|National Stereotypes Common, Mistaken, Study Reports
Simplified stereotypes of “typical” Americans, Brazilians, Chinese, and other
groups are common but highly mistaken, according to a National Institute on Aging
(NIA) study that examined the accuracy of national character stereotypes in 49
cultures worldwide. The finding has important implications regarding beliefs
that characterize groups of people, including the elderly, the researchers said.
National character stereotypes are not generalizations based on observation
of the personality traits of people in a country. Instead, they are social constructions,
probably based on the socio-economic conditions, history, customs, myths, and
values of a culture, according to the study, National Character Does Not
Reflect Mean Personality Trait Levels in 49 Cultures. The study appears
in the October 7, 2005, issue of Science. The study was conducted by Antonio
Terracciano, Ph.D., and Robert R. McCrae, Ph.D., investigators in the NIA’s Laboratory
of Personality and Cognition. Joining them were 85 colleagues from around the
world who participated in the Personality Profiles of Cultures Project, a basic
research study on features of personality traits across cultures that is supported
by the NIA.
“This study contributes to a basic understanding of stereotypes, which affect
social interactions for many groups,” McCrae said. “National stereotypes can
provide some information about a culture, but they do not describe people. In
fact, unfavorable stereotypes of national or ethnic groups are potentially very
dangerous, forming the bases for prejudice, discrimination, persecution, or even
genocide.” Stereotypes become “cultural phenomena” and are perpetuated through
media, hearsay, education, history, and jokes, according to the study.
In previous studies, researchers estimated the average trait levels in 49 cultures
by obtaining self-reports or ratings from individuals in each culture. For this
study, researchers asked 3,989 raters to describe the "typical" member of their
When researchers compared the average trait levels to the stereotypes, there
was no agreement. For example, Americans believe the typical American is very
assertive, and Canadians believe the typical Canadian is submissive, but in fact
Americans and Canadians have almost identical scores on measures of assertiveness,
a little above the world average. Looking at other personality traits, the researchers
found that Indian citizens type themselves as unconventional and open to a wide
range of new experiences, but measurements of personality show that they are
more conventional than the rest of the people in the world. Czechs believe that
Czechs are antagonistic and disagreeable, but when personality is actually observed,
Czechs score higher than most people in the world on measures of altruism and
McCrae and his international collaborators will extend this line of cross-cultural
research back into adolescence and examine age stereotypes around the world.
Research already conducted by the Laboratory of Personality and Cognition has
shown that stereotypes depicting older people as withdrawn and rigid are largely
groundless and contribute to age discrimination.
“People should understand that we are all prone to these kinds of preconceptions
and likely to believe that they are justified by our experience, when in fact
they are often unfounded stereotypes. We need to remind ourselves to see people
as individuals, whether they are Americans or Lebanese, Gen Xers or senior citizens,” McCrae
The National Institute on Aging is one of 27 Institutes and Centers that
constitute the National Institutes of Health. The NIA leads Federal efforts
to support and conduct basic, clinical, epidemiological, and behavioral and
social research on aging and the special needs of older people. Press releases,
fact sheets, and other materials about aging and aging research can be viewed
at the NIA’s general information Web site, www.nia.nih.gov.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research
Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of
the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary Federal
agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical
research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common
and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.