75 14.6 Personality and Culture

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe personality differences of people from collectivist and individualist cultures.
  2. Describe different approaches to studying personality in a cultural context.

As you have learned in this chapter, personality is shaped by both genetic and environmental factors. The culture in which you live is one of the most important environmental factors that shapes your personality (Triandis & Suh, 2002). The term culture refers to all of the beliefs, customs, art, and traditions of a particular society. Culture is transmitted to people through language as well as through the modelling of culturally acceptable and nonacceptable behaviours that are either rewarded or punished (Triandis & Suh, 2002). With these ideas in mind, personality psychologists have become interested in the role of culture in understanding personality. They ask whether personality traits are the same across cultures or if there are variations. It appears that there are both universal and culture-specific aspects that account for variation in people’s personalities.

Why might it be important to consider cultural influences on personality? Western ideas about personality may not be applicable to other cultures (Benet-Martinez & Oishi, 2008). In fact, there is evidence that the strength of personality traits varies across cultures. Let’s take a look at some of the “Big Five” factors — that is, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism — across cultures. Evolutionary psychologists argue that the five factors in the Big Five reflect universal responses to a repetitive and pervasive set of environmental challenges that existed throughout humans’ ancestral environment and over millenia. According to that view, all humans should have personalities that can be explained by these five factors. There is evidence for this contention from a variety of cultures, although not all factors are seen in all cultures all of the time (Heine & Buchtel, 2009).

Thus, one way of viewing personality through a cultural lens is to see how people from different cultures respond to personality tests that are based on the assumption that personality is composed of a number of fundamental factors, like the Big Five. Let’s look at some cultural variations in the five-factor model and then consider another way of conceptualizing the cultural study of personality.

Personality in individualist and collectivist cultures

Asian cultures are more collectivist, and people in these cultures tend to be less extroverted. In contrast, people in Central and South American cultures tend to score higher on openness to experience, whereas Europeans score higher on neuroticism (Benet-Martinez & Karakitapoglu-Aygun, 2003). Individualist cultures and collectivist cultures place emphasis on different basic values. People who live in individualist cultures tend to believe that independence, competition, and personal achievement are important. Individuals in Western nations such as the United States, England, and Australia score high on individualism (Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmier, 2002). People who live in collectivist cultures value social harmony, respectfulness, and group needs over individual needs. Individuals who live in countries in Asia, Africa, and South America score high on collectivism (Hofstede, 2001; Triandis, 1995). These values influence personality. For example, Kuo-Shu Yang (2006) found that people in individualist cultures displayed more personally oriented personality traits, whereas people in collectivist cultures displayed more socially oriented personality traits.

There also seem to be regional personality differences within the United States (see Figure 14.19). Researchers analyzed responses from over 1.5 million individuals in the United States and found that there are three distinct regional personality clusters: Cluster 1, which is in the Upper Midwest and Deep South, is dominated by people who fall into the “friendly and conventional” personality; Cluster 2, which includes the West, is dominated by people who are more relaxed, emotionally stable, calm, and creative; and Cluster 3, which includes the Northeast, has more people who are stressed, irritable, and depressed. People who live in Clusters 2 and 3 are also generally more open (Rentfrow et al., 2013).



This diagram illustrates a map of the United States to show personality clusters in the continental United States. Below the multi-coloured map is a legend which defines areas in the map as either, “Cluster 1: friendly, conventional;” “Cluster 2: relaxed, creative;” or “Cluster 3: temperamental, uninhibited.” Cluster 1occurs mainly in the center of the country. Cluster 2 occurs mainly on the west side of the country. Cluster 3 occurs mainly in the North-East region of the country and also in Texas. These are generalizations; there are several states which are comprised of a combination of two different clusters.
Figure 14.19. Researchers found three distinct regional personality clusters in the United States. People tend to be friendly and conventional in the Upper Midwest and Deep South; relaxed, emotionally stable, and creative in the West; and stressed, irritable, and depressed in the Northeast (Rentfrow et al., 2013).

One explanation for the regional differences is selective migration (Rentfrow et al., 2013). Selective migration is the concept that people choose to move to places that are compatible with their personalities and needs. For example, a person high on the agreeable scale would likely want to live near family and friends, and they would likely choose to settle or remain in such an area. In contrast, someone high on openness would prefer to settle in a place that is recognized as diverse and innovative, such as California.

Approaches to studying personality in a cultural context

Two approaches that can be used to study personality in a cultural context are the cultural-comparative approach and the indigenous approach. Because ideas about personality have a Western basis, the cultural-comparative approach seeks to test Western ideas about personality in other cultures to determine whether they can be generalized and if they have cultural validity (Cheung, van de Vijver, & Leong, 2011). For example, recall from the trait perspective discussed earlier in this chapter that researchers used the cultural-comparative approach to test the universality of McCrae and Costa’s five-factor model. They found applicability in numerous cultures around the world, with the Big Five traits being stable in many cultures (McCrae & Costa, 1997; McCrae, Terracciano, Sánchez-Bernardos, Djuric-Jocic, & Halim, 2005).

The indigenous approach came about in reaction to the dominance of Western approaches to the study of personality in non-Western settings (Cheung et al., 2011). Because Western-based personality assessments cannot fully capture the personality constructs of other cultures, the indigenous model has led to the development of personality assessment instruments that are based on constructs relevant to the culture being studied (Cheung et al., 2011). This perspective has led to the translation of personality assessment instruments into other languages and cultural perspectives, and it has incorporated specifically Indigenous views on personality constructs and development.

Jacob Burack, Erin Gurr, Emily Stubbert, and Vanessa Weva (2019) argue that Indigenous identity in Canada is poorly understood because there is enormous variety in the culture, language, and traditions of Indigenous communities in Canada. The history before, during, and after the colonization by Europeans differs between Indigenous communities, as do social and economic conditions, resources, and geography. Indigenous Peoples in Canada share a history of colonization, oppression, displacement from traditional territories, forced cultural assimilation, and genocide. The Canadian government and its representatives — notably, various church groups — subjected Indigenous communities to forced relocation, family separation, and residential schools which were frequent sources of psychological, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The purpose of residential schools, as well as education, was to “kill the Indian in the child” (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996, Vol. 1, p. 349). Thus, the collective history, trauma, and resilience of Indigenous Peoples in Canada provide multiple sources of influence on personality development that may have intergenerational effects.

As well as the influence of collective historical effects, personality is also shaped within one’s own Indigenous community and its understanding of personality development, which may include constructs unfamiliar to people outside of that culture. Rather than seeing Indigenous experience as monolithic, Burack and colleagues (Burack et al., 2019) argued that understanding personality development requires knowledge of the specific culture as well as the collective history. Furthermore, in the development of personality, Indigenous youth must navigate a relationship with mainstream Canadian society and its environmental influences. Taken together, understanding personality in a culture different to one’s own requires a careful and systematic study of all of the historical, shared, and individual environmental influences that shape personality. With respect to Canadian Indigenous communities, this requires a willingness to seek to understand the consequences of a long history of colonization, oppression, and resilience that followed an even longer history of self-sufficiency, sovereignty, and cultural and linguistic traditions.

Source: Adapted from Spielman et al. (2019).


Key Takeaways

  1. Personality is shaped by environmental factors, genetic factors, and the interactions between them.
  2. There are broad differences in the Big Five factors between collectivistic and individualistic cultures, and these differences can also be found within countries such as Canada and the United States.
  3. Personality assessment instruments have been translated into other languages, but understanding the role of culture requires a deep understanding of the culture itself.
  4. Indigenous identity in Canada is poorly understood by psychologists because the variability in culture, language, and traditions of Indigenous communities in Canada are not well understood outside of these communities.



Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. What distinct regional personality clusters might exist in Canada, and why?
  2. Find a resource explaining culture in a First Nation in Canada, and speculate about the role of culture in the development of personality in that community.


Congratulations on completing Chapter 14! Remember to go back to the section on Approach and Pedagogy near the beginning of the book to learn more about how to get the most out of reading and learning the material in this textbook.

Image Attributions

Figure 14.19. Used under a CC BY 4.0 license


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Benet-Martínez, V., & Oishi, S. (2008). Culture and personality. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research. New York, NY: Guildford Press.

Burack, J. A., Gurr, E., Stubbert, E., & Weva, V. (2019). Personality development among Indigenous youth in Canada: Weaving together universal and community-specific perspectives. New Ideas in Psychology, 53, 67–74.

Cheung, F. M., van de Vijver, F. J. R., & Leong, F. T. L. (2011). Toward a new approach to the study of personality in culture. American Psychologist, 66(7), 593–603.

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Rentfrow, P. J., Gosling, S. D., Jokela, M., Stillwell, D. J., Kosinski, M., & Potter, J. (2013). Divided we stand: Three psychological regions of the United States and their political, economic, social, and health correlates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(6), 996–1012.

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. (1996). Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Retrieved from https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/aboriginal-heritage/royal-commission-aboriginal-peoples/Pages/final-report.aspx

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