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Personality and self

Is a taste for extreme answers distorting cross-cultural comparisons of personality?

A study found some puzzling responses.

07 August 2012

By Christian Jarrett

Data on how personality varies around the world is puzzling. Take the dimension of conscientiousness. Among individuals within a particular country, those with higher conscientiousness tend to earn more money and live longer. This makes sense given the behavioural sequelae of conscientiousness, including diligence and attention-to-detail. Compare across countries, however, and what you find is that richer countries with longer life expectancy tend to have lower average conscientiousness. Now a new study has tested a possible explanation for this paradox – perhaps there's a systematic bias between countries in people's tendency to tick more extreme scores on questionnaires.

How do you tell if a population's higher scores are a reliable reflection of their underlying traits, or if they're caused by a proclivity for more extreme answers? One way is to ask them to rate not just their own personality, but also the personality of a number of fictional characters described in vignettes. Exaggerated scores for the fictional characters would be a sign of a skewed response style.

A small army of researchers around the world led by René Mõttus at the University of Tartu in Estonia has taken on this challenge, recruiting 2,965 people across 20 countries (including European, African, American and Asian nations) and asking them to rate their own personalities and the personalities described in vignettes.

Mõttus and his colleagues uncovered systematic differences between nations in people's proclivity for extreme responding. One pattern to emerge was that richer East Asian countries tended to avoid extreme scores, whereas poorer countries in Africa and SE Asia tended to give more extreme ratings. Adjusting for cross-cultural response styles, the puzzling negative correlation disappeared between average international conscientiousness scores and national longevity and wealth.

The researchers acknowledged that they haven't shown conclusively that extreme response tendencies cause higher conscientiousness ratings. Theoretically the causal direction could run backwards, although common sense suggests this is unlikely. You'd expect higher scorers on conscientiousness to avoid extreme scores, not embrace them. Another possibility is that another unknown factor is at play, inflating conscientiousness scores and encouraging extreme responding. However, it's difficult to imagine what such a factor might be. Taken altogether, the researchers think the most likely explanation is that a proclivity in some countries for extreme responding has had the effect of inflating their conscientiousness scores.

All this raises a further intriguing question … why should people in some countries be more prone to giving extreme answers? The answer remains beyond the current study, but the researchers suggested one factor could be "dialectical thinking … 'an emphasis on change, a recognition of contradiction and of the need for multiple perspectives, and a search for the "Middle Way" between opposing propositions'". Countries where dialectical thinking is more common would be expected to avoid extreme scores. Consistent with this, there's some evidence that dialectical thinking is higher in East Asian countries that were found in this study to refrain from giving extreme scores.

Mõttus R, Allik J, Realo A, Rossier J, Zecca G, Ah-Kion J, Amoussou-Yéyé D, Bäckström M, Barkauskiene R, Barry O, Bhowon U, Björklund F, Bochaver A, Bochaver K, de Bruin G, Cabrera HF, Chen SX, Church AT, Cissé DD, Dahourou D, Feng X, Guan Y, Hwang HS, Idris F, Katigbak MS, Kuppens P, Kwiatkowska A, Laurinavicius A, Mastor KA, Matsumoto D, Riemann R, Schug J, Simpson B, Tseung-Wong CN, and Johnson W (2012). The Effect of Response Style on Self-Reported Conscientiousness Across 20 Countries. Personality and social psychology bulletin PMID: 22745332