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Culture and Personality - Cultural Universals

01 Sep 2012

Peoples’ public behavior changes substantially from culture to culture. Anthropologists have traditionally argued that culture explains these changes because culture is the primary determinant of human behavior. In this paper, we have argued that: (1) there is a universal core to human nature defined by needs for social acceptance, status, and meaning; (2) these needs are met during interaction; (3) culture provides the rules for interaction; and (4) the contents of culture reflect local geography and historical accident. Taken together, this means that peoples’ behavior differs from culture to culture, not because the people are different but because the rules for social interaction are different—which is what we mean by culture.

Although people’s behavior varies from culture to culture (because the rules for social interaction vary), there are, nonetheless, some important cultural universals to be noted. These universals exist because ultimately culture reflects human nature. We will mention six such universals, although it is possible to identify many more (cf. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1989)

First, every culture is organized around the family, and family bonds are a defining feature of every culture. If food supplies are sufficient, families will aggregate into larger human groups, tribes, and even societies. Under pressure, societies will devolve back into tribes, and tribes will devolve into family units; when families fall apart, human groups have failed utterly. Every society understands the concept of the family and its importance.

Second, in every culture, human development proceeds through the same stages (1963). The first stage concerns forming secure attachment bonds with a child’s primary caretakers; a failure here leads to major dysfunction in adulthood (Bowlby, 19..). The second stage concerns adjusting to adult authority, and internalizing the rules of the culture, a process that Freud identified with the Oedipus complex. Learning language, for example, vitally depends on accepting adult instruction. The third stage involves learning to interact in the peer group, a process facilitated by the development of role-taking ability (Mead, 1934) or imaginative empathy. Finally, at the end of adolescence, every young person must learn how to become a productive member of his/her society (Erikson, 1963). Cultures will vary in terms of their methods for easing children through these transitions, but every culture must deal with the same issues of human development.

Third, every culture will devise rituals to facilitate and encourage social interaction—harvest feasts, seasonal festivals, rites of transition and intensification. People need to socialize and interact, and every society will have formalized and agreed upon ways of meeting this need by establishing recognized gathering places—pubs in rural Ireland, community centers in Western China, trade shows in Chicago.

Fourth, every culture will be characterized by status striving on the part of individuals and their families. There will be a wide variation of individual differences here, with some people (the gypsies of Eastern Europe, the untouchables of India) making little or no effort to advance, and other people striving mightily to gain and/or maintain status (the Oligarchs of modern Russia). The principle dynamic in every society is the individual search for power. What varies are the means that are regarded as acceptable to do so. Even so, as Balzac noted, behind every great fortune is a great crime.

Fifth, as noted earlier, every culture will have a religious system. Although academic psychologists seem to avoid the subject, religion is the most powerful force in human affairs. Religion and the quest for power often go hand in hand; powerful people everywhere have always used religion to sanction or justify their privileged positions and tried to extend this justification to their families and their descendants—i.e., “the divine right of kings.”

Finally, every culture will be characterized by periodic tribal warfare. Sometimes cultures attack neighboring cultures because the resources of their own land are exhausted—an example would be the Viking excursions into Western and Central Europe in the 9th century A.D. But many times cultures invade neighboring territory in order to enrich themselves, and they frequently justify their actions on religious grounds (the Christian Crusades of the Middle Ages). The methods of warfare will vary by culture, but the motivation will always be the same.

It is important to note that this is only a partial list of cultural universals that are driven by a common underlying human nature. These five themes will appear in every culture; although they will be expressed in widely differing ways, they will always be apparent. Once again, they are inevitable because they express universal human needs.

Robert Hogan and Michael Harris Bond
Hogan Assessment System and Chinese University of Hong Kong

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