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94 Cultural Understandings of Personality

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section you should be able to:

  • Discuss personality differences of people from collectivist and individualist cultures
  • Discuss the three approaches to studying personality in a cultural context

As you have learned in this chapter, personality is shaped by both genetic and environmental factors. The culture in which you live is one of the most important environmental factors that shapes your personality (Triandis & Suh, 2002). The term culture refers to all of the beliefs, customs, art, and traditions of a particular society. Culture is transmitted to people through language as well as through the modeling of culturally acceptable and nonacceptable behaviours that are either rewarded or punished (Triandis & Suh, 2002). With these ideas in mind, personality psychologists have become interested in the role of culture in understanding personality. They ask whether personality traits are the same across cultures or if there are variations. It appears that there are both universal and culture-specific aspects that account for variation in people’s personalities.

Why might it be important to consider cultural influences on personality? Western ideas about personality may not be applicable to other cultures (Benet-Martinez & Oishi, 2008). In fact, there is evidence that the strength of personality traits varies across cultures. Let’s take a look at some of the Big Five factors (conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, and extroversion) across cultures. As you will learn when you study social psychology, Asian cultures are more collectivist, and people in these cultures tend to be less extroverted. People in Central and South American cultures tend to score higher on openness to experience, whereas Europeans score higher on neuroticism (Benet-Martinez & Karakitapoglu-Aygun, 2003).

According to a study by Rentfrow and colleagues, there also seem to be regional personality differences within the United States (Figure P.17). Researchers analyzed responses from over 1.5 million individuals in the United States and found that there are three distinct regional personality clusters: Cluster 1, which is in the Upper Midwest and Deep South, is dominated by people who fall into the “friendly and conventional” personality; Cluster 2, which includes the West, is dominated by people who are more relaxed, emotionally stable, calm, and creative; and Cluster 3, which includes the Northeast, has more people who are stressed, irritable, and depressed. People who live in Clusters 2 and 3 are also generally more open (Rentfrow et al., 2013).

A map of the United States is shown. Above it is the label “Personality Clusters in the Continental United States.” Below it is a legend which defines areas in the map as either, “Cluster 1: friendly, conventional;” “Cluster 2: relaxed, creative;” or “Cluster 3: temperamental, uninhibited.” Cluster 1occurs mainly in the center of the country. Cluster 2 occurs mainly on the west side of the country. Cluster 3 occurs mainly in the North-East region of the country and also in Texas. These are generalizations; there are several states which are comprised of a combination of two different clusters.

Figure P.17 Researchers found three distinct regional personality clusters in the United States. People tend to be friendly and conventional in the Upper Midwest and Deep South; relaxed, emotionally stable, and creative in the West; and stressed, irritable, and depressed in the Northeast (Rentfrow et al., 2013).

One explanation for the regional differences is selective migration (Rentfrow et al., 2013). Selective migration is the concept that people choose to move to places that are compatible with their personalities and needs. For example, a person high on the agreeable scale would likely want to live near family and friends, and would choose to settle or remain in such an area. In contrast, someone high on openness would prefer to settle in a place that is recognized as diverse and innovative (such as California). Further, Rentfrow, Jost, Gosling, & Potter (2009) noted an overlap between geographical regions and personality characteristics that goes beyond the often-used explanations of religion, racial diversity, and education. Their research suggests that the psychological profile of a region is closely related to that of its residents. They found that levels of openness and conscientiousness in a state may predict voting patterns, indicating that there are correlations between geographic regions and personality differences between liberals and conservatives relating to political views, levels of economic vitality, and entrepreneurial rates.

Personality in Individualist and Collectivist Cultures

Individualist cultures and collectivist cultures place emphasis on different basic values. People who live in individualist cultures tend to believe that independence, competition, and personal achievement are important. Individuals in Western nations such as the United States, England, and Australia score high on individualism (Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmier, 2002). People who live in collectivist cultures value social harmony, respectfulness, and group needs over individual needs. Individuals who live in countries in Asia, Africa, and South America score high on collectivism (Hofstede, 2001; Triandis, 1995). These values influence personality. For example, Yang (2006) found that people in individualist cultures displayed more personally oriented personality traits, whereas people in collectivist cultures displayed more socially oriented personality traits. Frewer and Bleus (1991) conducted a study of the Eysenk Personality Inventory in a collectivist culture using Papua New Guinean university students. They found that the results of the personality inventory were only relevant when analyzed within the context of a collectivist society. Similarly, Dana (1986) suggested that personality assessment services for Native Americans are often provided without a proper recognition of culture-specific responses and a tribe-specific frame of reference. Assessors need to have more than a general knowledge of history, tribal differences, contemporary culture on reservations, and levels of acculturation in order to interpret psychological test responses with a minimal bias.

Approaches to Studying Personality in a Cultural Context

There are three approaches that can be used to study personality in a cultural context, the cultural-comparative approach; the indigenous approach; and the combined approach, which incorporates elements of both views. Since ideas about personality have a Western basis, the cultural-comparative approach seeks to test Western ideas about personality in other cultures to determine whether they can be generalized and if they have cultural validity (Cheung van de Vijver, & Leong, 2011). For example, recall from the previous section on the trait perspective that researchers used the cultural-comparative approach to test the universality of McCrae and Costa’s Five Factor Model. They found applicability in numerous cultures around the world, with the Big Five factors being stable in many cultures (McCrae & Costa, 1997; McCrae et al., 2005). The indigenous approach came about in reaction to the dominance of Western approaches to the study of personality in non-Western settings (Cheung et al., 2011). Because Western-based personality assessments cannot fully capture the personality constructs of other cultures, the indigenous model has led to the development of personality assessment instruments that are based on constructs relevant to the culture being studied (Cheung et al., 2011). The third approach to cross-cultural studies of personality is the combined approach, which serves as a bridge between Western and indigenous psychology as a way of understanding both universal and cultural variations in personality (Cheung et al., 2011).

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Cultural Understandings of Personality by Dalhousie University Introduction to Psychology and Neuroscience Team is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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