Written by Neel Shah

Edited by Jonathan James

June 2019

National Character

Are some nationalities more conscientious than others?

Is there such a concept as a national character? Attempts at trying to find such a thing are mired in controversy and a side serving of methodological spaghetti. We are confronted with stereotypes about countries all the time and are guilty of holding our own, but is there even a ‘kernel’ of truth to this idea? Are some countries similar to others in ways we can actually measure? Are we even accurate judges of our fellow countrymen and women’s personality?

Heine, Buchtel and Norenzayan (Heine, 2008) picked out the big 5 personality trait of conscientiousness for this study to look at in more detail and to rate against a number of different cultural characteristics that would be evidence of conscientiousness. Why focus on this particular construct? There’s lots of research already in the public domain that shows conscientiousness is a freakily accurate predictor of life outcomes. For example, your job success can be predicted by levels of conscientiousness (Judge, 1999), as well as how long you’re going to live (CIA, 2017). Even a country’s per capita GDP correlates with the conscientiousness of its citizens (CIA, 2017). It makes sense that in a wealthy country, people might work more effectively, live longer and even walk faster but there’s a little more to it than that.

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This study used data from a previous study (Levine and Norenzayan,1999), who assessed a number of behavioural measures on the ‘pace of life’ which were used as a measure of conscientiousness in 31 different countries. Their criteria were:

- walking speed (walking alone during the day for a distance of 60 feet in a public square downtown)

- efficiency of postal workers (how long it took them to buy a stamp and receive coin and paper change)

- clock-accuracy in public banks

The pace of life data was correlated against 3 different personality inventories. The first were a series of self-reports where participants had evaluated their own levels of conscientiousness. The second were a series of peer reports, where participants had evaluated someone else that they knew well.

However, lots of studies have been conducted using self- and peer-reporting methods but they’ve been shown to be an unreliable way to tell us something meaningful. Why? One of the reasons is the reference-group effect, which is ‘the tendency for people to respond to subjective self-report items by comparing themselves with implicit standards from their culture’.
 

So essentially, the way you would describe your own personality trait would depend on what’s normal within your culture. It’s understandable but it does make it harder to make comparisons with other cultures. There also seems to be a disconnect between how we would rate the ‘average’ person in our culture to how we would assess ourselves or someone we know on an individual level.

So the 3rd different measure was something called the Perceived National Character (PNC) (Terracciano, 2005) which asked participants to assess the conscientiousness of the  ‘average’ person from a country or culture.

What did they find? The PNC was much more strongly correlated with the actual validity criteria they were measuring. i.e. the idea of a kind of national character seemed to fit more closely to the speed of walking, postal workers and clock timings than what people thought of themselves or people close to them.

It might raise eyebrows and many critics would question whether the behaviors looked at in this study really measure conscientiousness, but maybe this does give some credence to the idea of distinct national characteristics having some basis in reality.

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