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Do We Know Each Other, or Do We Know Stereotypes?

A survey of people in 50 nations suggests ideas of 'typical' national traits are often inaccurate.

October 08, 2005|Alex Raksin | Times Staff Writer

People's notions about which personality traits are most common in their nations are rooted more in stereotypes from movies, books and jokes than from knowledge of those they know well, according to a new study.

Antonio Terracciano, a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health, asked 3,989 people in nearly 50 nations to rate themselves, friends and a "typical" member of their culture on 30 character traits, such as neuroticism, openness and conscientiousness.

Terracciano reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science that people's descriptions of the "typical" personality often bore little relation to their descriptions of themselves or those they knew well.

Swiss subjects, for example, described themselves and friends as more open to new ideas than citizens in most nations but rated the typical Swiss person as closed-minded. Czech subjects gave themselves and their friends the highest rating for friendliness yet rated their culture overall as antagonistic and disagreeable.

"The deeper finding of our study is that most of what everybody thinks when they generalize about their own culture is wrong," said Robert R. McCrae, a senior NIH investigator who led the study with Terracciano.

"At a time when ideologues often encourage us to make such generalizations, it seems worth bearing in mind that we aren't very good at it."

Many citizens were able to identify some stereotypes that matched their own perception of themselves and friends.

For example, Estonian subjects described not only their typical citizen as "disagreeable" but also applied the same description to themselves and friends.

Australians, meanwhile, enthused that they, their friends and the typical Aussie were all extroverted.

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