What is a Navy SEAL: Naval Medical Research and Development Command Reveals ‘Typical’ Navy SEAL

With the high (50-70%) attrition rates among U.S. Navy Sea-Air-Land commando (SEAL) trainees familiar, there have been many questions about how to find and cultivate future Navy SEALs.

The Naval Health Research Center conducted one study, and the findings are summarized below and are daringly interesting.

The primary objective of ‘Personality Profiles of U.S. Navy SEALs’ was to collect baseline demographic and personality data on SEALs to develop a profile that may be used to improve selection and training. Demographic and personality data were collected from 139 SEAL personnel (aged 20-45) assigned to five duty stations.

What is a Navy SEAL behind the weapon?

A general profile for the "average" SEAL was created based on the personality data collected.  This profile may help develop future recruitment, selection, and training programs.

Potential subjects at Naval Special Warfare (NSW) commands were briefed on the background and purposes of the study. A total of 139 SEALs from SEAL Teams Two (ST-2), Three (ST-3), Four (ST-4), Five (ST-5), and SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team Two (SDVT-2) volunteered as subjects, giving written informed consent. The sample comprised 114 (82%) enlisted and 25 (18%) commissioned officers. They were equally distributed between East (n = 68) and West (n = 71) Coast SEALs.

The NEO Personality Inventory was employed because of its breadth and applicability. This inventory categorizes personality by five major domains:

  1. Neuroticism assesses adjustment vs. emotional instability. Identifies individuals prone to psychological distress, unrealistic ideas, excessive cravings or urges, and maladaptive coping responses.
  2. Extraversion assesses the quantity and intensity of interpersonal interaction, activity level, need for stimulation, and capacity for joy.
  3. Openness assesses proactive seeking and appreciation of experience for its own sake and toleration for and exploration of the unfamiliar.
  4. Agreeableness assesses the quality of one's interpersonal orientation along a continuum from compassion to antagonism in thoughts, feelings, and actions.
  5. Conscientious assesses the individual's degree of organization, persistence, and motivation in goal-directed behavior. Contrasts dependable, fastidious people with those who are lazy and sloppy.

The mean SEAL score for Openness, while significantly higher than that of adult males, fell within the "average" range when plotted on the adult male profile. Openness is essential in training, indicating an individual is "training ready". This is important considering the dynamic training requirements of the Navy SEAL.

The SEALs' high Extraversion score was attributable to high scores in the Assertiveness, Activity, and especially the Excitement-Seeking facets. Excitement-Seeking was the only SEAL domain or facet score in the "very high" region of the adult male profile. Only six SEALs of 139 scored at or below the adult male mean, and the SEAL mean was nearly eight points higher.

Generally, SEALs scored lower in Neuroticism and Agreeableness, average in Openness, and higher in Extraversion and Conscientiousness compared to the norms for adult males. The low scores in Neuroticism are most extreme within the Depression and Vulnerability facets. These scores indicate that SEALs are less prone to feelings of guilt, sadness, or loneliness and are more independent and capable of handling difficult situations than males in the general population.

The low SEAL scores in Agreeableness were unsurprising because a low score indicates a tendency to fight for one's interests, an integral characteristic of NSW personnel. The high Extraversion score of SEALs is due primarily to high scores on the Assertiveness, Activity, and Excitement-Seeking facets.

Extraversion has been reported to be important in training procedures, especially in tasks requiring high-energy activity, such as police academy training. These characteristics indicate that SEALs are more likely to be forceful and energetic and to become leaders than men of the general population.

The report reveals Navy SEALs are persistent, reliable, forceful, energetic, and more.

The average SEAL is also more persistent, reliable, and scrupulous, viewing life as a series of task-oriented challenges, as suggested by their high scores on the Conscientiousness domain.

In Conclusion: Using the guidance provided by the NEO-PI authors (Costa & McCrae, 1989a), the following description of "average" U.S. Navy SEALs was generated:

This subset of SEALs appears calm, hardy, secure, and not prone to excessive psychological stress or anxiety. They are level-headed, practical, and collected even in very stressful or dangerous situations. They are rarely impulsive and have strong control over cravings or urges. Active and assertive, they prefer being in large groups and are usually energetic and optimistic. They seek excitement and stimulation and prefer complex and dangerous environments. They are very competitive, skeptical of others' intentions, and are likely to defend their own interests aggressively but are not hostile. Finally, they are purposeful, well-organized, persistent, and very reliable.

Finally,  Commissioned officers scored significantly higher on both
Extraversion and Conscientiousness than enlisted men. The difference in the Extraversion
domain was attributable to significantly higher scores for Assertiveness.

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