Each country has what its citizens perceive to be an identity that's "typical" of their society. But a new study appearing in the journal Science concludes that such stereotypes are inaccurate. Investigators say they've found mistaken national myths in almost every country they surveyed.
The study coordinated by the U.S. National Institute on Aging looked at national stereotypes in 49 countries. Investigators wanted to find out things like whether Germans really are no-nonsense, Italians happy go-lucky, Americans brash and Japanese neurotic. Eighty-six researchers contributed to the report which seeks to describe how well the stereotypes correspond with the way people actually see themselves.
In virtually every case, the research dispelled the stereotype of the "typical" citizen. For example, the lead author of the study, Robert McCrae, says it turns out Canadians are far more independent-minded than is generally believed.
"So, if you were to think about,'Well, I'm going to have a group of Canadians visiting me next week, and I guess they're all going to be very compliant,' you may be very unpleasantly surprised by what you see because Canadians are by and large not compliant," he said.
Researchers compared three sets of data to reach their conclusion.
They asked almost 4,000 people, mostly college students in each of the 49 countries, to rate the "typical" member of their own culture. The survey asked participants to consider traits such as "imaginative," "inartistic," "stingy," "avoids excitement," and "copes well with crises."
The data were then compared with results from surveys taken by 12,000 college students who were asked to rate the personalities of people they knew.
Researchers also considered data from 25,000 people who had had described their own personalities in previous studies.
Investigators found that in 48 countries, data from the two surveys in which people described themselves or people they knew personally, agreed with each other. But the two surveys disagreed with results from the national stereotype survey.
Only in Poland did the personality data agree with the stereotype data. Mr. McCrae thinks the result was a fluke.
Mr. McCrae says the study points up that stereotypes can't be taken seriously.
"They are very often unfounded," he said. "Very often they exaggerate characteristics. And in consequence people need to remember that their beliefs about typical Americans or typical Italians are very likely not very accurate and they're not a very good guide to trying to interact with people from that country."
Still, experts say national identities are real and there's a kernel of truth to them, despite the latest findings. Princeton University psychology professor Susan Fiske says national identities serve a purpose.
"What any group often does is to promote themselves on a few dimensions that they can excel on and to kind of ignore the dimensions on which they can't plausibly claim to be good," she said. "So, for example, a culture might say they, 'Well, we are very nice people. and we are warm and relaxed.' But they might not talk about their industrial output if that's not really their strong point."
Robert McCrae and his international collaborators plan to extend their research looking at stereotypes of adolescents. Previous work by Mr. McCrae and colleagues has shown that perceptions of elderly people as withdrawn and inflexible are not true.