The Consequences of Being Called A Hero

Research finds that veterans, because they are viewed as selfless heroes, tend to be funneled into lower-paying jobs

February 15, 2023
Behavioral Science, Diversity
Animated GIF of veteran standing on staircase

You might think that people viewed as positive stereotypes would benefit from these benevolent generalizations.

But Professor Aaron Kay of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business has a history of research connecting positive stereotypes to inequality. And now, a new paper that he co-authored with Matthew Stanley, a Duke post-doctoral research associate, adds a new focus to this line of inquiry -- how the heroization of veterans can often lead employers to funnel them into lower-paying jobs.

Past research had explored negative stereotypes and their adverse implications for the transition of veterans to civilian life (including a 2019 paper co-authored by Kay.) But never before had the hero label been studied as a positive stereotype.

“Positive stereotypes are hard to note, they're hard to see, so they're a very powerful way of keeping things the same,” Kay said. Considering the hero as a positive stereotype is even trickier, Kay and Stanley said, because people are grateful for the sacrifices that veterans have endured, which makes it even harder to see how labeling someone a hero can translate into worse social outcomes.

Still, this is exactly what they found.

“One of the big problems that veterans face is underemployment,” Stanley said. “Even when they have college degrees and similar credentials, they are being paid less in the workplace. So we started to think about why that would be the case. People tend to view veterans really favorably, they want to be friends with them, they're very excited to work with them, and yet they are ending up with worse outcomes.”

For their paper "Heroization and ironic funneling effects,” Kay, Stanley, and Steven Shepherd ran 11 empirical studies recruiting about 6,500 participants. The results offer strong evidence that: a) heroes are associated with selflessness; and b) this association brings people to consider them a better fit for jobs and organizations associated with selflessness that happen to be lower-paying.

In one study, 625 participants were presented with the resume of a veteran applying for the position of marketing associate at Goldman Sachs versus Habitat for Humanity, the two organizations previously ranked by the participants as the most self-focused (Goldman) and the least (Habitat) out of a group of 26 organizations. Asked to judge if the applicant was a good fit for either organization, and how appealing the organization would be for the applicant, most study participants funneled the veteran toward the less self-focused and lower-paying job at Habitat, even though the veteran possessed the right qualifications for both jobs.

The other experiments tried to test the hypothesis from different angles -- for example, if the applicant was a better fit for specific careers, like accountant versus social worker; or how the applicant would spend future bonuses, on a vacation or a donation to a charity. They all confirmed the association of veterans with selfless outcomes.

The problem with this association is that it might limit veterans’ agency, Stanley said. “Given the many reasons that Americans enlist in the military, we should not assume that veterans want to make a career out of serving others, especially at the expense of other needs and desires (e.g., financial security, providing for family, education, etc.),” he said.

And the findings also applied to other professions commonly labeled as heroic, such as frontline workers, nurses, firefighters, and paramedics. One of the paper’s studies found a correlation between the extent to which people heroized these groups and assumptions that they would give away their bonuses to charity. 

While most of the work on underrepresentation of veterans is based on demographic data (race, gender, age), Kay said that his focus is on the psychology involved in how people think about veterans and other groups, and the biases toward them. "There isn’t much research trying to understand why veterans experience these challenges,” Kay said, “and specifically how people’s views of veterans—including positive views—can translate into their underemployment.”

This is the kind of work Kay and Stanley advance at Fuqua’s Veteran Transition Research Initiative (VTRI) with Fuqua’s Sean Kelley, UC Santa Barbara’s David Sherman, and others, an effort supported by major companies like Amazon and Microsoft to better understand “the basic psychological processes that prevent veterans from transitioning as well as they should be given their skills,” Kay said.

“VTRI has given us a critical understanding of the factors affecting military Veteran’s careers at Amazon.” said Charlotte La Belle, principal program manager of Amazon Global Military Affairs’ Talent Management and Community Outreach. “Amazon is home to more than 50,000 military veterans globally, and research like this provides the insight needed to influence retention programs and aid in the successful transition for our military talent.”

“Our goal is to help veterans achieve better outcomes in the workplace,” Stanley said. 

That mission, Kay added, will require policy changes by institutions and organizations because just telling HR personnel about their unconscious biases – negative or positive – rarely works. “The solutions tend to be more structural, like blinding resumes,” he said.




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