The Inaccuracy of National Character Stereotypes

By Neuroskeptic | December 27, 2013 8:27 am

Are Germans dour, Brits reserved, and Americans brash?

Popular wisdom says yes – and, even if most people would take these stereotypes with a pinch of salt, few of us could claim to be immune to them. But what does the evidence say?


An international team of psychologists led by Robert McCrae says that it’s bunk: The Inaccuracy of National Character Stereotypes

To measure perceived national character, citizens of 26 countries were asked to rate the personality of ‘typical’ people from their culture. To see how accurate these stereotypes were, McCrae et al compared them to published survey data on the personality of individuals from those countries (self-report and also observer-report).

All of these measures used the Big Five factor model of personality, or “OCEAN”, where the main dimensions are: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. McCrae et al also examined the facets or subcomponents of each of those traits.

The results showed that people held strong national personality stereotypes, but they were inaccurate. The correlations between stereotype personality and actual average personality were low. For example, the stereotypes were compared against three different personality surveys, and looking at the Big Five OCEAN traits gave a total of 15 comparisons. Of these, only three were significantly positive. The mean correlation was a measly r = 0.134.

For the ‘facets’ of personality, the picture was much the same. Out of 30 facets, the only one that was significantly correlated across all 3 comparisons was ‘vulnerability’. Does vulnerability feature in many national stereotypes?

Looking at individual countries, the only stereotypes that significantly corresponded with reality across more than one comparison were those from France and Hong Kong. Across all countries and comparisons, 13 of 65 comparisons were significant.

Overall, the data suggest that there is something in the theory of national character – there were more correlations than you’d expect by chance alone – but not much. At least as far as the Big Five traits are concerned.

The authors conclude that their data

Yield faithful representations of shared beliefs about national character. However, consistent with most previous literature, the accuracy of these beliefs appeared to be extremely limited… People appear to have a fairly good grasp of real age and sex differences in personality, but a largely illusory understanding of national differences.

In the Discussion they pour further scorn on the idea:

National stereotypes often make no geographical sense: judging by stereotypes, Canadians are far more like Indians than they are like Americans; Chinese from Hong Kong resemble Hungarians more than they resemble Chinese from the Mainland…

Stereotypes of interpersonal warmth are closely related to annual temperature, which appears to be an effect of metaphoric thinking (1)… although Northern Italians constitute half the population of Italy, the stereotype of Northern Italians is virtually the mirror image of Italians in general.

ResearchBlogging.orgMcCrae RR, & et al (2013). The Inaccuracy of National Character Stereotypes. Journal of Research in Personality, 47 (6) PMID: 24187394

  • Dorothy Bishop

    I suspect that people are often picking up on differences in communicative style that may not map on to the big 5 very well.
    Although I only did a very informal fun survey on this topic, I remain impressed at differences in how US/UK people on Twitter represent themselves:
    If one had time, it would be interesting to gather a set of Twitter profiles of English-speaking people and see how easy it would be to sort them by nationality. My guess is it would be far from perfect but well above chance. I doubt that personalities really do differ much, but I do think that there are different social expectations for normative behaviour that can lead us to misunderstand one another (you may seem brash to me when you are trying to be friendly; I may seem unfriendly to you when I am just trying not to be intrusive, and so on).

    • Neuroskeptic


      As you point out, communication styles could be orthogonal to ‘personality’ and yet be difficult for outsiders to tell apart.

      Indeed I believe that the “Big Five” personality traits were proposed because those five factors captured the variability between individuals (within a population). Yet populations might vary in quite other ways, maybe in ways that individuals do not vary much.

      For example if you take some white people, they will vary in terms of height, weight, age etc. and then if you take some black people, they will also vary in the same ways, and the two groups might even have the same means.

      However there’s a difference between the two groups in skin color, facial structure etc. which might not vary a great deal within each group.

      Personality might be the same.

      • Amos Zeeberg

        I wonder: Is there a “Big X” group of traits that would highlight certain prominent distinctions between different cultures, as opposed to between different individuals? (I use “X” not knowing how many axes there would be.)

        It seems from Dorothy’s example (which definitely accords with my personal experience in U.S./UK) that explicit earnestness/honesty/emotionality might be one of those traits.

    • gendotte

      After being on the phone with Americans for about 20 years, I can sort them by state of birth within about 10 seconds. I can even tell you a San Antonio TX resident, Anglo or Hispanic distinct from the rest of TX. The differences in character are marked.

  • petrossa

    To any traveler it is obvious that places have their own set of rules/customs. In the Arab peninsula you can feast your eyes on a good stoning, in Singapore on a good caning for littering. In the Netherlands you can get offended just asking directions, in England you can get annoyed at the easy succumbing their culture to foreign domination. I am glad this book exists, it can be used to balance a wobbly table or two

  • The Sanity Inspector

    Tall, white-blond, and handsome, Olafsson looks exactly as you’d expect an Icelander to look–which is to say that he looks not at all like most Icelanders, who are mousy-haired and lumpy. — Michael Lewis

    The Scots love to roam the world; the Welsh feel homesick if they have to go as far as London. … A Scotsman may speak nostalgically of Scotland, but a Welshman will actually wish to return to Wales.

    — Anthony Glyn

    It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman and a ray of sunshine.
    — P. G. Wodehouse

    The Almighty in His infinite wisdom has not seen fit to create Frenchmen in the image of Englishmen.
    — Winston Churchill

    How appallingly thorough the Germans always managed to be, how emphatic! In sex no less than in war–in scholarship, in science. Diving deeper than anyone else and coming up muddier.
    — Aldous Huxley

    • Mike Harrop

      Churchill had an incredible instinct for the low-hanging fruit.

  • templeruins

    Forget another ridiculous and inaccurate “study”, ask any experienced and observant traveller, they will tell you and I can assure you national character is most definitely as real as the different languages, and is what makes travel so enjoyable. In fact, a linguist will also tell you the character is often heavily influenced by the language.

    Stereotypes are certainly often true, but people are pretty much the same worldwide. If that makes sense. I think to most travelers I meet it does.

    • Buddy199

      I agree. A travelers experience of North Koreans would be the same as that of Danes or natives of Los Angeles? Ridiculous.

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  • Billy Pilgrim

    I lived in Japan, Taiwan, and China meeting locals as well as foreigners teaching English. There were general differences in the way Chinese and Japanese behaved, as well as groups of Brits vs. Americans. Within every nationality there were shy, outgoing, funny, methodical, artistic etc types.

  • Tal Yarkoni

    One problem with this kind of argument is that it fails to consider the highly contextual nature of personality ratings. When you ask a person to answer an item like “I feel blue much of the time,” they’re not giving you an answer based on some absolute readout from an unbiased self-evaluation system; their ratings are mediated by a considerable amount of knowledge about what it means to be blue much of the time–and the main source of that knowledge is reference to what other people are like. Many personality measures (though I don’t remember offhand if this is true of the NEO measures) actually make it a point in the instructions to explicitly tell responders to compare themselves to people of their age and gender. But even when it’s not explicit, it undoubtedly happens implicitly. If you ask me whether I’m outgoing, my main point of reference for answering that question is not what people are like in the Netherlands or China; it’s what the people I interact with on a regular basis are like.

    The net effect is that it would be quite surprising if there was anything but a very modest relationship between national stereotypes and cross-cultural personality norms, because personality is defined with reference to a population, and you can’t rate yourself with reference to a population you don’t know anything about. A more serious test of this hypothesis would be, for example, to survey only people who have lived in two or more cultures, and then explicitly model the effect of experience. Or to have bilingual speakers fill out the NEO in at least two languages (the translation issue is separate, but is also a huge one, since wording on translated items is often tweaked to make sure there’s sufficient individual variability in each trait, which of course would wipe out any stereotype-congruent effect if a culture is close to ceiling or floor compared to the original norms).

  • Franck Ramus

    My feeling is much the same as Dorothy’s. National stereotypes may have some truth, but to the extent that they are stereotypes about behaviour, not about personality traits. It is a commonsense observation that, say, Italians behave more noisily than Germans, and Chinese than Japanese. And surely this could be confirmed by objective observations of these people’s behaviour. But this may have nothing to do with underlying personality traits, it has to do with generally accepted and valued behaviour.
    I would thus conclude that framing the question of national stereotypes in terms of personality traits is just the wrong question to ask (i.e., the wrong scientific translation of popular observations). Then no wonder that the answer is not conclusive.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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