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Personality study debunks national stereotypes

Saturday, 8 October 2005

Source: QUT

The world's largest study into human personalities and national character has revealed people in most countries don't live up to their national stereotypes, according to findings published in the international Science journal today (Friday, October 7).

Dr Jane Shakespeare-Finch, who led the Australian component of the research at the Queensland University of Technology, said there was no significant link between the stereotype for a nation and what its "average" personality profile was really like.

She said the Science paper, National Character Does Not Reflect Mean Personality Trait Levels in 49 Cultures, was a landmark study by the international research team.

"The study has huge ramifications for how we treat each other because it debunks this whole notion of stereotypes," she said.

"National character has a much darker side, as we see around us in the world, because it can lead to a lot of prejudice and discrimination. This research is evidence that those prejudicial ways of thinking are unfounded."

But Dr Shakespeare-Finch said some countries were closer than others when it came to stereotypes and real personalities.

"For example, Australians - like everyone else - were not accurate in their judgement of the whole personality profile, but we were very close in specific traits such as openness to experience and conscientiousness," she said.

"But when it comes to a personality dimension like neuroticism, we think we are way more emotionally stable than we really are - we think we're rocks. It's not that we are unstable, we're just average."

Dr Shakespeare-Finch said there were still big differences between perception and reality.

"For example, Australians are more extraverted than some other nationalities, but we're not as extraverted as we think we are," she said.

"Like people in every other culture studied, we tend to exaggerate our personality traits - whether we mean to or not.

"There is a large discrepancy between perception and reality ... Perhaps people don't like to think that they're 'average'. Culturally, we are all different - it's just that it's not really as extreme as some people think.

"This research has also shown that we are most similar to other cultures with whom we are geographically or historically related. For example, we might not think we are like New Zealanders but our personality profiles are very similar."

Dr Shakespeare-Finch said the Science paper showed most stereotypes had been debunked by the international team of researchers and sent a strong message to the world.

"This whole research project has been the largest attempt ever to quantify national character and compare those stereotypical perceptions with personality profiles of people we actually know," she said.

"It's a powerful paper because it undermines this idea that there is truth is stereotypes."

The Science paper was authored by 87 researchers who studied 49 cultures across 48 countries on six continents. (Switzerland was split into the French Swiss and the German Swiss, because of historical differences between the two cultures.)

The project was headed by Professor Robert R. McCrae from the National Institute of Health in the USA.

Dr Shakespeare-Finch said the research team based its studies on five identified personality traits that were global - to varying degrees.

"There are five dimensions of personality that are consistent across the world," she said.

"These are neuroticism (versus emotional stability), extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

"But our message is: Even though these dimensions of personality are universal, the perceptions of stereotypes we hold about national character are at best exaggerations and at worst completely inaccurate.

"National character is a social construction whereas personality is actually routed in biology."

Dr Shakespeare-Finch said the Australian findings were consistent with her own PhD psychology study at QUT which had focused on Queensland ambulance officers and their post-traumatic growth after the harrowing events which their regularly had to deal with.

"I found the vast majority of Queensland ambulance officers were very positive in personality and drew strength from adversity - they were happy, emotionally-stable people," she said.

Media contact:

- Mechelle Webb, QUT media officer, 07 3864 4494 or ml.webb@qut.edu.au