Americans, Canadians really are like two peas in a pod

National stereotypes are far from truth, researchers conclude


We may like to think of ourselves as brash Americans -- friendlier than the British, perhaps, but less agreeable than Canadians.

But a study of how we perceive our own culture reveals an interesting fact about national stereotypes:

"They are just not true," says Robert McCrae, a psychologist at the National Institute on Aging.

McCrae and other researchers asked 3,989 people in 49 countries to complete a national character survey that described a typical member of their culture based on five overall personality traits: neuroticism, extroversion (outgoingness), openness to new experiences, agreeableness and conscientiousness. The questions were translated into 27 languages, and most respondents, here and abroad, were college students.

The researchers compared the results with personality profiles of each country from earlier studies in which people described themselves and acquaintances they considered typical citizens.

The results showed that people everywhere had mistaken ideas about their own nation's "personality," McCrae said.

Canadians, for example, think of themselves as agreeable, while Americans think of themselves as assertive and a bit more prone to argument. (Think of a New York cab driver.)

"It sort of grows out of that image of us as being gung-ho and having that brash attitude that many people have about Americans," McCrae said. "But it just doesn't hold up."

In fact, Americans and Canadians are about the same when it comes to being assertive and agreeable -- a bit above the world average.

"Canadians and Americans are a lot more alike than the stereotypes would have you believe," he said. In fact, from country to country, people tend to be more alike than not.

"The differences really aren't that significant," McCrae declared.

The people who knew themselves best were the Poles, who saw themselves accurately as being less outgoing, more anxious and less conscientious than many other nationalities, McCrae said.

The people with the most mistaken stereotypes were the British, he said. "They think of themselves as introverted, very reserved and conservative, when in fact, they're very liberal and open to new experiences," McCrae said.

Some other inaccuracies also stood out:

People from India think of themselves as unconventional and open to new ideas, when in fact, they're more conventional than the rest of the world, the research showed. Czechs believe they are antagonistic and disagreeable, but they actually score higher than most of the world for altruism and modesty.

Germans and Swedes may enjoy reputations for being conscientious, but they're no more so than the rest of us, the study showed. The Japanese are just as open as most cultures, and supposedly happy-go-lucky Australians are just as neurotic as everyone else.

The research, by McCrae and and NIA colleague Antonio Terracciano, appeared this month in the journal Science.

Cultural stereotypes are as old as civilization itself, McCrae noted. The ancient Greeks, for example, thought of most of the rest of the world as barbarians.

"It's not clear how [stereotypes] form, how long they last or how they change. But what is clear is that they're everywhere. It's human nature to construct ideas about the people and the cultures that are different than your own. And however they start, they perpetuate, through folklore and jokes and any number of ways."

Stereotyping goes beyond nationality, experts say, and has implications for many groups, including the elderly. For example, studies have shown that stereotypes depicting the elderly as rigid are inaccurate and can lead to discrimination. McCrae plans to extend his research to seniors.

Experts say the latest research shows how hard it is to shake a stereotype once it's formed. "What's important about the study is, it's evidence that these stereotypes we have just aren't true," said Richard Robins, a researcher at the University of California, Davis.

He said the study should help put to rest arguments that there are genetic differences between ethnic or cultural groups that lead to differences in national character. Such mistaken beliefs have been a basis for past discrimination, he said.

National stereotypes are often based on a country's leadership, stories people have heard from travelers, encounters while traveling abroad or accounts of historical events, he said.

For example, some people still think of Germany as an aggressive nation, based on Hitler's invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland 66 years ago -- a move that sparked World War II. But Germany has actually changed since then, Robins said.

"Germany's a very pacifist country now, but it's going to take time for people to realize it," Robins said. "Once you form a concept, you tend to forget or filter out what's inconsistent with it."

McCrae said cultural and national stereotypes have major implications for how people treat different cultures, particularly in times of crisis. Tragedies such as the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II could be considered examples of cultural stereotyping taken to extremes, he said.

"History is replete with tragic consequences," McCrae said.

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