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Culture and Personality - “In some cultures, I would be considered normal”

01 Sep 2012

On April 13, 1769, Captain James Cook anchored his ship, the HM Bark Endeavor, in a harbor in Tahiti. His assignment was to build a small fort and an observatory in order to measure the transit of the moon, which would occur on June 3rd. Within minutes of anchoring, the ship was swarming with local Tahitians, none of whom had ever seen a European, none of whom spoke English, and all of whom wanted to trade with Cook. The trade was brisk and mutually beneficial. After a bit, the English caught some Tahitians stealing. Cook reported them to their own authorities, and they were punished, much as Cook expected.

This historical anecdote presents grave problems for naïve cultural relativity, as exemplified in the opening quote. Specifically, the Cook anecdote shows that people from vastly different cultures are able to interact productively with little difficulty. This speaks to the existence of an underlying communality of humanity, an important starting point for any discussion of culture and personality. Not only are people all alike beneath the cultural trappings , but all cultures are alike, because they rest on human nature—see Carneiro (1970) for a discussion of the universal features of cultural evolution based on human nature.

The literature on culture and personality starts in the late 19th century with the beginnings of cultural anthropology. A trip through this literature resembles a visit to a museum of natural history. There are lots of interesting exhibits (cf. DuBois, 1960; Turnbull, 1963) that appeal to our taste for the exotic, but they don’t add up to a coherent story. The culture and personality literature is fragmentary and inconclusive for at least two reasons.

First, it is based on the natural science model which assumes that virtually any phenomena can be studied for its own sake, with no concern about practical applications—that is, the research on culture and personality was not intended to solve a well-defined question . Smith, Bond, and Kagitcibasi (2006) suggest that the central question in cross-cultural psychology concerns “...the extent to which personality differences may account for the evident differences in behavior around the world”; they remind us that, “it was the kaleidoscopic diversity in observable behaviors that led to our seeking explanations for cultural differences in the first place” (p.127). The second reason the culture and personality literature is so fragmentary is that, until very recently, there was no agreement among personality psychologists on the agenda for, or definition of, their subject matter (Hogan, 2006). In this chapter, we deal with both issues.

We believe that three concepts are necessary to understand human behavior: (1) personality, which concerns basic human needs; (2) social interaction, which functions to satisfy the basic needs; and (3) culture, which provides the rules for social interaction. The rest of this essay is organized in five sections based on these three concepts. In the first section, we define personality. In the second, we define culture. In the third section we describe the structure of social interaction, during which personality becomes linked with culture. In the fourth section we describe some personality-based, cultural universals. In the last section, we offer an agenda for culture and personality research.

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

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