Karlstad University Studies | 2020:34 DOCTORAL THESIS

Marcus Börjesson

The psychology of risk and safety in the military: A balancing act


ISBN 978-91-7867-167-0 (pdf) ISBN 978-91-7867-163-2 (print)



The psychology of risk and safety in the military:

A balancing act

Marcus Börjesson
















Risk, risk-taking, risk perception and risk propensity ... 14

Safety, safety attitudes and safety climate ... 15


Implications for the present investigation ... 18


Personality ... 19

Sensation-seeking, impulsivity and lack of deliberation... 20

Personal invincibility ... 21

Socio-demographic factors ... 22

Beliefs and attitudes ... 23


Leadership behaviors ... 25

Leadership and implications for risk and safety ... 27

THE GROUP ... 28

Group cohesion ... 29






ARTICLE I ... 33

Aim ... 33



Participants ... 33

Measures ... 33

Analysis ... 34

Main results and conclusions ... 35


Aim ... 37

Participations ... 37

Measures ... 37

Analysis ... 38

Main results and conclusions ... 38


Aim ... 40

Participants ... 40

Measures ... 40

Analysis ... 41

Main results and conclusions ... 41












I would like to thank my employer the Swedish Defence University for all support, the Swedish Armed Forces for the funding, and Karlstad University for the possibility to become a doctoral student. A special thank you to Colonel (retired) Anders Emanuelsson who helped to open up some important doors in order for us to conduct our studies.

I wish to express my deep gratitude to my supervisor Professor Ann Enander, Swedish Defence University. Ann, I have deeply appreciated our research discussions and you have affected my development as a researcher in so many ways. I have great admiration for you as a person and the tremendous wisdom you possess. I would also like to express my deep gratitude to my assistant supervisors Professor Per Kristensson, Karlstad University, and Assistant Professor Claes Wallenius, Swedish Defence University. Thank you for helpful advice, feedback, and encouraging support working with this thesis. Ann and Claes, thank you also for your crucial contribution as co-authors.

I also wish to convey gratitude to my co-author Doctor Johan Österberg, Swedish Defence University. You are truly a social genius and made it possible to come into contact with participants and key persons in the studies.

To my colleagues at the Swedish Defence University. Thank you all for your support, ideas, and general advice. A big thank you to my colleagues Doctor Eva Johansson, Professor Gerry Larsson, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Vrenngård, and Doctor Alicia Ohlsson for giving me excellent feedback on my text and to Lena Carlsson for your administrative help.

To my “mentors” Doctor Per Folkesson and Assistant Professor Henrik Gustafsson, Karlstad University. Words cannot express how important your support has been to me, both in work and in life.

Last but not least. I would like to thank my family for all their support and love. To my north star, my son Lucas. I love you 5020!




The primary purpose of this thesis was to examine how individual, leadership, group, and situational factors affect the risk and safety perceptions and behaviors of military personnel. A secondary purpose was to examine how first-line military leaders perceive and deal with risk and safety issues in their leadership roles.

The thesis comprises three articles. The first article reports on a longitudinal study of conscripts during their compulsory military training. Results show that individual characteristics, safety beliefs, leadership behaviors, and group cohesion all do have an impact on the risk and safety attitudes of the conscripts. Significant differences in ratings of risk and safety attitudes between basic training and unit training were also found. The second article includes two different samples of rank and file and officers and shows that personality traits and socio-demographic factors are related to negative safety beliefs, as well as to the degree of risk propensity. The third article is based on interviews with military leaders with experience of high-risk military missions. A core theme identified in the study concerns the balancing of risk and safety as a key aspect of the role of the first-line military leadership. The interviews demonstrate how this balancing act underpins several challenges, related to individual, group, leadership, situational and organizational factors.

In conclusion, this thesis shows the significant impact that individual, leadership, group, and situational factors can have on the perceptions of risk and safety held by military personnel. The thesis identifies factors that jointly could create a “vulnerability-chain” for maladaptive risk-taking, and factors that jointly form a “strengthening-chain” for adaptive risk-taking and safety efforts.

The findings have practical implications for military selection, team composition, leadership education, and military training.




Det primära syftet med denna avhandling var att undersöka hur individuella-, ledarskaps-, grupp- och situationsfaktorer påverkar risk- och säkerhetsuppfattningar och beteenden hos militär personal. Ett andra syfte var att undersöka hur första-linjens militära ledare upplever och hanterar risk- och säkerhetsfrågor i sin ledarroll.

Avhandlingen omfattar tre artiklar. Den första artikeln presenterar en longitudinell studie av värnpliktiga. Resultatet visar att individuella karakteristika, trosuppfattningar om säkerhet, ledarskapsbeteenden och gruppsammanhållning har en påverkan på de värnpliktigas risk och säkerhetsattityder. Signifikanta skillnader i risk och säkerhetsattityder mellan grund- och befattningsutbildning kunde också påvisas. Den andra artikeln inkluderar två urvalsgrupper och visar att personliga egenskaper och socio-demografiska faktorer är relaterade till negativa trosuppfattningar kring säkerhet och graden av riskbenägenhet. Den tredje artikeln är baserad på intervjuer med militära ledare som har erfarenhet av militära hög-risk missioner.

Studien identifierar att balanserandet av risk och säkerhet utgör ett kärntema som är central i den militära ledarskapsrollen. Intervjuerna visar hur denna balansakt inbegriper flera utmaningar som kan relateras till individ-, grupp-, ledarskaps-, situations och organisationsfaktorer.

Sammantaget visar denna avhandling att individuella-, ledarskaps-, grupp- och situationsfaktorer kan ha en betydande påverkan på risk- och säkerhetsuppfattningar hos militär personal. Avhandlingen identifierar faktorer som tillsammans kan skapa en ”sårbarhets-kedja”

för dysfunktionellt risktagande och faktorer som tillsammans formar en ”stärkande-kedja” för adaptivt risktagande och agerande för säkerhet.

Resultatet torde ha praktiska implikationer för militär selektion, gruppsammansättning, ledarskapsutbildning och militär träning.



List of appended publications

Article I. Börjesson, M., Österberg, J., & Enander, A. (2011). Risk and safety among conscripts during compulsory military training. Military Psychology, 26, 659-684. https://doi.org/10.1080/08995605.2011.616815 Reprinted with permission (© Taylor & Francis)

Marcus Börjesson was mainly responsible for the data collection, analyses, methodological issues, and discussion and played a major part in the writing.

Article II. Börjesson, M., Österberg, J., & Enander, A. (2015). Risk propensity within the military: a study of Swedish officers and soldiers.

Journal of Risk Research, 18, 55-68.


Reprinted with permission (© Taylor & Francis)

Marcus Börjesson was mainly responsible for the data collection, analyses, methodological issues, and discussion and played a major part in the writing.

Article III. Börjesson, M., Wallenius, C., & Enander, A. Risk and safety in the mind of the military leader. (Manuscript under review).

Marcus Börjesson was mainly responsible for the data collection, analyses, methodological issues, and discussion and played a major part in the writing.




The human ability to deal with risks has increasingly been coming into focus in our society. This applies to risks to the individual, e.g. risks to do with traffic, work, home or lifestyle, but it also concerns more complex global risks, e.g. climate change and the spread of infectious diseases. The COVID-19 crisis during 2020 is a clear example of the realization of this complex global risk scenario. Research into how humans perceive and react to risks has also grown markedly over the last half-century (Breakwell, 2014). However, this research has to a great extent focused on everyday or social risks, as well as on the prerequisites necessary for citizens and decision-makers to perceive, communicate and deal with risks. Considerably less attention has been directed towards the individuals and groups that have to deal with dangerous and extreme environments in their professional roles.

The military is, perhaps, the societal activity most explicitly dealing with extreme environments and risks, both to the individual him- or herself and to others. Facing risks and hazards is at the heart of the military profession, with violence and hostile actions being the ultimate threat. Furthermore, today’s military operations are characterized by complexity and uncertainty and involve a broad range of dangerous situations. Missions can range from peacekeeping and peace enforcement to carrying out humanitarian relief operations (Hedlund, 2011), involving a diverse spectrum of risks and threats (Rasmussen, 2006). Military activities are also characterized by an increasing number of missions in unfamiliar environments and with new collaboration partners. Hence, today’s military personnel have to deal with new and non-traditional threats and risks (Coker, 2009). Thus, substantial demands are being made of military personnel, not least leaders, to have a good ability to judge, act and communicate with regard to risks.

How does one prepare for and act successfully during these complex and dangerous risks? On the one hand, a certain degree of risk-taking is necessary in order to develop and prepare military personnel for these situations, as well as accomplish operational goals (Killgore et al., 2008; Momen et al., 2010). On the other hand, given these risky



environments and the fact that military personnel need to handle dangerous equipment, it is clearly the case that adhering to safety regulations and maintaining safety awareness also have an important part to play (Momen et al., 2010; Turner & Tennant, 2009). Failure to successfully manage both risks and safety could lead to unnecessary risk-taking, e.g. the careless handling of equipment and vehicles, behaviors which have been demonstrated to contribute significantly to the occurrence of incidents and accidents, during both military training and missions (Bell et al., 2000; Fear et al., 2008; Glicksohn et al., 2004; Hooper et al., 2006).

Thus, research facilitating an understanding of the factors influencing the “trade-offs” between risk and safety should be of considerable importance in the military context. However, psychological research focusing on these issues in such contexts is scarce, although there are exceptions, particularly with regard to risk-taking (e.g. Glicksohn et al., 2004; Killgore et al., 2006; Momen at al., 2010). The lack of attention to this area is somewhat surprising since risk and safety issues are fundamental to all military activities. Knowledge of this area could provide important insights, not only for military personnel but also for other professions operating in high-risk situations, e.g. first- responders. Looking at both civil research and existing military research, it is clear that a range of individual, group, leadership and situational factors influence perceptions and behaviors related to risk and safety. It is also clear from existing research that a key player in this regard is the first-line leader (e.g. Hayes et al., 1998; Johnson, 2007; Probst & Estrada, 2010; Zohar, 2000; 2002).

Research objectives

A core theme and overall objective of this thesis is to gain a better understanding of the “trade-offs” between risk and safety in a military context; in particular, how different factors might affect the perceptions and behaviors related to these two important dimensions.

The greater purpose of this thesis is to present both theoretical and practical findings, which could be used for managing unnecessary risk- taking and facilitating adaptive risk-taking and safety.



Researchers in the area of interest have pointed to the need for more studies using an interactionistic approach (see, for example, the review by Breivik et al., 2019). This thesis responds to this call and examines how individual, leadership, group and situational factors can affect perceptions and behaviors related to risk and safety. The conceptual model presented below shows an overview of these factors, as well as the specific constructs of interest and the intended outcomes of the thesis.

Fig 1. Conceptual model showing the key constructs and intended outcomes of the thesis.


11 General research aims

Studies in the field of risk psychology have shown that people’s perceptions and reactions to risk and safety are influenced by different individual characteristics, but also by the social environment with which they are interacting (i.e. leader, group, organization). While there has been significant progress in studying many of these factors individually, the complex interactions between them are less well documented. Indeed, scholars (e.g. Breivik et al., 2019) have expressed the need to further understand the interplay between individual and social factors, as well as how risk and safety are given meaning in different contexts. Furthermore, an extensive amount of research has demonstrated the importance of leadership, especially first-line leadership, to safety. However, the relationship between leadership and risk-taking has not received the same amount of interest. In a military context, a certain degree of risk-taking is necessary in order to develop personnel and accomplish operational goals. Thus, first-line military leaders represent a particularly interesting population, given that they need to consider and actively manage both risk and safety in their leadership roles. However, there is a lack of knowledge regarding how first-line military leaders perceive and deal with risk and safety issues. By studying such leaders, and the real-life challenges they face, we can learn how these critical issues are managed in the complex military environment, but we can also gain a broader understanding of how leaders might deal with high-risk situations in other contexts.

Therefore, the general aims of this thesis are:

1) To examine how individual, leader, group and situational factors affect the risk and safety perceptions and behaviors of military personnel.

2) To examine how first-line military leaders perceive and deal with risk and safety issues in their leadership roles.


12 Aims of the individual articles

The thesis comprises three articles, each one having specific aims but also the common purpose of contributing to the overall research questions of this dissertation, as presented above. The first article reports on a longitudinal study of conscripts during their compulsory military training. The focus here is on their initial introduction to military life and the factors affecting their attitudes during this period. In the second article, the focus is on more experienced

military personnel and the factors affecting their propensity for taking risks. The third study takes the perspective of military leaders with experience of high-risk missions. Taken together, this means that the three articles reflect a temporal aspect spanning between military training for the novice and military leaders with experience of actual high-risk mission tasks.

More specifically, the aim of the first article was to examine how individual characteristics influenced the risk and safety attitudes of conscripts doing their compulsory military training. In terms of individual characteristics, the roles of sensation seeking, safety skepticism and fatalistic beliefs were examined. A second aim was to examine how different leader behaviors and group cohesion influence risk and safety attitudes. In terms of leader behaviors, those promoting both safety and risk-taking were examined. A third aim was to examine the differences between basic training and unit training, with regard to the studied variables. Lastly, the article examines the predictive validity of individual characteristics, leader behaviors, and group cohesion, measured during basic training, as regards risk and safety attitudes after unit training. The overall contribution made by this article was to shed light on research questions 1 and 2 above.

Article II includes two different samples of rank and file and officers.

One sample included personnel forming part of the rapid reaction force The Nordic Battle Group while the other included personnel taking part in the 25th Swedish contingent in Kosovo. The aim of the article was to examine the relationships between risk propensity, socio-demographic factors (gender, age, military background, experience of international missions, parental status), the personality trait of lack of deliberation, and safety skeptical and fatalistic beliefs. Risk propensity comprised



three dimensions: i.e. a general risk propensity score, danger-seeking tendencies and invincibility thinking. The overall contribution made by this article was to shed light on research question 1 above.

Finally, Article III is a qualitative study of military officers with experience of high-risk military missions. The aim of the article was to describe how military leaders view risk and safety issues in their professional roles. In addition, the article also investigates what kind of challenges first-line military leaders might face and how they might try to manage these challenges while dealing with risk and safety issues.

The overall contribution made by this article was to add further robustness to the findings regarding research questions 1 and 2.

Study context

The research in this thesis was conducted on members of the Swedish Armed Forces (SAF). The primary responsibility of the SAF is the capacity to engage in armed combat. Sweden’s defense is known as mission-based defense. This means that our forces must have the capacity to rapidly be able to engage in combat and other forms of crisis, both nationally and internationally. The SAF’s missions embrace both national operations, including supporting civil society, and missions abroad (Swedish Armed Forces, 2020).

The SAF has undergone several substantial organizational changes over the past decade. On 1 July 2010, Sweden abandoned military conscription in favor of an all-volunteer force, in doing so departing from an approximately 100-year-old tradition. The most important reason for this transition was the new security situation in Europe after the Cold War, which gradually led the SAF toward focusing more on participation in multinational missions abroad (Österberg & Jonsson, 2012). It also meant new types of missions, ranging between classical peacekeeping and counterinsurgency and combat (Hedlund, 2011).

However, the new manning system for the SAF only lasted for eight years, after which the Swedish government decided to re-activate conscription, from January 2018. One reason for this decision was that all-volunteer recruitment had not provided the Armed Forces with



enough trained personnel. The second reason was that the security environment both in the rest of Europe and in Sweden’s immediate vicinity had deteriorated, putting an increased focus on defence of the national territory.

Data collection for this thesis was conducted in 2008-2009 (study I), 2012 (Study III) and 2013 (study II). Hence, the samples consist of individuals from both the conscript and all-volunteer systems. The samples include conscripts as well as contract personnel with experience of both peace-keeping and high-risk peace enforcement missions. Furthermore, the participants are drawn from both rank and file and officers, as well as individuals from both the army and the navy.

Theoretical framework

Definition of key terms

Outlined below are definitions of the key terms used in this thesis

Risk, risk-taking, risk perception and risk propensity

In more technical terms, both risk and risk-taking have traditionally been defined from a negative perspective. The Cambridge Dictionary (2020) defines the term risk as "the possibility of something bad happening", while risk-taking has been viewed as voluntary participation in any behavior which involves the probability of negative consequences (Boyer, 2006). However, psychological research indicates that there seems to be a poor level of correspondence between this type of description and the way in which people intuitively perceive and judge risks. Aven and Renn (2009) place risks in a social and psychological context, defining risk thus: "Risk refers to uncertainty about and severity of the consequences (or outcomes) of an activity with respect to something that humans value” (Aven & Renn, 2009, p.

6). Thus, from this perspective, risk may have both a negative and a positive aspect depending on the person, situation and context (Breivik et al., 2019). In a similar vein, risk-taking has also been defined as behaviors that involve making choices that result in uncertain outcomes, whether positive or negative, and entail balancing potential harm or danger to the individual with potential achievement and



reward (Byrnes et al., 1999). In the present thesis, I adhere to the latter definitions, thus viewing risk and risk-taking as terms that could have both negative and positive values and consequences. The term risk perception denotes the subjective interpretation of risk and is a phenomenon consisting of beliefs, attitudes, values and risk assessment (Breakwell, 2014). Risk propensity has been used as a term describing a person’s disposition or inclination to take risks (Breivik et al., 2019; Killgore et al., 2006).

Safety, safety attitudes and safety climate

The Royal Society (1992) has defined safety as freedom from unacceptable risk of personal harm. This definition implies a balance between acceptable risk and safety. Safety attitude is an individual- level construct that reflects the beliefs and feelings that a person holds regarding safety policies, procedures, and practices (Henning et al., 2009; Neal & Griffin, 2004; Rundmo & Hale, 2003). Safety climate is commonly referred to as a group’s shared perception of an organization’s policies, procedures, and practices relating to the value and importance of safety within that organization (Zohar, 1980; Griffin

& Neal, 2000). A view commonly held by researchers is that safety climate can be seen as a “snapshot” of the state of safety within an organization or group (Flin et al., 2000). It is a manifestation of an underlying safety culture that provides an understanding of the attitudes and perceptions of a workforce at a given point in time (Cox

& Flin, 1998; Cooper & Phillips, 2004).

Risk psychology

Fischoff and Kadvany (2011) describe the psychological study of risk as having started in the 1970s. Since then, a number of different questions and theoretical models have been suggested, guiding this line of research. Together, these different perspectives form the multidimensional nature of risk psychology today. In her book "The Psychology of Risk", Breakwell (2014) provides a comprehensive overview of and useful insights into the field of risk psychology. In the sections below, I will draw on this book to present the main clusters of research which have been developed, throughout history, in risk psychology and which are all of relevance to the present thesis.



The first cluster of research was developed during the 1970s, and its key question dealt with how people make (risk) judgments when faced with uncertain outcomes. Groundbreaking research by Kahneman and Tversky (see Kahneman, 2011), showed that people’s risk judgments, under such conditions, are seldom based on a rational calculation regarding probability. Instead, we use a number of different mental shortcuts, so-called heuristics, shortcuts which can bias our judgments.

Our heuristics are the product of a range of factors that include biology, values, norms and experiences (Kahneman, 2011).

During the 1980s, risk researchers became interested in why people sometimes react strongly to risks of low probability but more weakly to risks of high probability. What is it about the risk itself that makes us perceive it as severe? Within this cluster, “the psychometric paradigm”

became the most influential methodological approach. From this perspective, researchers identified the different underlying dimensions associated with the risk that lead to characteristics influencing people’s risk perceptions. One of the most influential arguments here stated that risks can be understood using a two-dimensional matrix. One of these dimensions refers to the perceived degree of dread and the controllability of the risk while the other refers to the degree of uncertainty associated with the risk (Breakwell, 2014). Risks that are perceived as being dreadful and low in controllability and as having a high degree of uncertainty (e.g. terrorism) are perceived as severe, even though the probability of their occurring may be low.

Another research question that gained ground during the 1980s focused on individual and group differences when reacting to risk. For example, socio-demographic (e.g. age, gender) and socio-economic differences were studied in relation to perceptions of risk. Associations between personality and risk perception are another main focus of this cluster, as is the influence of the norms, attitudes and beliefs held by the groups that the individual identifies with.

The book “The feeling of risk” by Slovic (2010) is an illustrative representation of a cluster that emerged at the turn of the last century.

Researchers argued that people’s risk reactions are not merely a result of cognitive processes. Instead, they argued, people’s feelings toward



risk are equally important when it comes to understanding their perceptions and reactions. The term “affective heuristics” was introduced by Slovic (2010); this term suggests that people have an

“affective pool” through which they make sense of, and react to, risk.

Risk communication is a cluster that has been present since the development of risk psychology began. Many theoretical models have been suggested and studied. Two of the most influential are the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF) (Kasperson et al., 1988) and the “mental models” approach (Fischoff et al., 1997). SARF describes how different mechanisms and stakeholders (i.e. media, authorities, organizations) can either amplify or attenuate our perceptions and reactions to risk and risk events. Through this process, commonly held social representations can be propagated within society, or within certain societal groups (e.g. the media’s and the authorities’ framing of terrorism). The mental model approach was developed at about the same time as SARF. A mental model represents the beliefs, feelings and attitudes that individuals hold as regards risk. It has been suggested that understanding people’s mental models is crucial when it comes to succeeding with risk communication (Morgan et al., 2002). The phenomenon has also been studied at the group-level, defined as

“shared mental models”, in terms of risk representing the shared beliefs, feelings and attitudes of a group of individuals (Cannon-Bowers et al., 1993).

Lately, another approach has received some interest in this cluster, namely the Identity Process Theory (Jaspal & Breakwell, 2014). Here, researchers are interested in the way risk can threaten our identity and how our efforts to maintain our identity influence our perceptions and actions regarding risks.

Finally, a cluster worth mentioning is what Breakwell (2014) calls the management of risk in complex organizations. This approach has been especially highlighted in the High Reliability Organization (HRO) literature, as well as in the extensive research studies published on the concept of safety culture (e.g. Zohar, 2000; Reason, 1997). This perspective turns the spotlight on safety and the importance of a good safety culture within the organization when it comes to dealing with



risks. One of the key findings of these studies is the importance of leadership for establishing a good safety culture.

Implications for the present investigation

I argue that the clusters of research as well as the questions raised throughout the history of risk psychology are all more or less relevant to understanding the research questions in this thesis, and to understanding the specific population of interest.

Military personnel are trained to operate in a context characterized by high risk, complexity and great uncertainty. They can face risks to themselves as well as to others, risks that are dreadful and low in controllability (e.g. Improvised Explosive Devices, the loss of comrades, civilian deaths). It is well documented that these types of situations can evoke feelings such as stress, anger, frustration and guilt, feelings which may affect the wellbeing, operational capability and risk behaviors of personnel (e.g. Cardozo & Salama, 2002; Driskell et al., 2006; Kavanagh, 2005). Issues of identity and mental models are definitely key. For example, these are clearly being addressed in the debate on and research into the differences in values and behaviors between personnel with a warrior identity, compared to those with a peacekeeping identity (Johansen, 2013; Buijs et al., 2019).

Furthermore, military organizations are so-called Critical Action Organizations, characterized by a high degree of risk to their personnel (Hannah et al., 2009). Clearly, this type of organization is responsible for making safety a priority and for developing safety regulations and measures that foster a sound safety culture. Leadership is one of the key success factors in military tasks, and there is considerable evidence that this also applies to handling risks and safety issues in an effective manner (e.g. Probst & Estrada, 2010; Zohar, 2000).

Looking at the evidence from previous research, there is a strong argument for applying an interactionistic approach in order to try to understand how people view and react to risk and safety issues. This thesis takes this approach; in the following sections, I present an overview of the individual, leader and group factors that may influence people’s views of risk and safety issues, with a particular focus on the military context. However, each one of these factors represents a large



body of important research questions and theoretical models. Hence, a demarcation must be made and I thus focus on the key aspects most relevant to the questions and aims specific to the present thesis.

The individual

A key theme of risk psychology has been studying differences in how individuals react to risks, why some individuals perceive risks to be higher, and why some individuals are more inclined to take risks.

Researchers have focused on aspects such as personality, beliefs, attitudes and socio-demographic factors in order to gain an understanding of these issues. Being able to identify individual differences in reactions to risks and safety has been regarded as particularly important in high-risk occupations, bearing in mind that single individual risk behaviors can have life-threatening consequences. Scholars have pointed to the need to study combinations of different individual factors that jointly form a type of "risk profile".

This profile could be more or less adequate depending on the context (Nicholson et al., 2005; Killgore et al., 2010)


There are many different opinions about what personality actually is.

One definition, suggested by the American Psychological Association (APA), is that personality refers to “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving”. There are also several different theories about personality. From a trait- perspective, personality consists of more stable traits that make the person more dispositioned to act in a certain way, regardless of the situation or circumstances (Deary, 2009). In contrast, the social learning theory suggests that our personality is not composed of stable traits. Rather, changes may occur to this in different situations and circumstances, being made up of our experiences of the social world.

For example, our personality could change and develop through modelling of and reinforcement from significant others (Bandura, 1977). The interactional approach suggests that our personality is a combination of both inherent traits and environmental factors (Hollander, 1967).



Sensation-seeking, impulsivity and lack of deliberation

Two traits which have received particular attention in the risk literature are sensation-seeking and impulsivity. These traits are related and have at times been treated as synonymous. The sensation-seeking theory is closely linked to the researcher Zuckerman, who defines the concept as “a trait defined by the seeking of varied, novel, complex and intense sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical, social, legal and financial risks for the sake of such experience” (Zuckerman, 1994, p. 27). Individuals with high levels of sensation-seeking are curious about novel experiences and environments. They perceive situations as less risky than individuals with low levels of sensation-seeking; in risky situations, high-level sensation-seekers experience more positive and less negative feelings than low-level sensation-seekers. Impulsivity, on the other hand, concerns a person’s control over his/her thoughts, feelings and behaviors. People with high levels of impulsivity tend to act rapidly, with diminished consideration for future consequences (Hamilton et al., 2015; Whiteside & Lynam, 2001).

Both sensation-seeking and impulsivity have been related to negative risk behaviors, e.g. careless driving, alcohol and drug abuse, aggressivity and criminal behavior (Dahlen et al., 2005; Joireman et al., 2003; Lynam & Miller, 2004; Miller et al., 2003; Stanford & Barrat, 1992; Zuckerman, 2007). In military contexts, high levels of sensation- seeking and impulsivity have been linked to the use of illegal drugs (Sáiz et al., 1998), an increased risk of being suspended from basic military training (Lubin et al., 1999), and weapon-related risks (Glicksohn et al., 2004).

It also seems to be the case, however, that sensation-seeking is a common characteristic of individuals who apply for high-risk situations and occupations, both in the civil and military fields (Zuckerman 2007). Several studies also demonstrate that sensation- seeking can have a number of positive effects in combat situations.

Thus, Neria et al. (2000) found a positive relationship among Israeli veterans between sensation-seeking and being decorated for valor in combat. Parmak et al. (2013) found that soldiers scoring high in sensation-seeking perceived themselves to be able to manage



unpredictable and chaotic situations better than soldiers scoring lower on this trait. This personality characteristic also appears to have a buffering effect regarding the development of PTSD (Neria et al. 2000;

Solomon et al., 1995). Thus, in sum, it appears difficult to distinguish functional from malfunctional risk-takers on the basis of their degree of sensation-seeking alone. Indeed, Fischer and Smith (2004), in a study of college students, found that sensation-seeking was positively correlated with risk-taking activities that had both positive and negative outcomes. However, in the same study, they also examined a personality trait labeled lack of deliberation (Whitside & Lynam, 2001), which could be described as a weak ability to plan ahead, or as acting without thinking (Fischer & Smith, 2004). Low levels of deliberation were found to increase the likelihood of participation in risk activities that had negative outcomes. Based on these results, these researchers also suggest that individuals could be deliberate sensation-seekers or risk-takers, and that they will be more successful in risk situations than those who do not plan ahead. Speaking in similar terms, Momen and colleagues (Momen et al., 2010) describe individuals who take deliberate and essential risks as adaptive risk-takers, and those who take risks without planning ahead, or who act without thinking, as maladaptive risk-takers. They also suggest that it is essential to understand both these types when it comes to assessing and maintaining a high level of safety in an operational environment. This pattern of relationship has not been directly studied in a military context. However, one of the aims of this thesis is to examine how impulsivity and sensation-seeking tendencies are related to perceptions of risk and safety.

Personal invincibility

The phenomenon of "unrealistic optimism", or "the illusion of personal invulnerability", has been the subject of numerous civil risk studies. A form of this type of optimism has also been observed in military contexts, and has been described in terms of personal invincibility.

Killgore et al. (2010) suggest that risk-taking behavior is influenced by an individual’s degree of perceived invincibility. They developed a scale for measuring perceived vulnerability-invincibility and tested this on a sample of US Army soldiers. According to these researchers, the scale measures “the degree to which an individual perceives him/herself as



consistently unconquerable, immune to consequences and prone to success across situations, versus being chronically susceptible to harm, failure, and defeat” ( 2010, p. 500). They found that invincibility correlated positively with sensation-seeking; together, these two variables predicted risk behavior (in this case, measured as the frequency of alcohol use). Based on the results, they also suggest that it is necessary to study the interaction between different risk-related traits, beliefs and motivational factors when it comes to understanding risk-taking and behavior. Hence, high levels of perceived invincibility alone may not lead to risk-taking; however, in conjunction with other factors such as sensation seeking, the probability of an individual engaging in such behaviors increases. Although Killgore et al. (2010) study invincibility from a trait perspective, there is also evidence and anecdotal reports suggesting that perceptions of vulnerability to danger could change with experiences and across a person’s lifespan.

Exposure to life-threatening situations may lead to increased risk- taking behaviors; veterans who have been involved in combat have been shown to be more likely to have an increased propensity for risk- taking (Killgore et al., 2008; Ben-Zur & Zeidner, 2009).

Socio-demographic factors

There is strong support that risk-taking and risk perception are related to sociodemographic factors. A number of studies demonstrate that men and young people are more inclined to take risks (see, for example, Byrnes et al., 1999; Roth et al., 2007; Nicholson et al., 2005). Similar results apply to the military context where, for example, careless driving was found to be more frequent among men and young people (Bell et al., 2000; Fear et al. 2008; Krull et al., 2004). Killgore et al.

(2006) have also demonstrated that certain dimensions relating to risk propensity, e.g. impulsiveness, seem to be negatively related to age and military experience. Similarly, Momen et al. (2010) found a negative relationship between age and dysfunctional forms of risk-taking.

Furthermore, studies have also indicated that adolescents in particular may have a greater sense of invincibility, seeing themselves as less vulnerable to harm in risk situations and with regard to high-risk behaviors (Wetherill & Fromme, 2007; Wickman et al., 2008).


23 Beliefs and attitudes

Civil risk research provides supporting evidence for the relationship between attitudes and beliefs regarding risk and actual risk and safety behaviors (see Breakwell, 2014). In particular, civil research has focused on attitudes and beliefs related to safety. It has been suggested that safety attitudes represent an individual antecedent that may significantly influence the individual’s safety behaviors (Neal & Griffin, 2004), and there are also some findings that support this claim. For example, Rundmo (1996) found that safety attitudes had a direct effect on risk behavior. There is also evidence that safety attitudes are related both to safety compliance behaviors (McGovern et al., 2000) and intentions to break safety rules (Fogarty & Shaw, 2010). Furthermore, individuals who hold more positive attitudes are more likely to remain free from injury (Clarke, 2006; Donald, 1994).

Although safety attitudes are positively related to the more commonly studied concept of the safety climate, i.e. shared perceptions about the value of safety in the work environment (Neal & Griffin, 2004; Zohar, 2000), they still represent a conceptually different construct (Christian et al., 2009; Henning et al., 2009; Neal & Griffin, 2004). Whereas the safety climate is primarily determined by the work environment, safety attitudes are conceived of as being influenced by both organizational factors and individual differences (Henning et al., 2009; Neal & Griffin, 2004).

Two beliefs that have interested risk researchers are fatalism and skepticism. Safety fatalism refers to the belief that accidents are unavoidable and occur due to chance or fate (Henning et al., 2009).

This is related to the belief that safety practices have little influence on accidents (Rundmo & Hale, 2003). Safety skepticism, on the other hand, can be viewed as an active reluctance to become overly involved in precautionary activities. Skepticism has been emphasized by Cox and Cox (1991) as an important aspect of the structure of employee attitudes to safety, but has received little research interest otherwise.

The concept of skeptical beliefs regarding safety has, however, gained the attention of theorists and researchers in the debate concerning the

“overly protective” society (Furedi, 2002; Jenkins, 2006; Schneier, 2003). In this debate, it is propounded that increased information



regarding risk in society could induce a skepticism in the citizenry in terms of risk and safety issues. Against this backdrop, it would seem to be of interest to examine the possible role of safety fatalism and safety skepticism in a military context.

However, as described by Turner & Tennant (2009), constructions of risk and safety in the military environment are influenced by the need for trade-offs between implementing safety and accepting exposure to certain risks. Thus, on the individual level, it would seem relevant to examine not only safety attitudes, but also attitudes toward risk and risk-taking. While risk-related attitudes have received some attention in relation to personality traits and risky behaviors, this attention has primarily concerned voluntary individual activities and non-military settings, e.g. sports, financial risk, etc. (Weber et al., 2002). However, from the point of view of training young people in an activity where risk is an intrinsic component, further knowledge of the influence of both individual differences and organizational factors on attitudes to risk seems particularly relevant. Hence, in this thesis, both risk and safety attitudes were of interest to examine.


Leadership can be described as “the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives” (Yukl, 2010, p. 8). When examining safety-related research, one finds that probably the most studied dimension of research on safety in organizations is management safety, which refers to employees’ perceptions of their supervisors’ regard for, and commitment to, safety (Seo et al., 2004). Supervisors are the primary channel through which connections are established between the organization, as a whole, and the individual employees (Morrow et al., 2010). Through their actions, supervisors communicate the relative priorities of safety versus other competing demands, e.g. speed or efficiency (Zohar, 2000; 2002). Several studies, both on the individual and group levels of analysis, have demonstrated that the actions of supervisors tend to exert a strong influence on the occupational safety of their subordinates. Employees who perceive their supervisors to be prioritizing safety are more likely to engage in safety-related activities



and are involved to a lesser extent in injuries and accidents (e.g. Hayes et al., 1998; Johnson, 2007; Probst & Estrada, 2010; Zohar, 2000).

In the context of the military, the platoon leader can be regarded as an immediate supervisor. Studies by Zohar and colleagues demonstrated a stronger safety climate within subunits where the platoon leaders, through their actions, communicated safety as a priority (Luria, 2010;

Zohar & Luria, 2004). Fogarty and Shaw (2010), in a study of the Australian Defence Force, found that subordinates’ perceptions of management beliefs and actions regarding safety topics did have a direct effect on their own attitudes to safety violations. The examination of protocols, during field training exercises, further indicated that most task-related choices faced by army platoon leaders include safety considerations (Zohar & Luria, 2003). Thus, as part of their leadership role, these leaders must face competing demands in terms of mission accomplishment and safety considerations (Zohar &

Tenne-Gazit, 2008).

Leadership behaviors

From a theoretical perspective, there seems to be one leadership theory in particular that has been studied more extensively and been shown to be relevant, describing the relationship between leadership and risk and safety issues; i.e. the Full Range of Leadership Theory (Avolio &

Bass, 2002; Bass & Avolio, 1994).

This theory describes three different groups of leadership behaviors;

laissez-faire, transactional, and transformational leadership. The laissez-faire leader is basically a non-leader who avoids making decisions and taking responsibilities, refusing to take a stance and showing a lack of interest (Avolio et al., 1999). Transactional leadership is based on an exchange process of action and rewards between the leader and his/her subordinates, with the leader making decisions based on rules and regulations (Avolio et al., 1999). There are three types of transactional behaviors:

Contingent reward. The leader communicates the goals and strategies as well as the positive consequences and rewards for following them.



Active Management by exception. The leader continuously follows up on his/her subordinates’ work, looking for mistakes and giving corrective feedback. This could also mean that the leader makes sure that his/her subordinates know about the possible negative consequences and punishments associated with not following rules and regulations.

Passive management by exception. The leader does not act (either correct or impose punishments) until deficits or problems are severe or until an “accident” has already happened (Bass, 1999).

According to Bass and Riggio (2006), transformational leadership involves inspiring followers to commit to the shared vision and goals of an organization or unit, challenging them to be innovative problem- solvers and developing followers’ capacities via coaching, mentoring, and the provision of both challenges and support. Transformational leadership, according to Bass (1999), involves four types of behaviors:

Idealized Influence. The leader acts as a role-model by communicating the importance of morale and loyalty and acting in line with the shared values of the organization and unit. Moreover, being a role-model also means taking the responsibility for mistakes and giving credit to others when the group performs well.

Inspirational Motivation. The leader communicates a clear vision and the strategies for achieving this, clarifying why it is important to act in accordance with the vision (e.g. values). Furthermore, the leader also motivates his/her subordinates by communicating high expectations and clarifying how each and every person can contribute to the shared goals and visions of the group.

Intellectual Stimulation. The leader stimulates his/her subordinates into taking the responsibility for sharing ideas, coming up with new solutions, actively taking part in the decision-making process of the group, and trying out new behaviors.



Individual Consideration. The leader listens, asks questions, and coaches from the perspective of his/her subordinates’ personal need for achievement and growth.

Leadership and implications for risk and safety

Both transformational and transactional leadership behaviors have been shown to have important implications for safety. Studies have shown that a higher degree of transformational leadership (as perceived by subordinates) is associated with a stronger safety climate and a higher frequency of safety behaviors among subordinates (Clarke, 2013; Conchie et al., 2012, Johnson, 2007). In particular, transformational leadership seems to generate more active safety participation among subordinates, who communicate more openly about safety issues with other co-workers and make suggestions about how to improve safety efforts (Neal et al., 2000). Transformational leadership has also been related to fewer incidents and accidents (Kelloway et al., 2006).

Clarke (2013) argues that transformational leadership behaviors focusing on safety can be executed in several ways. The leader could be a role-model, showing, by means of his/her own behaviors, the importance of safety (i.e. idealized influence). The leader can encourage his/her subordinates to be responsible for safety by asking them to come up with their own suggestions on how to improve safety (i.e. intellectual stimulation). The leader can show individual consideration by communicating that he/she cares about the health and safety of everyone (Clarke, 2013). Safety-oriented transformational leadership behaviors are important prerequisites of good safety communication, but they also lead to a greater understanding of safety efforts (Conchie et al., 2012).

Transactional leadership behaviors have also been shown to effect safety positively. This applies to the active management of the exception dimension in particular. In regard to safety, this type of leadership behavior means that the leader is good at articulating clear safety-related goals and strategies, while actively observing and following up compliance with goals and strategies, acting quickly regarding safety deficits, and giving corrective and rewarding feedback



in order to achieve goals and improve safety efforts (e.g. Kapp, 2012).

This type of leadership behavior has been shown to lead to a higher degree of safety compliance (Zohar, 2002), (i.e. following rules and procedures), and a lower frequency of injuries (Krause et al., 1999).

Despite the overall interest in this research field, studies with a military application are scarcer. However, empirical evidence supports the importance of leadership for safety in the military context. In line with civil studies, first-line leadership is emphasized as being particularly critical (e.g. Luria 2010; Zohar & Luria, 2004; Zohar & Tenne-Gazit, 2008). Military studies also mirror civil studies in the sense that both transformational and transactional leadership behaviors seem to be important for safety (Adamshick, 2007).

To summarize, it is clear that leadership, especially among first-line leaders, is a key factor in attitudes and behaviors related to safety.

Therefore, the relationship between leadership and risk and safety perceptions represents a key issue in the present thesis. However, a certain degree of risk-taking is a necessity in military training and operations. Thus, both leaders and their subordinates need to have a willingness to take risks in their professional roles. There is evidence that leaders demonstrating personal risk-taking in high-risk situations are perceived to be more effective (Frost et al., 1983; Kolditz, 2007).

Therefore, it would seem to be the case that the possible risk-promoting actions of leaders should also be of relevance to understanding subordinates’ risk and safety perceptions.

The Group

A distinctive characteristic of the military profession is that much of its work is about working together in groups. Military groups are often described as cohesive and having a strong esprit de corps (Bartone et al., 2002; Johansen, 2013). Through the process of social interaction, the group develops its own identity and a particular type of group climate. The values and norms arising within the group not only affect the group’s identity and motivation, but also its perceptions and behaviors (Johansen, 2013).



The shared understanding of norms, values, strategies and goals existing within a group has been described in terms of being "shared mental models" (Cannon-Bowers et al., 1993). These models provide the possibility of the group engaging in collective sensemaking, which provides a shared understanding, and meaning, as regards situations and agreed upon strategies for action (Blatt, 2009; Weick, 1993). The shared mental models and sensemaking seem to be particularly important during uncertain situations, where previous experience is not enough when it comes to categorizing a situation. They enable groups to better communicate, cooperate and coordinate their actions in order to meet challenges and deal with adversity (Blatt, 2009;

Mathieu et al., 2000; Weick, 1993).

However, there is also the possibility that negative group processes will develop and that group members will gather around norms, values and actions that are dysfunctional. Hence, negative and unnecessary risk- taking might be a product of pressure, on the individual, to adhere to what are perceived to be the most salient norms and values of the group (Turner et al., 1987). Furthermore, phenomena such as risky-shift (Stoner, 1961) and group polarization (Moscovici & Zavalloni, 1969) indicate the strong influence that group processes can have on people.

Clearly, group processes represent factors having an important influence on people’s perceptions and behaviors. One aim of the present thesis is to explore and identify group factors that may affect how military personnel perceive and react in regard to risk and safety issues. One factor that has been more explicitly studied in this thesis is group cohesion.

Group cohesion

Group cohesion is one of the most studied group factors; there is major support for it being a key factor in group functioning and performance (Rosh et al., 2012). A number of meta-analyses, both in civil (e.g.

Mullen & Cooper, 1994) and military contexts (Oliver et al., 1999), have been conducted, showing that cohesion has several positive effects on psychological, social and behavioral outcomes. For example, there are positive relationships between cohesion and job satisfaction (Ahronson



& Cameron, 2007), reduced stress (Griffith & Vaitkus, 1999) and group performance (Evans & Dion, 1991).

Despite the extensive amount of research, scholars are still very much debating how to operationalize the concept. However, there seems to be a dominant view as regards seeing it as a multidimensional construct, with the most relevant dimensions being task and social cohesion (Grossman et al., 2015). According to Siebold (2007), task cohesion refers to group members’ shared commitment to achieving a goal that requires the collective efforts of that group, while social cohesion captures the emotional bonds of friendship, liking, caring, and closeness among the group members. These two dimensions are also present in one of the most commonly-used definitions, which describes cohesion as “a dynamic process that is reflected in the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of its instrumental objectives and/or for the satisfaction of member affective needs” (Carron et al., 1998, p. 213).

Studies that have examined the relationships between cohesion and risk and safety are scarcer. However, there are empirical findings indicating that cohesion can be expected to be important in this respect. Cohesion has been shown to be positively related to a caring attitude (i.e., a specific safety attitude) among employees (Burt et al., 2008; Geller et al., 1996; Roberts & Geller, 1995). Employees who care greatly tend to be more positively inclined toward discussing safety issues with coworkers, and toward helping and warning others about safety issues and recognizing coworkers’ limits (Burt et al., 2008).

Greater cohesion has also been linked to a stronger safety climate (Luria, 2008) and to stronger compliance with safety rules and procedures (Simard & Marchand, 1997)

Methodological approach

Quantitative and qualitative method

The present investigation uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative design. Quantitative research techniques involved using questionnaires containing predetermined scales, while qualitative



techniques involved in-depth semi-structured interviews. The strength of the quantitative method lies in making it easier to gather data from a larger sample, in doing so generalizing the result to a larger population. Also, this approach makes it possible to examine the strength of the variables, e.g. perceptions, attitudes and beliefs, within a group of people, as well as the statistical differences between the groups. It also makes it possible to identify the statistical relationships between the variables (Choy, 2014; Atieno, 2009). However, the weakness of quantitative methods is that they do not identify the deeper meaning and interpretations that people use to make sense of their lives and experiences. Neither do quantitative methods provide a deeper understanding of how contextual and social factors may interplay with people’s perceptions, emotions, beliefs and values (Choy, 2014; Maxwell, 2013; Parry et al., 2014). This is, however, the strength of qualitative methods, e.g. in-depth interviews, in that they make it possible to identify the underlying processes and driving forces of people’s perceptions and behaviors (Choy, 2014; Atieno, 2009;

Conger, 1998). Atieno (2009) argues that it is not possible to understand human behavior without understanding the framework on the basis of which people think, feel and act. As such, qualitative methods can bring rich details and nuances to knowledge that is generated quantitatively (Ospina, 2004). The weakness of qualitative methods, however, is that it is harder to generalize the results to a larger population (Choy, 2014; Queiròs et al., 2017). Consequently, the approach of combining both quantitative and qualitative methods has been advocated by many research scientists (e.g. Conger, 1998; Kelle, 2006; Parry, 1998).

Level of analysis

In regard to level of analysis, this thesis studies concepts that can be investigated from different levels. Hence, they are multi-level concepts.

Thus, leadership, cohesion and climate/culture have all been operationalized, measured and analyzed on the individual, group and organizational levels. In the present thesis, I use an individual-level approach in terms of analysis. Thus, the data are non-aggregated and reflects the perceptions, beliefs and attitudes held by the individuals.

This approach has been described by scholars as the study of psychological climate. In contrast, the aggregated, shared perceptions



of groups of people have been described as group climate or organizational climate.

Psychological climate has been defined as "a set of perceptions that describe how an individual cognitively appraises the environment, based on personal experience" (Barkhi & Kao, 2011, p. 125). Brown and Leigh (1996) further emphasize psychological climate as "employees´

perceptions and valuations of the environment rather than the environment itself that mediate attitudinal and behavioral responses"

(p. 359). This argument is also supported by the meta-analysis of Parker et al., (2003), which showed that people organize their perceptions through the filter of their values and needs, and not in line with the objective features of their environment. However, individual perceptions and psychological climate are not only affected by individual factors (viz. needs, values, age, work experience, gender etc.) (e.g. Aldridge & McChesney, 2018; Reaves et al., 2018), but also by other factors, e.g. job role, leadership, workgroups and organizational subsystems (James & McIntyre, 1996).

Thus, although this thesis pursues an analysis at the level of the individual, this still includes the examination of various external factors possibly affecting the perceptions and psychological climate of the individual.

The sampling procedure

A purposive sampling method was used in all three articles. This method is particularly applicable when a group of subjects is the main focus, and not the studying of a general issue or phenomenon (Teddlie

& Yu, 2007). Thus, purposive sampling increases the likelihood of reaching participants who match the objectives of the investigation and the sample criteria (Cooper & Schindler, 2006). Purposive sampling procedures match the aims of the thesis since it focuses on military groups with specific characteristics and experiences. Thus, in the first study (Article I), an age band of conscripts was selected, in the second study (Article II), two samples were selected with differing mission experience and degrees of potential risk exposure, and in the third study (Article III), the sample included military leaders with experience of high-risk situations.


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