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Culture and Personality - Defining Personality

01 Sep 2012

Personality psychology concerns the nature of human nature. It answers two big questions: (1) How and in what ways are people all alike; and (2) How and in what ways is each person different? Biology and evolutionary theory provide the necessary framework for conceptualizing human nature. More specifically, the study of human origins leads to three useful generalizations. The first is that we evolved as group-living and culture-using animals, which means that we are inherently social and that distinctions between personality and culture are artificial—our need for culture is built into our DNA. The second generalization is that every human group has a status hierarchy. In some groups—e.g., Cistercian Monks—the hierarchies may be hard to discern, but they are always there. Moreover, the hierarchies begin developing very early and they are quite powerful, although the fact of these hierarchies makes many persons socialized into supposedly egalitarian cultural systems nervous.

The third generalization is that every human group has a religion of some sort. By religion we mean a theory regarding a people’s relation to the physical, social, and supernatural world, with an associated set of beliefs, values and practices. Not only is religion a cultural universal, but religious observances also seem to be an ancient feature of human groups. Anthropologists report evidence of systematic burial practices 100,000 years ago. Such practices are probably older, but hard data are difficult to obtain. Nested within the religious practices of each group are many prescribed and proscribed behaviors—e.g., husbands should not look at their mothers-in-law, wives should prepare foods in certain ways, the genders should be separated during religious ceremonies, believers should avoid contact with non-believers, etc.—which we moderns deem superstitions, while treasuring our own distinctive rules and practices.

These three generalizations allow us to draw some inferences about the nature of human motivation, i.e., about how people are all alike beneath the surface. The fact that we evolved as group-living animals suggests that, at a deep and perhaps unconscious level, we need affiliation, social contact, and social intimacy. It also suggests that we find the prospects of being shunned, rejected, and isolated quite stressful.

The fact that every human group is organized in terms of a status hierarchy suggests that, at a deep and perhaps unconscious level, we need status, we reflect on our place in the hierarchy and try to advance our positions when we can. It also suggests that we will find the loss of status deeply threatening and traumatic.

The fact that every human culture has a religion and a network of rules designed to regulate conduct suggests that, at a deep and perhaps unconscious level we need structure, predictability, and meaning in our lives. We create myths, legends, religious systems, and moralities to provide ourselves with those reassuring regularities. We then confer value on, legitimize, and justify the belief system that provides us with that order and meaning (Berger, 1967; Jost & Hunyady, 2005).

We end this discussion of motivation with four observations. First, there are other motives at play in life—for example, we share with reptiles the needs for food, water, territory, sex and the desire to protect our young, and we share with chimpanzees the needs for social contact and status. The motivational model we have described here is, with the religious dimension, distinctly human. Second, the needs for social contact, status, and structure are biologically mandated—those who have more respect and status in their community are better able to provide for themselves and their offspring. Third, we use as shorthand terms for these three motive patterns the phrases “getting along”, “getting ahead”, and “finding meaning”. Our needs for social contact lead to behaviors designed to survive and get along; our needs for status result in behaviors designed to acquire more resources and get ahead; and our needs for predictability and order lead to efforts to regulate our life with others and find meaning. Finally, there will be important individual differences in peoples’ desire and ability to get along, get ahead, and find meaning, and these differences lead to important differences in life outcomes. These differences arise from genetic differences in temperament (Thomas & Chess, 1977) and intelligence (Eysenck, 1998) which confer from birth differential advantages in the game of life.

In everyday language the word personality has two meanings; these meanings serve very different purposes and it is important to keep them distinct. On the one hand, there is “the actor’s view” of personality and it concerns the you that you know—your hopes, dreams, values, fears, and theories about how to get along, get ahead, and find meaning. On the other hand, there is “the observer’s view” of personality and it concerns the you that we know—the person we think you are, based on your overt behavior.

There are several points to be noted about these two aspects of personality. First, the actor’s view of personality is your identity, whereas the observer’s view of personality is your reputation. Your identity is the story you tell yourself and others about you, in conversations and on self-report measures of personality. Your reputation is the summary evaluation of your past performances during interaction as shared by the members of your social communities. Second, the concepts of identity and reputation serve very different functions. We use your reputation to describe your past social performances or to predict your future social performances; we use your identity to explain your behavior. Reputation concerns what you do, whereas identity concerns why you do it.

A third point concerns the relative verifiability or truth value of these concepts. Identity concerns your self-view, and Sigmund Freud would say that it is a largely a fantasy created out of the interplay of unconscious needs and defensive processes. Identity is hard to study in a rigorous fashion because it is so subject to biases and self-deception. In contrast, reputation is easy to study—we simply ask peers to describe a person using a standardized reporting format. Such descriptions typically show high agreement across observers, and the descriptions tend to be stable over long periods of time (Roberts & DelVecchio, 2000). Moreover, because the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and because reputations reflect past behavior, a person’s reputation is the best single predictors of his/her future behavior (your favorite ref. here? I don’t have one).

Finally, research over the past 100 years shows that reputation has a stable, universal structure (McCrae, et al., 2005). Regardless of the culture in which a person lives, or the language that the community speaks, reputations can be characterized in terms of five broad themes: (1) Adjustment (fearfulness versus courage); (2) Ascendance (shyness versus social boldness); (3) Agreeableness (rudeness versus tact); (4) Conscientiousness (recklessness versus prudence); and (5) Intellect/Openness (intellectual laziness versus open-mindedness). Personality psychologists refer to this as the Five-Factor Model (FFM; Wiggins, 1996). The development of the FFM has transformed personality research since about 1990.

The FFM argues that individual differences in social behavior as reflected in reputation, and the structure of personality assessment data, can be adequately described in terms of these dimensions. Adjustment is important because the low end of the dimension concerns maladaptive thought and behavior (e.g., anxiety and depression). Ascendance is related to status seeking—e.g., achieving power by building coalitions. Agreeableness concerns seeking social acceptance by being rewarding to deal with. Prudence concerns seeking social acceptance by following rules and obeying established authority. Intellect/Openness concerns creativity and imagination. The FFM provides an agreed-upon taxonomy of the major dimensions of personality, although there is some recent debate about whether additional dimensions are needed for cross-cultural comprehensiveness (Cheung et al., 2001). Moreover, an overwhelming body of research shows that the many (thousands) of current measures of personality all assess these same five dimensions with varying degrees of adequacy and efficiency. In addition, the FFM has been replicated in languages and cultures all over the world (McCrae, Costa, Pilar, Rolland, & Parker1998). The evidence also suggests that scores on measures of the FFM are (a) heritable; and (b) stable over time (Costa & McCrae, 1988). Finally, the FFM provides a common and generally agreed-upon and apparently universal vocabulary for talking about personality—defined as reputation and as rated by other people (McCrae et al., 2005).

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

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