How accurate are national stereotypes?

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Many people have beliefs about typical traits – stereotypes – of people from different cultures. Canadians are polite. The French are rude. Italians are passionate. The Japanese are punctual.

Such stereotypes matter. Often, we assign stereotypical traits to people we don’t know much about except their nationality, and make real life decisions based on those assigned traits. For example, some may avoid traveling to a country where we think people are rude. Some may not buy a product made in a country where people are generally not the most detail oriented. Stereotypes can even fuel serious conflicts.

But how accurate are these stereotypes? Can we really say anything about a person’s psychological traits based on their nationality?

The science of personality can help

Many national stereotypes focus on one or two specific traits, such as being loud, punctual, or fashionable. But people are more than a trait or two. Even if you have definite information that someone is loud, punctual, or trendy, what does that really tell you about them? Not a lot.

Instead, people are best described using a collection of many traits. This is where the science of personality traits comes in, with its trait models that encapsulate the similarities and differences between people in the most comprehensive way possible. The Big Five personality traits, for example, provide such a model.

This puts the science of personality in a good position to ask how different people from different cultures are and how accurate our stereotypes are about those differences. Here is what was done:

  • Personality experts have asked people from dozens of countries to complete the same personality questionnaire on themselves or someone they know well who is also from their country. This allowed them to measure national differences in the personality traits of real people.
  • The scientists also asked people to use the same questionnaire to describe their opinions of a typical representative of their own nation or a typical representative of another nationality. This allowed scientists to measure national personality stereotypes.
  • Since the personality traits of real people and national stereotypes are described with the same set of personality traits, the national differences between them can be directly compared. For example, are the traits that a nation scores particularly high on, according to the stereotype, the same traits that actual representatives of that nation tend to score high on?

National stereotypes do not describe real people

When nations are classified into traits of real people on the one hand and stereotypically attributed traits on the other, the two rankings are almost always different.

The most in-depth study to date was based on comparing 49 countries in the Big Five personality traits of neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness and a range of traits more (called facets) that make up each of the Big Five. There was no correspondence between the position of nations in terms of stereotypes and the actual personality traits of people.

For example, according to stereotypes, the Japanese were among the most neurotic, introverted and closed to experiences in the world. The actual Japanese, however, scored around the world average in all of these traits. Stereotypically, Canadians were among the nicest and American citizens were among the least pleasant in the world. But the average agreeableness scores of real people in both countries were also close to the global average. And, contrary to the stereotype, the average consciousness of real Japanese people was among the lowest in the world. The actual responses from the French were a little nicer than the stereotype would have it.

Focusing on each nation separately, the researchers then compared their stereotypical trait profiles — traits in which the nation was particularly high and particularly low — with the trait profiles of real people. Again, there was almost no match at all except for a few nations.

Overall, other studies have replicated these findings. Sometimes for some nations there is a modest overlap between the stereotypes and the traits of real people. Yet there is rarely a reason to say that national personality stereotypes are accurate.

Why are our intuitions about the typical personality traits of nations so imprecise?

For the most part, the answer is very simple: people from different countries are just not that different in most traits. Within any given country, people’s personality trait scores vary wildly, but average people from different countries are quite similar. Technically speaking, the variability of personality trait scores within countries is generally about ten times greater than their differences between countries.

Yes, complicated statistical models can detect subtle patterns in small differences in the mean trait scores of members of different nations. For example, it allows researchers to predict quite accurately which country people are from, based on their scores on personality traits. Furthermore, it allows researchers to draw maps that bring closer, in personality, more similar nations and, in personality, more distant nations. But national differences in individual traits are far too small for the naked eye.

Essential personality readings

Source: Rene Mottus.

Another likely reason why national personality stereotypes are inaccurate is that most of us don’t know people from other countries well enough to reliably pick up on the subtle psychological differences between them. By comparison, gender and age differences in personality traits are also subtle, but people have developed more accurate, though often exaggerated, stereotypes about them.

Conclusion

It’s almost impossible to make accurate predictions, even remotely, about a person’s personality traits based on their nationality, unless you’re a complicated computer algorithm. This is mainly because national differences in the personality traits of real people are tiny and subtle.

So national stereotypes may be fun, but they are just that – folklore to amuse us. We should not trust them or rely on them for real decisions. For the most part, psychological traits are distributed similarly across the world.

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