Better soldier selection thanks to behavioural science


People are at the centre of military efforts says Adelai van Heerden, head of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR’s) behavioural sciences research, pointing out they are the ones operating weaponry and technology and making the life or death decisions.

“With this in mind many military thinkers are now starting to look at approaches guided by behavioural sciences to assist in ensuring the combat readiness of soldiers.
“The importance of having soldiers with the right combinations of knowledge, skills and abilities has become critical in a context where, according to the Defence Review 2015, conventional and unconventional military operations will span the spectrum from participation in disaster relief and support to government departments to combat operations such as counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations, to lethal combat in response to threats to national interests or threats at multiple levels.”

She notes in a special publication compiled by the CSIR’s defence, peace, safety and security division that wide-ranging skills are required by South Africa’s soldiers to be able to fulfil their role as peacekeepers because “they experience stress on various levels”.

The challenge posed in the South African behavioural science domain is to proactively work toward combining theory building with practical knowledge application in the indigenous African context.

CSIR behavioural science researchers have been working with the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) for more than a decade. Through applied military psychological research the focus has been on an African warrior expected to perform diverse roles in stressful circumstances.
“Specific attention is paid to prediction and understanding of individual attributes and contextual factors that contribute to success in the military environment,” she said.

The CSIR’s behavioural research develops methods and solutions to assist the SANDF in identifying candidates with the potential to succeed as qualifying soldiers early on in training. This in turn benefits the defence budget because the cost of training is high with “significant resources invested in each person who signs up”.
“The research focuses on organisational and individual processes including methods of assessment, selection, instruction, development and reinforcement of core soldier attributes including toughness and performance motivation,” Van Heerden said.

During the recruitment and training phases attention is given to physical, psychological and contextual factors that can influence a candidate’s ability and will to succeed in adverse circumstances.

According to her a good soldier is one who possesses a balanced combination of personal characteristics including both cognitive and non-cognitive skills and abilities.

Of critical importance as far as modern warfare in Africa is concerned are attributes including cultural and emotional intelligence, leadership, human relations and teamwork as well as technical, technological and tactical proficiency.

While SANDF human resource officers work with CSIR behavioural science experts to “make” a better soldier, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, has been active on the recruitment front. She has visited a number of university campuses across the country promoting the science and engineering careers available in the national defence force as part of the national effort to stimulate interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The effort put in by specialists is in line with what SANDF Chief, General Solly Shoke, said when he was still SA Army Chief. He told a media briefing the military was “not where one comes looking for a job. It’s more than that, it’s a calling”.