National Character Stereotypes Are Largely Inaccurate

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Many people believe they know what kind of person the typical American is. Same for the average Brit, German or Chinese person for that matter. But research studying dozens of cultures shows no evidence that such beliefs are accurate.

A diverse team of psychologists led by NIH’s Robert McCrae confirmed what some earlier studies tried to show: How people view the typical citizen of a country is not actually reflected in the personality traits measured in that country.

“We asked participants to rate the typical member of their own culture on each of 30 traits (e.g., friendly, warm, affectionate vs. cold, aloof, reserved),” said McCrae. “We then averaged across respondents to get a consensual stereotype for that culture.”

Comparing those stereotypes with objectively measured personality traits yielded quite the mismatch:

“National stereotypes often make no geographical sense,” the newest study concluded. “Judging by stereotypes, Canadians are far more like Indians and Burkinabè than they are like Americans; Chinese from Hong Kong resemble Hungarians more than they resemble Chinese from the Mainland.”

Stereotypes seemed to be influenced by other factors, like climate temperature. Though Southern Italy is only a few degrees warmer than Northern Italy, Southern Italians were rated as being higher in interpersonal warmth, for example.

Sometimes perceptions are way off the mark.

“The most notable example was the British,” McCrae said. “They are thought to be reserved, when in fact they are among the most extroverted of nations.

“How else to explain Benny Hill?”

Mostly, the differences between countries were rather modest. There is much more variation among individuals within any one culture than there is between different nations.

“People are often too ready to snatch at confirming evidence and disregard the exceptions,” McCrae said. “The best policy is to assume you know nothing about the personality traits of national groups, and judge each individual personally.”

Still, the findings don’t mean that nations aren’t culturally different, because group behaviors involve history, government policy, religion, economy and probably many other factors.

Judging by the synchronized watches, polished shoes, and disciplined marching on a military base, one might imagine that soldiers are especially conscientious, the study said. This, however, is not the case.

“Behaviors are poor indicators of personality traits in strong situations, and culture is surely a strong situation.”

The study, “The inaccuracy of national character stereotypes,” was published in the Journal of Research in Personality. Prior research, “National character does not reflect mean personality trait levels in 49 cultures” by Terracciano et. al., was published in the journal Science.

Featured Image: Participants at a diversity conference in Oregon. Credit: Oregon Department of Transportation.