2011. Vol.2, No.9, 961-967
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.29145
Understanding Good Coping: A Submarine Crew Coping with
Extreme Environmental Conditions
Department of Psychology, Tel Hai Academic College, Upper Galilee, Israel.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
Received September 5th, 2011; revised September 30th, 2011; accepted October 24th, 2011.
The present study is based on in-depth interviews with 12 Israeli submarine crew members. The study examines
various aspects of coping with submarine service and its unique characteristics from the crew members’ points
of view. Content analysis reveals the following salient themes: First, positive perception of submarine service:
positive thinking, optimism and sense of humor, accompanied by cynicism. Second, the submarine team is
characterized by high moral standards, high team spirit and a sense of the importance of the service. Third, so-
cial relationships are characterized by avoidance of conflicts, while maintaining a good atmosphere and high so-
cial cohesion. Fourth, crew members perceived separation from home, friends and daily life as the most difficult
aspects to deal with. Fifth, they perceived the submarine as dangerous place but reduced aspects of danger by
developing a sense of trust in their submarine and in their ability to control potential dangers. Study results are
discussed in light of relevant theories. This study is unique in that it was a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into
the unknown world of an I s raeli submarine crew which is mostly secret and not open to researchers.
Keywords: Coping, Str ess, Extreme Environment, Submarine Service, Positive Thinking, Optimism and Sense
The present qualitative study is based on in-depth interviews
with submarine crew members. The main objective of this
study was to understand better good coping: How submarine
crew which have gone through extensive selection and training,
cope successfully with stressful condition. Furthermore, we
wanted to examine, from the point of view of the crew mem-
bers themselves, how they coped with the unique extreme en-
vironment (see definition below) of a submarine and to com-
pare our results with other extreme environment research. The
crew was asked questions about their experiences serving in a
submarine. Overall, it was assumed that a submarine crew is a
unique group of people who characterize by excellent coping
abilities. Studying such group, which in most case is not ex-
posed to the public, can teach us about characteristics of suc-
cessful coping strategies with extreme stress, such as in the case
of submarine service.
There has been a substantial increase in the number of people
living and operating in isolated, confined, and artificially engi-
neered environments, such as spacecraft, deep diving condi-
tions, weather stations, submarines, and polar outposts (Sandal,
1998, 2000). These are often called “extreme environments” in
the professional literature (e.g., Shimamiya et al., 2005; Steel,
2005). For example, according to Paulus et al., (2009) extreme
environments are defined as an external context that exposes
individuals to demanding psychological and/or physical condi-
tions, and which may have profound effects on cognitive and
behavioral performance. Coping with extreme environments
requires the development of high physiological, psychological
and social coping skills (Risberg et al., 2004; Sandal, 1998;
Suedfeld & Steel, 2000). Many factors may affect individual
differences in coping successfully with extreme environment
such as disruption of sleep-wake cycles, high workload, isola-
tion, confinement, stress, and fatigue (Buguet, 2007; Cowings
et al., 2007).
Not surprisingly candidates to serve in extreme environments
go through different kinds of selection processes and intensive
training to prepare them. Research has developed to improve
the selection process (e.g., Walter, 1998; Gunderson & Nelson,
1966). Extreme environment service requires various capabili-
ties and coping strategies which enable the individual to deal
successfully with the stressors typical to these environments
Submarine as a n Extreme E n vi r o nm e nt
Submarine duty is widely recognized as one of the most
stressful and psychologically demanding forms of military ser-
vice. Salient stressors include an extremely small working and
living space, absence of day/night cues, confinement, isolation
from all interaction with the external world, monotony in rou-
tine, extended separation from family members, and prolonged
and potentially dangerous operational responsibilities (Eid,
2002; Suedfeld & Steel, 2000). In order to cope, submarine
crew members must have great professional and technical
knowledge and individual characteristics which promote per-
formance under such circumstances (Sandal, 1999). In addition,
they need to have the ability both for extensive teamwork under
stress and for quick decision making (Espevik, Bjorn, Eid, &
Thayer, 2006). During periods at sea, the team has to work with
full cooperation in order to fulfill the mission and to maintain a
high safety level (Sandal et al., 1999). In their detailed literature
review on capsule environments, Suedfeld and Steel (2000)
presented four main potential sources of stress: physical stress-
ors, psycho-environmental factors social factors and temporal
factors: duration of the mission.
Submarine research is prominent in extreme environment re-
search. This research may be grouped into four domains: 1)
research focusing on personality characteristics, coping strate-
gies and the inter-personal abilities of submarine crew members
(Espevik et al., 2006; Sandal, 2003; 1999; Sandal et al., 1999).
2) research focusing on the stress situation, anxiety and other
stress symptoms as a result of an emergency situation in a sub-
marine. Some of this research has been done in simulators
(Berg et al., 2005; Eid, 2004; 2002; Espevik et al., 2006; Slaven
& Windle, 1999; Van Wijk, 2001). 3) research focusing on
physiological reactions as a result of stress situations during
submarine missions and how these affect the human body
(Cymerman et al., 2002; Risberg et al., 2004). 4) research fo-
cusing on the effect of submarine service on family members,
like spouses (Synder, 1978). The first two groups of research
are more relevant to the current study. However, unlike the
current study, very few of the above studies were based on
in-depth interviews with the submarine crew, describing their
experiences from their own point of view.
Summing up the research, it may be claimed that submarine
crews, like those in other capsule environments are in most
cases characterized by very good coping abilities and high abil-
ity for team work including avoidance of conflicts. Moreover,
longitudinal studies indicate that not only are crew members
not negatively affected, but that their long range experiences
are positive and strengthen them compared to their situations
before the mission, and when measured against control groups
(e.g., Palinkas, 1986; Suedfelf & Steel, 2000). Based on the
above studies and the salutogenic theory (Antonovsky, 1987), it
was expected that our subjects would report high level coping
ability which would be manifested as perception of service as
highly challenging, denying feelings of danger and fears, would
report good social relationships with colleagues, based on trust
and conflict av o idance, and report job satisfaction.
Coping with Stress
Stress research has found that the ability to cope with pro-
longed stress situations depends, among others, on personality
characteristics and coping strategies. Among the salient per-
sonal characteristics that have been identified as relating to
good coping ability are: sense of coherence (Antonovsky, 1979)
and hardiness (Kobasa, Maddi, & Kahn, 1982; Maddi, 2006).
In the present study, although the focus is not on personal
characteristics, the sutdy’s basic assumption is that, considering
the selection process as well as the very extensive training, our
participants are a unique group of people who display very
good abilities to cope with the demands of an extreme envi-
ronment like a submarine.
Three theories which provide a general model for coping
with stress seem to be relevant to submarine service: 1) Ac-
cording to the cognitive appraisal theory (Lazarus & Folkman,
1984; Folkman & Lazarus, 1985), the impact of stress depends
not only on the level of exposure to stress stimulus, but also on
their perceived impact on individuals (Folkman, Lazarus,
Gruen, & Delongis, 1986). Accordingly it was expected that
our submarine crew would appraise their job as only moder-
ately dangerous and at the same time trust their ability to handle
emergency situation. 2) Hobfoll’s Conservation of Resources
Theory (COR) claims that the impact of stress on a person de-
pends, first of all, on threat or real loss of resources (Hobfoll,
2001). Overall, the balance between loss and gain of resources
determines the effect of stress. Based on this theory our sub-
jects were expected to report that they feel satisfaction and like
their job and feel that the gains are higher than losses. 3) Theo-
ries which emphasize the connection between the ability to give
and to get social support and coping ability with stress (e.g.,
Joseph, Yule, Williams, & Andrews, 1993; Pierce, Sarason, &
Sarason, 1996; Rees & Freeman, 2009). It was assumed that
crew member would report feelings of social support from their
colleagues and mutual trust in each other. In addition, based on
research that indicated the importance of sense of humor as an
important tool in coping with stress situation (e.g., Abel, 2002;
Abel & Maxwell, 2002; Mauriello & McConatha, 2007) it was
expected that the subjects would report the use of much humor
as part of daily routine during voyage mission.
The Israeli Submarine
The submarine which our subject served is a “Dolphin”, op-
erated by an electric-diesel engine. Dolphins are among the
smallest submarines in the world. The submarine team are
composed only of men. According to public sources (Wikipedia
Dolphin, 2009; Wikipedia Israeli Navy, 2009; Defense industry
daily, 2005) the crew includes 35 to 45 members who are
grouped into six departments: machine; electricity and control;
detec tion, nav igation a nd communication; weaponry and sonar.
In addition, there are a commander, a deputy commander and a
cook. The submarine service is on a volunteer basis.
The current study examines various aspects of submarine
crew coping from the salutogenic (Antonovsky, 1987) and
positive (Seligman, 2003) points of view. The study tries to
explore, from the crew’s standpoint, what strategies are used to
cope successfully with extreme environment such as submarine
service. Due to the careful selection and long training, it was
assumed that the submarine crew is composed of people with
high ability to cope with stress situations.
The research hypotheses have been formulated based on the
literature review regarding coping with extreme environment
and especially submarine as follows:
1) Crew members will perceive the submarine as a highly
demanding and challenging.
2) Crew member will cope with fears and feelings of danger
during the voyage by minimizing the level of danger on the one
hand and by trusting their own abilities as well as those of their
team as being capable of coping with the mission.
3) The main coping strategies will be based on sense of hu-
mor, positive thinking and optimism.
4) Social relationships among the crew will be based on trust,
cooperation and conflict avoidance at all times.
The sample consisted of 12 interviewees, among them offi-
cers of all ranks and noncommissioned (NCO) officers repre-
senting the six submarine departments. Each department was
represented by an officer and a NCO. Due to earlier agreement
with headquarter unit only a few biographic details were re-
quested. Ages range from 20 to 40, most of the subjects had
studied physics and/or computer orientation in high school. All
subjects completed at least12 years of education and some have
completed their higher education (one of them is an engineer).
Most subjects grew up in big cities, some of them in small
communities. Two were married, each with a child and most of
the others had girlfriends but were not married.
The Interview and Analysis
The research tool was a structured interview constructed in
S. KIMHI 963
several steps: First, based on research literature regarding sub-
marines, the research goals were defined and accordingly, a
first draft of the interview was prepared. Second, the interview
was given to three submarine crew members for their com-
ments. Following this, changes were made. Third, step two was
repeated with another three crew members. At the end of this
step, the final version was constructed as follows: each domain
started with a general open question, followed by specific ques-
tions (only if the information was not given in reply to the gen-
eral open question). In this way, we allowed the interviewees to
respond in their own way, with a minimum of guidance from
Content analysis of interviews was done by attributing texts
to content categories (e.g., Krippendorf, 1980; Jones et al.,
2010). The process of building content categories was first
based on the interview predetermined four general open ques-
tions: Submarine as an extreme environment, coping with fears
and danger, coping strategies, social relationships and team
work. These questions were selected based on the literature
review. The process of attributing text to sub-categories (within
each of the main four categories) was conducted as follows:
The main researcher and two assistant researchers read the texts
and attributed them independently to content categories. Com-
parison of content categories among the three researchers re-
vealed high agreement of 85%. All texts which indicated no
agreement regarding their attribution to categories were brought
to further discussion, and only if no agreement was reached
(less than 3%) another independent researcher was asked to
decide. Based on our content analysis the main categories and
sub-categories analyzed in this study were as follows: 1) A
submarine as an extreme environment: separation, crowdedness
and lack of privacy, routine and activity. 2) Coping with fears
and feelings of danger: the submarine as a dangerous place,
fears, talking about fears and danger. 3) Coping strategies:
positive thinking and optimism, cynicism, humor and culture of
“Palavra”, night paper. 4) Social relationships and teamwork:
social relations during voyages, ranks and military hierarchy.
The research started after getting permission from the unit
headquarters. The interviews took place at the interviewee’s
home, after receiving their personal permission to be inter-
viewed. At the beginning of each interview, it was clarified that
the purpose of this study was to explore the personal experi-
ences of submarine service. In addition, complete anonymity
was assured. It is important to note that the interviewees dis-
played special interest in the research and were happy to coop-
erate. All interviews were recorded and transcribed word for
word, excluding any possible identifying details.
Analysis of results follows the content categories as pre-
Submarine as a n Extreme E n vi r o nm e nt
There was clear agreement among participants that separa-
tion from home, family and friends is the most difficult aspect
of submarine service. The following is an e xa mple:
NCO: “It is part of not knowing what is going on the outside;
you are completely disconnected regarding telephones. Even
news that you do get is very specific. I think that this is the most
difficult experience. It is simply complete disconnection. For
example, I had a long voyage and, at the time, my wife was
pregnant. To see her all of a sudden after such a long time
means that a lot of things have changed”.
As mentioned above, separation from daily life, family and
friends seems to be the most difficult part of the voyage. This is
even truer if the person has a spouse and especially if he has
children. It seems that some of the crew members cope with
this difficulty mainly by trying to avoid thinking, and by con-
centrating on the mission as much as possible. Beyond the di-
verse responses, the salient one is that separation is a “great
difficulty that one forced to live with”.
Crowdedne ss and Lac k of P rivac y
As explained, Dolphin submarines are small and congested,
and most of their space is used for operating systems. There is
very little free space devoted to living conditions.
Officer: “Personally, congestion does not bother me, nor
does lack of privacy; you have your own place. You have your
bed, your own corner but, of course, it is small. Relatively, for a
normal person, it might look crazy. It seems that everyone gets
used to it quickly and to many other things. At the beginning, it
really looks threatening, but very quickly it seems completely
Our interviewees indicated that crowdedness was an integral
part of life in a submarine and that they have learned and have
even gotten used to living like that during a voyage. Most par-
ticipants refer to their beds as the only private place in the sub-
marine, and emphasize its importance: the ability to leave to
your own private corner when you feel like it. The overall im-
pression is that coping with crowdedness is perceived by the
crew as trivial and understandable so that it almost does not
The Voyage: Routine and Activity
The following is an example how a crew member experience
the long voyage and how he adjust to the changes going from
routine and monotony to very hectic activity:
NCO: “Many times there are long voyages. There are diffi-
culties in getting back to routine (afterward). The thoughts you
have when you are in the submarine… There is this kind of
difficulty that you are staying (in the sub) while everyone else
(on land) continues with their lives. I think that there is another
difficulty: As a department non-commissioned officer I have
tremendous responsibilities which continue all the time. You
know that you have responsibilities for many things all the time.
This is a kind of difficulty”.
Beyond the various responses regarding routine and activity,
it seems that operational activity is the preferred way to make
the time pass quickly, without having time for disturbing
thoughts or feelings like yearning for home, boredom, separa-
The general impression is that crew responses support our
first hypothesis: They perceive their service in a submarine as
highly challenging environment but they do not refer to this
environment as an extreme or even stressful one. Aside of men-
tioning lack of sleep, there were hardly any complaints regard-
ing physical or psychological difficulties during a voyage. The
conclusion might be that what seems as an extreme environ-
ment for an outside observer seems to the crew as a challenging
but manageable routine.
Coping with Fears and Danger
Submarine as a Dangerous Plac e
This sub-category examined to what extent participants per-
ceived their service in a submarine as a dangerous experience.
The following is an example:
Officer: “Serving in a submarine is dangerous. Even in
training, there are things that you wouldn’t tell your mother.
For example, we went through an escape course. Overall, I
think that if you look at it seriously, not the way we look at it, it
is usually dangerous”.
The responses in regard to the submarine as a dangerous
place were diversified: On the one hand, most participants
agreed that a submarine is a dangerous place. On the other,
most of them tended to minimize the level of danger. They tend
not only to play down the danger, but also to balance it with a
feeling of self-confidence in the vessel and in their ability to
control potential risks. Sometimes there is also the sense that
“there are things that you can do nothing about” or that risk is
“something you have to learn to live with”. It is kind of accep-
tance or “light fatalism”. For example, at least one crew mem-
ber mentioned the Dakar1 disaster, and claimed that somewhere,
it is always in the back of his mind.
Participants were asked whether they have fears during voy-
ages. Only a few related openly to fears. More participants
replied that they do not have fears:
NCO: “Let’s say that the longer you are in the submarine,
the more you really understand how dangerous it is. At the
beginning you sail and (you feel) it is not dangerous, here and
there… but in time you really understand how every little thing
can cause such great damage… But few people feel it. I, too,
feel it less. If, for example, I was operating in the Gaza Strip
with a small (commando) unit or something like that… Here
you feel much more comfortable.”
Among the various responses, it was obvious that senior and
more experienced cr ew members were more willing to admit to
the existence of dangers and were more willing to talk about
fears. Evidently the most common strategy to cope with fears
was developing a strong sense that there are professional people
around you who can be trusted not to make mistakes operating
the submarine systems. The most common response indicated
that good training for various emergency situations enhanced
feelings of security and safety. It is interesting to note that even
those who denied having fears did not deny possible unex-
pected catastrophic events. At the same time, some of the crew
members did not hesitate to express fears which accompany
submarine service, openly and honestly.
Talking about Fear and Danger
In this sub-category we analyzed all texts which deals with
the question whether crew members who live a life of team-
work so intensively talk to each o t h e r about their fears.
NCO: “Everyone has the same problem and ‘misery loves
company’. It is good to know that I am not the only one. No
talking about fears (since) this is not a matter of support. The
support does not come from talking about it, but by finding
ways to pass the time. We repress the problems, and overcome
them. There is nothing to be done; you are there and that’s it,
so we try to pass the time together and with fun”.
In accordance with our second hypothesis, crew members
talk very little, if at all, about fears and dangers. It seems that
there is silent agreement that discussing these subjects does not
add to the ability to cope. This coping strategy may be defined
as “rational denial”, meaning: “we know that there are dangers
and fears, but to talk about them will not do any good”. More-
over, the overall impression regarding risks and fears revealed
that crew members felt uneasy talking about these issues to the
interviewer; there were hesitations, breaks in the middle of
sentences, unfinished sentences and relatively less clear lan-
guage. These results seem to support our second hypothesis
indicating that feelings of danger during the voyage will be
Positive Thinking and Optimism
Interviews revealed clearly that crew members often used
positive thinking during the voyage. Moreover, they focused on
positive issues while negative ones were almost ignored (unless
it was a professional issue). Crew members attributed more
importance to the positive side of their work than to the nega-
NCO: “My work in the submarine fills me with energy no
matter how hard and demanding the work is, no matter how
many hours. When I come back home from a voyage, I return
full of energy. I come back home after long voyage like I am
floating on a cloud. This work gives me great satisfaction, it
makes me happy. This is the work of a creator, a work of art”.
Participants perceived their overall service as positive,
meaningful and unique. It is not clear how much of this opti-
mism and positive thinking developed during submarine service
and how much existed prior to service. It seems that both are
true: positive thinking exists prior to service and is further en-
hanced during service. Overall, interviews revealed a clearly
positive attitude as a basic world perception, and specifically as
a way to perceive submarine service.
Cynicism, Humor and Culture of “Palavra”2
One of the most frequently used coping strategies was the
culture of humor accompanied by cynicism, which developed
among participants. As it turns out, this culture of humor is
unique. It appears that those who are not part of the team might
find it difficult to penetrate its nuances and connotations. For
Officer: “Due to cynicism you can say whatever you want
and to whomever you want, without being told that you have
really said something serious. Palavra is very important, it is
team spirit. It is not exactly cynicism. There is cynicism in the
submarine which has nothing to do with palavra. Cynicism is
the weapon of divers. Using cynicism, you can say whatever
you think without sounding as though you are rebuking anyone.
Based on that principal, anyone can say anything about me.
Everything is only palavra”.
A possible example for palavra is the following: one day the
cook prepared roles for the team and it got burn. Latter on a
story spread among the team that one role fell from the table
and the entire crew heard the “bang” noise when it hit the floor.
According to participants, they use their sense of humor,
their cynicism and their palavra as part of coping with subma-
rine life. Instead of conflict—which is so normal in every sys-
tem where many people depend on each other without the op-
tion of choosing who to work with- there is a culture which
allows for indirect expression of disagreements, anger, and
frustration in a way that is approved of by all. Moreover, it
seems that this culture is an old tradition which is passed down
from generation to generation.
2Palavra means nonsense. In Spanish, the meaning is “word”, and in
Ladino, the local meaning developed: nonsense, stupidity, empty talk
(Rosental, Maariv, 30-9-05). The Engl i sh e qu i v al e nt i s “ p al a ve r”.
1An Israeli navy submarine that was lost in the Mediterranean in 1968
on its way from England to Israel. All 69 crew members on board were
S. KIMHI 965
The high level of cynicism was not part of our hypotheses
since—to the best of our knowledge- no other submarine re-
search has indicated this before. However, in the case of the
Israeli submarine crew the use of cynicism and ridicule on each
other plays an important role as can shown in the case of night
One of the unique crew expressions is the “night paper”. It is
a comic newspaper published every night and hung on the bul-
letin board for everybody to read. The paper is composed of
magazine articles, journals, photos, and links. It is a unique
instrument which allows review of the day’s events harmoni-
ously while using cynicism, mutual ridicule and language fa-
miliar to crew members. The following is an example:
NCO: “The night paper is our way of coping with painful
things and expressing cynicism. It reflects cynicism. Instead of
someone going and telling others (what he want to tell them),
he just adds it to the night paper and that is how everybody
knows about it. It is a funny and cynical paper that eases the
routine, to create laughter”.
An example could be a cartoon or fabricated picture of crew
member who speaks loud as a famous opera singer or someone
who had slipped on his way to the kitchen and later that day
was presented on the night paper as an acrobat in the circus.
The night paper has the same purpose as humor and palavra:
it enables the expression of different kinds of experiences,
whether good or bad, while gently criticizing other person/s.
Apparently, the night paper has become an accepted way to
express feelings and thoughts without being insulting. These
include criticism, humor, ridicule of others and of oneself, as
well as of submarine life. Overall, the interviews reveal that, in
accordance with our hypothesis, a sense of humor and optimism
were salient coping strategies. In addition, somewhat unex-
pectedly, cynicism and mutual ridicule were also salient coping
strategies of the submarine crew.
Social Rela ti onships and Team Work
Social Relationships during the Voyage
During a voyage, the submarine is closed, isolated and dis-
connected from the outside world. Crew members cannot
communicate with their families or friends. The only company
they have is each othe r. As a result, there is no place for unne c-
essary disputes. A submarine crew, like other extreme envi-
ronment crews, must maintain a good atmosphere in order to
complete the mission.
Officer: “It happens that you have to work and share your
life with a person whom you don’t like. I try to retain profes-
sionalism and also to offer some kind of friendship. I am not a
hypocrite; I will not tell this individual ‘you are my best friend
and I will do anything for you’. But I will be glad to do things
Respondents indicated that there are good working relations
and a positive social atmosphere. Yet this does not necessarily
mean close or intimate relations after the voyage. Only a small
number of friendships continue beyond that. It seems that social
cohesion among the team is high, even though there are
sub-groups. Evidently there is no social pressure to be friends
with all the others.
Ranks and Military Hierarchy
A submarine is a unique military unit in the sense of military
hierarchy. Although, like any army unit, there are ranks, the
formal relations and distance among the crew members are
different compared to other units in the Israeli Defense Forces
(IDF). Crew members from all ranks and levels must live and
work together very closely. The combination of submarine life
and army ranking forces everyone to compromise.
Officer: “It is clear to everyone that an officer does not come
and tell soldiers to do things only because he is an officer, but
because there is something that has to be done. Many times we
listen to soldiers, see if they have something better to suggest. It
is not that something will happen because you, as an officer,
change your mind”.
The role of officers is, first of all, work distribution. Ranks
represent operational authority, and to a lesser extent, command
authority. A submarine captain is the only person on board
whose rank is maintained: Crew members address him as
“Hamefaked” (in Hebrew, the commander). From the various
responses, it seems that the social interaction among crew
members does not distinguish rank. The only place where there
is a clear distinction according to rank is the “mess” (eating
rooms). In accordance with our fourth hypothesis, social rela-
tionships are based very clearly on high trust and cooperation
among the team members: It is clear that everyone will do his
best to complete the mission perfectly. Many of the interview-
ers emphasized that they will avoid conflict with other col-
leagues even when there is disagreement and that it is very
difficult to make them angry. The ways to handle such dis-
agreements are night paper and “palavaras”.
The most prominent results of the current study seem to be
the positive perceptions of submarine service. These include
positive thinking, optimism and humor accompanied by cyni-
cism. Using positive thinking, optimism and humor are well
known in professional literature as successful coping strategies
with stress. These results are in accordance with research indi-
cating that humor, positive attitudes and optimism reinforce
resilience against the negative effects of distress (Abel &
Maxwell, 2002; Connor & Zhang, 2006; Martinez, Reyes, Gar-
cia, & Gonzalez, 2006; Mauriello & McConatha, 2007; South-
wick, Vythilingam, & Charney, 2005; Wooten, 1996).
It is possible to view the positive perception of submarine
service by the submarine interviewee as corresponding to the
salutogenic model research (e.g., Sagy & Anotnovsky, 1986).
This model research focuses on a self reported feeling of com-
petence and satisfaction as a valid measure for successful cop-
ing with stress (e.g., Dar & Kimhi, 2001, 2004). An additional
way to explain the positive attitude to submarine demands by
our subjects is by using cognitive appraisal theory (Lazarus &
Folkman, 1984). Accordingly, participants perceive their abili-
ties as appropriate to cope with the submarine service demands.
This perception helps them to feel that they can handle emer-
gency situations and that these are challenging rather than dan-
gerous. Nonetheless, this study cannot determine whether these
means and mechanisms are unique to Israeli submarines only.
More studies of how other navy crews form various cultures are
needed to clarify this interesting point.
The current study indicated that one of the unique coping
strategies used by the crew under study was the culture of “pa-
lavra” and the use of the “night paper” as a part of the sub-
culture developed in the submarine. Apparently this strategy
has a double goal: On the one hand, it is an efficient way to
vent criticism and frustration which does not insult others
bringing up the ridiculous and the absurd sides of submarine
life and looking for a special point of view about submarine life
in all its aspects. On the other, it prevents arguments, disagree-
ments and conflicts in the congested working area, where con-
flicts and disagreements are undesirable and even dangerous.
However, even though this was not said explicitly, it seems that
these means are also used to ease worry and fear and to serve as
“pressure release” mechanisms.
Regarding feelings of danger and fear, the current study in-
dicated that crew members coped with these feelings by “di-
minishing” their perception of dangers and avoiding talk about
fears among themselves. It is suggested to call this strategy an
“optimal denial”: On the one hand, they do not completely deny
or ignore the danger. On the other, they do not live with a con-
stant sense of risk that might interfere with their performance
(see denial as a coping strategy in Breznitz, 1986). Additionally,
crew member expressed high levels of confidence both with the
submarine and in their ability to control most potential risks.
These results support other studies according to which, expec-
tation of being able to control the situation, characterized crew
members coping successfully with extreme environments (e.g.,
Sandal et al., 1999; Levine & Ursin, 1991).
Evidently, the need for extensive teamwork in a submarine,
like other teams operating in extreme environments, requires a
high ability for social relationships. This research clearly indi-
cated the existence of teamwork, including social cohesion and
good working relations without conflicts. Interestingly, good
relationships crossed military hierarchy and rank. It appears
that, unlike other military units, rank had mainly operational
significance but much less social significance. Above all, it
appears that submarine crews work harmoniously even though
not everyone is a friend of everyone else. This harmony exists
even if a person has to work with someone he does not like.
The current study results support theories emphasizing personal
ability for giving and receiving social support as a coping
strategy with stress (Joseph, Yule, Williams, & Andrews, 1993;
Pierce, Sarason, & Sarason, 1996; Rees & Freeman, 2009).
These results also support other submarine research using other
methodologies which have indicated the importance of capabil-
ity for social relationships as a necessary precondition for sub-
marine service (Sandal et al., 1999; Sandal, 2003, 1999), and
other studies regarding characteristics of submarine personnel
(e.g., Wolfe, 1979).
Our research has indicated that high coping and performance
under stress situations like extreme environments are connected
with a personality profile which is characterized by high in-
strumentality and achievement, together with interpersonal
sensitivity. Such a profile has been termed the “right stuff” in
the literature, characterizing successful group coping with
highly stressful situations (Sandal et al., 1999; Wolfe, 1979).
The current results suggest adding to above profile the ability to
avoid conflict as a very essential characteristic of good subma-
rine crew member and probably a helpful feature for other
crews operating in extreme environments.
Aside from separation difficulties, this study does not sup-
port some of the capsule research outcomes Suedfeld & Steel
(2000) emphasized social isolation, confinement and sensory
restriction. In the interviews with the team in the current re-
search, there were few reports of these difficulties. On the con-
trary, our subjects described feelings after a voyage as positive
even though it had sometimes been very tough. Some of our
results can be explained using Hobfoll’s COR theory (2001):
Crew members described the feeling of satisfaction they had at
the end of the voyage at successfully having completed the
mission and at their good functioning during the voyage. These
descriptions match the explanation according to which gains of
resources (like good feelings, satisfaction, and pride) overcome
loss of resources (like separation). Moreover, in accordance
with COR theory, respondents revealed the clear perception
that, overall, submarine service involved more gain than loss of
Beyond our specific hypotheses additional results indicated
high morale, team spirit and values. These included—among
others—wide agreement concerning the importance of the sub-
marine and its missions and high unit pride. There is consensus
among experts that these psycho/social components are very
important in every combat unit and that their importance does
not diminish even though the weapons become more and more
sophisticated. For example, Holmes (1989) emphasizes the
importance of the moral qualities of the combat soldier. Ac-
cording to him, even the most modern weapons systems are
limited and depend on the soldiers who operate them. In the end,
the soldier’s values are basic and most important in every com-
bat unit (see also Griffith, 1988; Kimhi & Sagy, 2008).
Limitations of the Study
Like any other research, this one also has limitations:1) the
small number of interviewees requires caution regarding gener-
alization about Israeli submarine crews and does not allow for
generalization to crew members from other navies, 2) difficul-
ties in comparing the current study with other submarine stud-
ies using mainly quantitative methodology, 3) some caution
should be applied regarding the possibility that significant ex-
periences (e.g., risks, fears) took place during classified mis-
sions and, as a result, did not come up during the interviews.
What is the main pragmatic conclusion from our study? In
essence, it is possible to claim that this study clearly indicates
the importance of the human factor in one of the most modern
sophisticated war machines such as the submarine: There is no
substitute for the crew members operating this system, team
spirit, values, and ability for team work and positive attitudes to
mission demands (see also Holmes, 1989). These are domains
which can be fostered and encouraged in any team and certainly
in elite teams such as those on submarines which have been
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