October 7, 2005

The ‘Typical’ American Doesn’t Exist

National stereotypes are almost always wrong, global survey finds

The passionate Italian, the conscientious German, the in-your-face American -- all common stereotypes with little basis in reality, according to a new survey measuring the accuracy of national character stereotypes from 49 cultures around the world.

For example, Americans tend to think of themselves as aggressive, while Canadians think of themselves as agreeable and more submissive. But tests found that natives of both countries were equally assertive -- a bit more so than the world average, according to an international study in the Oct. 7 issue of the journal Science that was led by psychologists at the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

These types of mistaken beliefs about '"national character" were found in almost every culture and country surveyed, the researchers reported. "Essentially there was no agreement between the measured characteristics and what people think," said Robert R. McCrae, a research psychologist in the NIA's Laboratory of Personality and Cognition, who conducted the study with a fellow psychologist, Antonio Terracciano.

The report, the latest in a series of studies on attitudes and personality traits within cultures, required the help of 85 researchers around the world.

In all, nearly 4,000 people were asked to describe a "typical" member of their own culture. Then participants filled out forms in which they rated themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 for 30 characteristics -- anxious or calm, friendly or distant, diligent or sloppy, and so on.

Residents of India described themselves as unconventional and open to a wide range of experiences, but their tests showed them to be more conventional than the rest of the world. Czechs described themselves as antagonistic, but they scored higher on measures of caregiving than people in most other countries, the study found.

Why is it that people's beliefs differ from what they see in the real world around them? "I'm not sure we know the answer, but we think it has to do with folklore, the books we read and the opinions we hear," McCrae said. "Somehow these ideas take on a life of their own."

Richard W. Robins, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, had a few suggested explanations in an accompanying commentary in the journal. It's possible that the stereotypes were once true but than reality has changed with time, he wrote. Maybe the stereotype is true about small details of personal interactions but not in the big picture. Or perhaps people simply ignore real-life activity that doesn't jibe with their built-in views.

"All of these probably are playing a role," Robins said. The importance of the study is that it fills in a gap in our knowledge, he said.

"There has been very little research on this topic," Robins said. "People have talked about these issues for some time, but there has been very little systemic inspection of them"

The researchers pointed out that national stereotypes can have serious consequences. "When stereotypes of national or ethnic groups are unfavorable, they can lead to prejudice, discrimination, or persecution, of which history and the world today are full of tragic examples," they wrote.

McCrae said he and Terracciano are planning a similar study more in line with the mission of the National Institute on Aging -- a study of stereotypes about older people. It is already clear that many of those stereotypes are wrong, McCrae said.

"Among Americans, people think that as you get older you get depressed and cranky, and that turns out not to be true," he said. "As people get older, they get better adjusted. Teenagers are more cranky than the elderly."

More information

You can learn about government research from the National Institute on Aging.