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Fred Birchman / MSNBC.com
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Science
updated 10/6/2005 2:07:46 PM ET 2005-10-06T18:07:46

“Heaven is where the police are English, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian and everything is organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and everything is organized by the Italians.”

Obviously the national stereotypes in this old joke are generalizations, but such stereotypes are often said to “exist for a reason.” Is there actually a sliver of truth in them? Not likely, an international research team now says.

The study, which compares “typical” personalities in many cultures with the personalities of real individuals from those cultures, appears in Friday's issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

Generalizations about cultures or nationalities can be a source of identity, pride ... and bad jokes. But they can also cause a great deal of harm. Both history and current events are full of examples in which unfavorable stereotypes contribute to prejudice, discrimination, persecution or even genocide.

“National and cultural stereotypes do play an important role in how people perceive themselves and others, and being aware that these are not trustworthy is a useful thing,” said study author Robert McCrae of the National Institute on Aging.

The new findings also call into question other stereotypes, such as age stereotypes, according to McCrae.

The researchers tested the possibility that cultural stereotypes might be based, at least partly, on real experiences that people have interacting with each other. If this were true, then such stereotypes would reflect the average personality of real members of that culture.

But, McCrae and his colleagues studied real and perceived personalities in roughly 50 countries and found that this wasn’t the case.

“These are in fact unfounded stereotypes. They don’t come from looking around you and doing your own averaging of people’s personality traits,” McCrae said.

How stereotypes are born
If national stereotypes aren’t rooted in real experiences, then where do they come from?

One possibility is that they reflect national values, which may emerge from historical events. For example, many historians have argued that the spirit of American individualism has its origins in the experiences of the pioneers in the Old West.

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Social scientists such as psychologist Richard Robins have proposed several other possible explanations for stereotypes and why they may be inaccurate. In a commentary that accompanies the Science study, Robins notes that some stereotypes may have been accurate at one point in history and then persisted while the culture changed. Or they may have grown out of historical conflicts between cultural groups.

Yet another possibility is that some very specific components of a stereotype may be accurate — for example, Italians may gesture with their hands a lot — but that they don’t necessarily tell us anything more generally about personality.

We may be “hard-wired,” to some extent, to maintain inaccurate stereotypes, since we are less likely to notice and remember information that violates our stereotypes. Generally, according to Robins, when we encounter people who contradict prevailing generalizations, we perceive them as unique individuals rather than representatives of their national or cultural groups.

Measuring personality
Researchers generally agree that the main components of anyone’s personality can be boiled down to five different aspects: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. How a person rates in these five categories can predict many important life “outcomes,” such as health and mortality, academic success, job performance and the ability to have successful, lasting romantic relationships.

McCrae and his colleagues have developed a questionnaire that can be used to evaluate someone’s personality according to these five basic traits. It’s called the “Revised NEO Personality Inventory," or "NEO-PI-R.” The survey results can be used to generate a profile of a person based on 30 specific characteristics that fall under these five larger categories.

The NEO-PI-R is widely accepted as an objective way to describe someone’s personality. People taking the survey can either rate themselves or someone they know well.

The survey says…
In the Science study, McCrae’s team began with two groups of NEO-PI-R surveys they had previously collected in a wide variety of countries. They averaged the profiles in each of the two sets, producing one profile that reflected how volunteers rated their own personalities and another profile that reflected how they rated the personalities of other individuals they knew.

The researchers also conducted a third survey in about 50 countries, using questions about the same 30 characteristics — but in this survey, they asked the volunteers to describe a typical person from their culture. They averaged these results, so that they had a third personality profile for each country, reflecting the national stereotype.

The authors found that in most of the countries, the two personality profiles that were based on information from real people matched each other reasonably well. But they were significantly different from the stereotype profile.

“There was essentially no agreement between people’s perceptions of the typical personality [in their culture] and what we actually measured,” McCrae said.

The one exception was Poland, where the ratings from volunteers provided a better-than-usual match between typical and real personalities, suggesting the volunteers were better at seeing past stereotypes to perceive people as they really are.

Perhaps in heaven, the therapists are Polish.

© 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science

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