Olympics Fun: National Personality Types: Fact or Figment?

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Maya Kuehn and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on July 3, 2012.

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With the summer Olympics fast approaching, and our nation’s birthday on Americans’ minds, July seemed an apt month to dig a little into the concept of national personalities. For instance, we may have ideas of what typical French or German or British people are like relative to typical Americans. But are these ideas just oversimplified stereotypes, or are they rooted in actual country-level differences in personality characteristics?

Well, opinions vary.

Powerful Predictors

In one camp, researchers believe that national personalities (usually defined as the average personality of a country’s citizens) are important concepts to understand. They argue that national personality has powerful predictive utility, meaning it can help explain – above and beyond cultural factors like religion and wealth – why individuals in some countries are happier, less corrupt, or more likely to tip workers than citizens of other countries.

This group has found several effects supporting their perspective, including:

–Nations that lie less are happier and have a higher GNP per capita, perhaps because interpersonal trust and cooperation (which oppose the practice of lying) are important for friendship and business practices alike. (Steel & Ones, 2002)

–More extraverted nations are happier, perhaps by facilitating fun and exciting social situations that make people happier. (Steel & Ones, 2002)

–Less neurotic nations are also happier, maybe because neuroticism (that is, being self-conscious and prone to lots of negative emotion like anxiety and depression) drags people down together. (Steel & Ones, 2002)

–More neurotic nations tend to be more corrupt (measured with the CPI) than less neurotic nations, though it’s not clear why – it could be that living in a corrupt nation threatens one’s emotional stability and well-being. (Connelly & Ones, 2008)

–Less open-minded nations are also more corrupt, perhaps because low openness to new experiences (that is, conservatism and traditionalism) may prevent progressive legislation designed to curb corruption. (Connelly & Ones, 2008)

–More extraverted nations are likely to tip more service professionals (waiters, taxi drivers, etc.), perhaps because folks from these countries think that tipping will encourage more attention and meet their desire for recognition as benevolent customers. (Lynn, 2000)

–More neurotic nations are also more likely to tip, maybe as a strategy for reducing their anxious concerns about being served by strangers. (Lynn, 2000)

Simply Stereotypes

And on the other side, a distinct group of researchers argue that the idea of national personality is purely based in stereotypes (Terracciano et al., 2005). That is, although we may agree about what French people are like, French people in fact don’t reliably differ from Americans. This group has also found support for their argument, with the following study.

When they asked people from 49 cultures on six continents to describe (1) the typical member of their culture and (2) the typical American (as a point of comparison), they found that:

–People could reliably agree on what the typical member of their culture was like…
–However, national character ratings exaggerated any actual existing differences. That is, perceptions of differences in national personality far exceeded actual assessed differences in national personality. We see nations as being much more different than they really are, which is one effect of stereotypes.
–Further, the national character ratings were almost entirely unrelated to self-reports of personality by people in those nations. Of the 49 cultures in this study, only Poland’s self-report cohered with the national stereotype (which, take note, does not mean that all stereotypes about Polish people are true).
–But here are some fun differences in stereotypical country personalities, anyway! Keep in mind that this is how nations are seen, not how they actually are (except, maybe, for Poland).

Trait
5 Lowest
Countries
5 Highest
Countries
The Phillippines
Indonesia
Canada
Nigeria
New Zealand
Turkey
Australia
Poland
Burkina Faso
Japan
Slovenia
Puerto Rico
Indonesia
Australia
French Switzerland
Spain
Japan
New Zealand
Estonia
Serbia
P. R. China
Russia
Estonia
India
Chile
Kuwait
Turkey
Nigeria
Japan
Puerto Rico
Czech Republic
Burkina Faso
Lebanon
India
United States
Canada
Argentina
Botswana
Hong Kong
Russia
Spain
German Switzerland
Turkey
Sweden
Croatia
Germany
Chile
Burkina Faso
Indonesia
Estonia

To be sure, a multitude of factors interfere with conducting valid cross-cultural research, including many potential confounding variables. Moreover, the studies above used many different types of samples and methodologies to look at these questions, and as always, with slight tweaks to their procedures they may have produced different results.

So in the end, it’s hard to say what’s really true in the domain of national personality. But at least you have a few fun facts about lying, happiness, tipping, and corruption for your next cocktail party conversation!

And here’s the lecture: although it’s fun to think about national personalities and how things like a nation’s happiness, corruption, and behavior at the Olympics may be related to the types of people living in those nations, it’s truly dangerous territory. Stereotypes lead us to exaggerate group differences, and encouraging stereotypes can only increase the divide and foster discrimination between groups.

Instead, let’s strive to celebrate cultural differences but keep in mind what we all have in common: Being human.

Questions to Consider:
Do you see national personalities as nasty stereotypes or interesting insights into cultures?
Do you have any expectations for how certain countries will behave at the Olympics, based on their personalities?
Do you agree or disagree with the stereotypes of countries in the table above?
Do you think your own culture can be described with just one personality? How about other cultures?

The Articles:

Terracciano et al. (2005). National Character Does Not Reflect Mean Personality Trait Levels in 49 Cultures Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1117199
Steel, P., & Ones, D. S. (2002). Personality and Happiness: A National-Level Analysis Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.83.3.767
Connelly, B., & Ones, D. S. (2008). The Personality of Corruption: A National-Level Analysis Cross-Cultural Research DOI: 10.1177/1069397108321904
Lynn, M. (2000). National Personality and Tipping Customs Personality and Individual Differences DOI: 10.1016/S0191-8869(99)00109-9

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