The Corner

The Proper Study Of Mankind

I don’t know how anyone could not be fascinated by Lynn and Vanhanen’s work on the distribution of IQ. Their results are of course controversial, but that only makes them more fascinating … unless, I suppose, you are one of those people driven to insensate rage by any denial that all human populations are abolutely identical in all statistical measures.

I have wondered for some time whether other dimensions of the individual human personality show differences among the big, old, mostly-inbred human populations. Discussing this with some friends, one of them pointed me to a March 2007 paper in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology on just this topic. The paper is called “The Geographic Distribution of Big Five Personality Traits,” and you can read it for yourself here.

Big Five is a model of the human personality. The authors of the paper say this about the model:

The idea that five dimensions can provide a useful framework for describing higher-order differences between individuals has, according to many [some references are supplied], reached something of a consensus among personality trait psychologists [more references].

The Big Five are remembered by the mnemonic OCEAN:

  • Openness to Experience: how creative, imaginative, curious you are.
  • Conscientiousness: how organized and reliable you are.
  • Extraversion: the degree to which you are active, assertive, talkative.
  • Agreeableness: how generous, forbearing, kind, you are.
  • Neuroticism: the degree to which you are anxious, depressed, irritable.

So what do world maps of the Big Five look like? Obviously there are terrific methodological obstacles to finding out. The adjectives in my list there all have to be translated into several languages before the tests can be given, and adjectives like those are notoriously hard to map from one language to another. And then, a lot of the data is self-reported, so people doing the tests are comparing themselves with those around them, not with test-takers on another continent. The authors of the paper are of course aware of all this, and discuss it in their preface. I’m not completely convinced they surmounted all the obstacles, but they surely did their best.

Their results are in any case very interesting. They don’t actually give us maps, just charts like this one for Conscientiousness. The horizontal lines are 95 percent confidence intervals. (That is, if you were to do all over again from scratch everything the authors did, there’s a 95 percent chance, for each measure, that your number would be within the horizontal lines.) It’s counterintuitive stuff: East Asians way less conscientious than Africans?

Here’s the chart for Neuroticism. Much less counterintuitive! Here Africans come out as least neurotic, East Asians most. I suppose this is connected with the fact that in surveys of happiness, Africans always seem to score high, in spite of the problems of their continent.

Since personality traits are considerably heritable (ask a dog breeder), and these populations are to various degrees “genetic islands” breeding mostly within themselves for many generations, we are probably looking at innate — though, of course, statistical — characteristics here. We can’t say much more until we have better understanding of the biological and genetic underpinnings of human personality, probably in the next decade or two.

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