Posts tagged culture

Do Cultures Have Personality?

When people talk about culture and personality, the normal top-of-the-mind concern is whether cultures affect personality and if so to what extent?

English: An Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of t...

English: An Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World: World Secular-Rational and Self Expression Values as a map of world cultures based on World Values Survey data. Svenska: En Världskulturkarta av Inglehart-Welzel typ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Personality, or enduring individual differences in thinking, feeling, motivations and behavior among have been shown to be partly heritable and under genetic effect; they are partly shaped by the culture and early life experiences also.

However, this post is not about the culture’s effect on personality; rather just like individuals differ from each other on certain universal traits (say the Big Five) and this individual difference is what typically comes to mind when one talks of personality of an individual (i.e. so-and-so is extarverted as compared to population mean etc) , so too cultures show differences from each other and one may conceive of these differences as enduring and differentiating aspect of that culture vis-a-vis other cultures, in essence its personality.

A name that is quite well-known in this context is that of Geert Hofstede. He, initially, in the 1970s, analyzed values data from IBM employees, from over 50 countries to arrive at four dimensions on which the cultures differed. He later extended this work and analyzed data from World Values Survey and work by him and others later led to addition of two more dimensions. The six dimensions, on which cultures differ, in his own words [pdf] are:

1. Power Distance, related to the different solutions to the basic problem of human inequality;
2. Uncertainty Avoidance, related to the level of stress in a society in the face of an unknown future;
3. Individualism versus Collectivism, related to the integration of individuals into primary groups;
4. Masculinity versus Femininity, related to the division of emotional roles between women and men;
5. Long Term versus Short Term Orientation, related to the choice of focus for people’s efforts: the future or the present and past.
6. Indulgence versus Restraint, related to the gratification versus control of basic human desires related to enjoying life.

Lets analyze this a bit further.

Power Distance has been defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.

To me it seems all about relationships among people- whether the hierarchical relationships are accepted or resisted. If one could extend an analogy to individual differences in personality, this may be analogous to the trait of Agreeableness in individuals- whether you are kind and nice or aggressive towards others.

Uncertainty Avoidance is not the same as risk avoidance; it deals with a society’s tolerance for ambiguity. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, and different from usual.

To my mind it is absolutely clear that is a cognitive dimension and analogous to Openness to Experience in individual variation. Both share the underlying theme of being open and exploratory and tolerant of ambiguity.

Individualism on the one side versus its opposite, Collectivism, as a societal, not an individual characteristic, is the degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups. On the individualist side we find cultures in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the
collectivist side we find cultures in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) that continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty, and oppose other ingroups.

To me this looks like an analog of Extraversion-introversion in individuals. One end is quite while the other is quite engaged with outside activities. In cultural terms, one end is characterized by close knit families while the other with more individualistic pursuits.

Masculinity versus its opposite, Femininity, again as a societal, not as an individual characteristic, refers to the distribution of values between the genders which is another fundamental issue for any society, to which a range of solutions can be found.

I cannot find a ready analogue of this in individual differences in personality in terms of the Big Five. In cultural terms this is related to whether gender roles are heavily differentiated (masculine cultures) or less so (feminine cultures).

Values found at this pole (long term orientation) were perseverance, thrift, ordering relationships by status, and having a sense of shame; values at the opposite, short term pole were reciprocating social obligations, respect for tradition, protecting one’s ‘face’, and personal steadiness and stability.

This can be equated easily with the Conscientiousness individual difference, one pole of which is associated with self-control etc.

Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that controls gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.

This focus on happiness/ well-being versus constraint and repression of desires may be the analogous of neuroticism and emotional stability, where one end may have repressed desires at individual level while other exhibits more stability.

I know this is a far conjecture, and by no means am I suggesting that if a culture is high in Uncertainty avoidance, the individuals within it will have low openness to experience; the relationship between cultures and personality is more complex than that; but it is a good way to think about cultures that they too have a unique personality and its structure may be on the same lines as individual differences personality.

Logos Vs Mythos: Autism Vs Schizophrenia

I recently came across this TED talk by Devdatt Patnaik, A chief Belief Officer in an Indian industry group and was fascinated by his description of the distinction between logos based ‘the’ world which is objective, logical, universal, factual and science based and mythos based ‘my’ world which is subjective,emotional, personal, belief-based and mythological in nature. while ‘the’ world tries to answer ‘how’, ‘my’ world tires to answer ‘why’.

To me the same is true of Autism and Psychosis dichotomy. While autistic frame of reference is rooted in ‘the’ world – trying to apply a science based approach even to the mind and mental; the psychotic frame of reference becomes detached from ‘the’ world and is totally enamored by the subjective depths of ‘my’ world -attributing mental properties to physical things too.

Devdatt, later on goes to contrast East Vs West Myths and here at the second order , though we are talking of mythos and not of logos and are in the psychotic/mythic world , we see a difference in focus, between the eastern traditions and the western traditions. While the east is portrayed as more spiritual and renunciation-believing in multiple lives and thus multiple chances; the west is depicted as more materialistic and ambitious and believing in one and only life and thus believing in only one chance of redemption -and though this dichotomy may be simplistic it does bring into focus the fact that the cultures do differ profoundly.

The difference between cultures and mythologies, and the people shaped from them thereof, is important in light of a new study , for eg., that demonstrates that most of the behavioral research is carried on with WEIRD people! WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic subjects and the paper claims that these WEIRD subjects are outliers and not representative of the general population. If much of the scientific and psychological research is done on WEIRD subjects (which is a fact) and if WEIRD are not representative of the population (which seems reasonable given the differences in culture and the ability of culture to shape people) , than that raises a more serious questions on the results of behavioral studies than the voodoo correlations paper raised questions about the fMRI studies.

Devdutt, though seems to be slightly biased towards Indian culture, but the TED talk is worth a watch. And you may also find one of my earlier post relating Indian culture,religion, and Autism, Schizophrenia quite pertinent here.

Do you think Devdutt is right when he stresses differences in cultures and myths? If so, do you think Culture shapes people? and if so do you believe with Norenzayan et al that if we just do studies based on WEIRD subjects, our results are not representative but skewed. Lot of questions to think about!

Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, & Ara Norenzayan (2009). The Weirdest People in the World? Behavioral and Brain Sciences

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