Robert R. McCrae Talks about Personality Traits across Diverse Cultures

Fast Moving Front Commentary, July 2011

Robert R. McCrae

Article: Universal features of personality traits from the observer's perspective: Data from 50 cultures

Authors: McCrae, RR;Terracciano, A;Personal Profiles Cultures Project
Journal: J PERSONAL SOC PSYCHOL, 88 (3): 547-561, MAR 2005
Addresses: NIA, Gerontol Res Ctr, NIH, US Dept HHS, Box 3,5600 Nathan Shock Dr, Baltimore, MD 21224 USA.
NIA, Gerontol Res Ctr, NIH, US Dept HHS, Baltimore, MD 21224 USA.

Robert R. McCrae talks with and answers a few questions about this month's Fast Moving Fronts paper in the field of Psychiatry/Psychology.

SW: Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

In the past decade, cross-cultural research has become a part of mainstream psychology, for two main reasons. First, psychologists have been urged to respect human diversity and to question the assumption that American college students are an adequate sample of humanity: There is a moral as well as a scientific imperative to study people everywhere.

Second, cross-cultural research has become much easier than it once was. No longer is it necessary for a psychologist to learn a new language and travel to a foreign country to conduct studies; email and the Internet make it possible to survey the world from the comfort of one's own office (as I did), and today most nations have psychologists trained in modern methods of psychological research who can collaborate in multinational projects.

Our paper is widely cited presumably because it includes so large a sample of cultures, examines the best established model of personality traits, and has very striking findings. In many respects, trait psychology turns out to be much the same around the world. What psychologists learned about traits from American samples actually does apply to most people.

SW: Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge?

"Our personality is what we really are at heart, and is it something we share with all of humanity."

In one respect, this study was a replication and extension of several earlier, smaller-scale studies that had suggested universality. Using data already collected by colleagues (many of whom had translated our personality measure, the Revised NEO Personality Inventory or NEO-PI-R), we had argued that personality structure was universal: Across such diverse cultures as Portugal, Israel, and Japan, the same traits clustered together. For example, people who were sociable also tended to be cheerful and energetic and assertive, a cluster of traits that defines the factor called Extraversion. All cultures seemed to have extraverts and introverts.

Other studies had reported cross-cultural similarities in gender differences (for example, on average, women are almost always kinder and more sympathetic then men), and in age differences (around the world older adults are—on average—more careful and organized than young adults). Our 2005 JPSP paper reported new data collected using standardized methods in each of 50 cultures, and confirmed most of the earlier claims of universality.

In another respect, the study used novel methods. Most previous research had relied on self-reports—asking people to describe their own personality traits by responding to a series of questionnaire items like "I am easily frightened." But there are good reasons to be cautious about the interpretation of self-reports; for example, some men might not want to admit that they are easily frightened.

In our 2005 study we used a different method: We asked informants to choose a person they knew well and provide anonymous descriptions of the target's personality—for example, would they say that "He is easily frightened?" Observer ratings like these are not perfect either, but they are a useful complement to self-reports. In our study, we found the same universal patterns in observer ratings that had previously been discovered in self-report data. That made it much more likely that the findings were trustworthy.

SW: Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman's terms?

Personality traits endure over many decades and they influence a host of important life outcomes—health behaviors, vocational interests, creativity, political views, and much, much more—so the question of how they are shaped is crucial. Throughout most of the 20th century, social scientists assumed they were the product of socialization: child rearing practices, early life experience, and so on. Naturally, they assumed that different cultures would give rise to different kinds of personalities.

Our research shows that, in some important ways, this is not true: The same traits appear over and over in the most diverse cultures. Just as people all over the world have the same cardiovascular system and the same endocrine system, they also have the same personality system. It's a part of human nature. This fits in with other findings from behavior genetic studies that suggest that personality traits and their structure are somehow encoded in the human genome. Many classic theories of personality and the theories of psychotherapy they gave rise to need to be revised.

SW: How did you become involved in this research, and how would you describe the particular challenges, setbacks, and successes that you've encountered along the way?

"Our paper is widely cited presumably because it includes so large a sample of cultures, examines the best established model of personality traits, and has very striking findings."

With my colleague, Paul Costa, I developed a measure of personality traits over 30 years ago. We conducted our initial research in American samples, but in the 1990s colleagues around the world took an interest in our findings and asked if they could translate the NEO-PI-R. At first we had no idea whether it would be possible to do so, or whether the instrument would work in different cultures. However, we were happy to assist in the effort to find out, and over the course of a few years, data from several cultures became available.

I was particularly interested in seeing whether our findings could be replicated across cultures, and wrote a series of papers that were essentially reanalyses of data our international colleagues had collected for their own projects. When Antonio Terracciano joined our Laboratory, he and I decided to collect new data from a broader range of nations. With the help of many talented and generous psychologists around the world (78 of them were co-authors of the 2005 paper), we launched the Personality Profiles of Cultures (PPOC) Project.

The PPOC ran more smoothly than we had any right to expect, thanks to the conscientious and energetic work of our colleagues and to Antonio's remarkable skill in coordinating the massive data set. Of course, there are always complexities (should the response scale go from 5 to 1 instead of from 1 to 5 in languages like Arabic that read from right to left?), and occasional disappointments. I recall some years ago that a project we had started in Zimbabwe had to be terminated because of the worsening political situation there; Zimbabwe was not included in the 2005 paper.

SW: Where do you see your research leading in the future?

We used data collected in PPOC in a series of other papers, examining such topics as the mean levels of traits in different cultures (e.g., are Americans more extraverted than Japanese?), the psychometric properties of personality scales, and the validity of national stereotypes. The aggregate (that is, average) scores for each culture have now been published and can be used by other researchers.

For example, Jüri Allik and colleagues compared self-perceptions with perceptions by others and found similar trends in 29 cultures; Mark Shaller has related aggregate personality traits to the prevalence of infectious diseases. Filip De Fruyt and Marleen De Bolle inaugurated an Adolescent PPOC which is extending our findings to younger individuals.

SW: Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

In 2005 Antonio published a paper in Science that evaluated the accuracy of national stereotypes by comparing them to PPOC aggregate personality scores. The British, for example, are supposedly reserved, but in fact they are among the most extraverted of peoples (think of British pubs). Americans are alleged to be much more assertive than Canadians, but the data do not bear that out. National stereotypes are sometimes good for a laugh, but they can also be the source of prejudice and discrimination. This research, which was widely publicized, helped to dispel some of the myths about national character.

More broadly, the finding that the structure of personality is universal ought to have an impact on how people around the world think about each other. Simplistic stereotypes cannot be right, because everywhere we find a range of personality variation: Some people are ambitious, others are lazy; some are flexible, others are rigid; some are skeptical, others are gullible. But the ways in which people differ are always along the same lines, the universal dimensions of personality. Our personality is what we really are at heart, and is it something we share with all of humanity.End

Robert R. McCrae, Ph.D.
Baltimore, MD, USA



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