Personality Traits May Not Be Universal
January 11, 2013

Study Of Indigenous Peoples Shows Big Five Personality Traits May Not Be Universal

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The field of psychology has long adhered to an elegant theory of personality structure known the five-factor-model (FFM). The theory is built around five core personality traits known as the “Big Five” that are believed to be universal features of human psychology.

But a team of anthropologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) is now casting doubt on the universal applicability of this model based on their work with an isolated group of indigenous tribe people in central Bolivia. According to a report summarizing years of research, the Big Five — which include openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism — may be a culturally driven model that only really holds true for people in developed, western countries.

A report of their findings, titled “How Universal Is the Big Five? Testing the Five-Factor Model of Personality Variation Among Forager—Farmers in the Bolivian Amazon” appears in the current issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In his paper, UCSB anthropology professor Michael Gurven details how he and his team were unable to apply the Big Five model to the indigenous hunter-gatherer Tsimane people. Instead, they report, the personalities of the Tsimane appear to be characterized by a “Big Two” pair of traits — prosociality and industriousness. And while they report that these Big Two appear to combine certain elements of the Big Five that are used to describe Americans and Europeans, these two core personality traits seem to be a reflection of features that are specific to highly social, subsistence-based societies.

"Similar to the conscientiousness portion of the Big Five, several traits that bundle together among the Tsimane included efficiency, perseverance, and thoroughness," explained Gurven, who is also co-director of the Tsimane Health and Life History Project. "These traits reflect the industriousness of a society of subsistence farmers."

"However, other industrious traits included being energetic, relaxed, and helpful,” he added, highlighting then even the Big Two model is more complex than it sounds. “In small-scale societies, individuals have fewer choices for social or sexual partners, and limited domains of opportunity for cultural success and proficiency. This may require abilities that link aspects of different traits, resulting in a trait structure other than the Big Five."

Although the Tsimane people have had increasing contact with modern cultures for the last half century, they generally shy from contact with outsiders and have thus managed to retain many of the features of traditional, indigenous societies, including high fertility and mortality rates, little formal education and literacy, and a tightly-knit social structure.

They generally inhabit small communities with populations that can range from 30 to 500 individuals. In all, there are about 90 Tsimane villages of varying sizes throughout the lowlands of Bolivia. According to Gurven, they live in extended family clusters that share both food as well as work duties, and they usually limit contact with outsiders unless absolutely necessary, the authors said.

For their study, Gurvin´s team translated a standard questionnaire into the Tsimane language and distributed it to 632 adults in 28 different communities. The participants were roughly half male and half female, and the average age was 47.

In order to double-check the accuracy of the participants´ self-reported answers, the team also interviewed peers and family members. This separate study included 430 Tsimane adults who were asked to evaluate the personalities of their spouses.

The team found that neither the information obtained from the self-reported questionnaires or the second-hand interviews was able to fit with the framework of the traditional Big Five personality traits. Additionally, the researchers found no difference between the less-educated Tsimane and their educated peers, thus calling into question previous studies indicating that formal education and social interaction with a greater number of individuals leads to the development of the Big Five personality traits.

Gurven´s team says that their study is the first to apply such rigorous methodological controls to test the Big Five theory on a pre-modern indigenous population. The results of their research, he suggests, should encourage psychologists and personality researchers to start expanding their framework for understanding human personalities beyond the limited scope of those traits found only in highly-educated modern societies.

"The lifestyle and ecology typical of hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists are the crucible that shaped much of human psychology and behavior," Gurven explained, emphasizing the cultural relativity of personality structures.

"Despite its popularity, there is no good theory that explains why the Big Five takes the form it does, or why it is so commonly observed. Rather than just point out a case study where the Big Five fails, our goal should be to better understand the factors that shape personality more generally."