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Social and national stereotypes

Social and national stereotypes

Nations are supposed to possess identities, something much talked-up during the wave of nationalism that began, perhaps, with the age of revolution. The French were thus, the British were so; plucky American colonists were a godly, free squirearchy cutting loose from a corrupt London; and so forth.

There have now been hundreds of psychometric tests administered across nations specifically to assess these characteristics: what are the "Chinese" like? How will "the Italian" react to this or that proposal. All of these show us something that we ought to know from daily experience, which is that the differences within nations are much greater than the differences between them. If you line up a sample of Dutch people and of Chinese, the average of these two groups will be closer together than the mean distance between the individuals in those groups.

Striking research now shows something even more surprising. Writing in Science (310 pp 96-100 Oct 2005) Terraciano et al show that whilst people in 49 cultures conform to the result discussed above, they also believe, with great uniformity, in their national stereotype. That is, across the great diversity of psychological types that exist in the Canadian population, most assess other Canadians as being of a specific type. These characterists which they project onto their peers follow national stereotypes. Why does this happen?

This paper concludes with an assessment of national brands, as perceived by a huge international sample. Standard methodologies are then used to calculate the brand value as this applies to a nation. The results are remarkable: Britain is the most admired nation in the round, Denmark gains the most per capita from its international perceptions of its brand.

Measuring types.

Measuring types.

To get to an answer, we need to think a little about what we mean by a personality type. We are used to organising things into sets: things which will fit into this cupboard and things which won't; stuff to take on holiday and stuff to leave behind. In between, there are always things which might just fit, or which we would really like to take, but finally reject because they are just too heavy. Many sets are continua, therefore, like a person's height. There is no fixed point at which "short" stops and "tall" starts. However, the continuum is useful - for example, when starting a clothing shop, designing a car or worrying whether a child of a given age, gender, ethnicity is growing as expected. It is an organising dimension in a problem which has a number of other such dimensions. For example, the child's height has to be put into the context of their age, and the other factors mentioned above.

A set of independent dimensions of this sort allow us to locate each individual or thing under consideration as a point in this space. Our "holiday" decision might be influenced by weight, bulk, the warmth or otherwise of the garment, its vividness and so forth. If we make a space from these dimensions, then all of our possessions are points in this space. A frontier that separates these into two groups represents our decision about the set that we take and the set that we leave.

This procedure is a large part of how we bring order to our affairs. Procedures like this are undertaken in specific parts of the brain, and destructive strokes can damage the ability to conceive of certain sets, or certain ways of ordering the world. In general, however, the issue is less hardwired, and the most difficult task consists of finding the dimensions which create a useful space of the sort discussed above.

This could take us in two directions. One of these is how we have learned to sort out the world's diversity as this affects people and nations. How do we sort these into sets? We will discuss this in a subsequent section.

Here, though, we need to take a different line. That is, if we want to be able to sort peoples' personalities into sets, then we shall need a space in which to do it. Much as we sorted our possessions, above, so we need a set of dimensions that allow people to be collected into reasonably homogeneous groups.

Early attempts to do this depended on anything from astrological signs to archaic notions of the humours, whereby four essences mixed together to define the outlook for an individual. Later, societies relied upon age, gender, race or social class to provide this way of segregating people into tractable groups. However, it turned out that these were less than useful. The variation within any one of these ways of grouping people - let is say, gender - remained greater than the differences between the groups which it produced. That is, in respect of personality, men differ amongst themselves more than does the average between all men and all women.

What emerged from a century of work is the OCEAN model of personality, which satisfactorily parcels a population into homogeneous groups. These are continuous variables - as is height, discussed above - so the separation is gradual. Nevertheless, as one moves around in this space, so recognisable 'types' emerge, and it turns out that these types are extremely powerful in explaining the behaviour of the people who belong to them.

The five dimensions of the OCEAN model are given on the left of the table, with the chief contributory characteristics on the right. Plainly, this names and typifies one end of the continuum: Extraversion leads, at the other extreme, to Introversion, with its characteristics that are the inverse of those listed on the right of the table: solitariness, coldness and so forth.

Openness to experience.
Defined values.
Striving to achieve,
Self discipline,
Positive emotions.
Agreeableness .
Straight-forward approach,
Neuroticism, instability.
Angry hostility,

Some authors prefer to add Spearman's G -general intelligence - to this list as it is also a strong predictor of life time achievement. However, it does not help to cluster the population as does OCEAN, because the attitudinal variation within the group of clever people is, once again, greater than the difference between the average of them and the less gifted.

Classes and nations.

Classes and nations.

The Terracciano study started by drawing on existing data for OCEAN scores for nearly 12,000 people in 47 cultures around the world, supplemented by further data. These tended to repeat the finding discussed above, that inter-country differences were small as compared to intra-country distinctions. They then sampled nearly 4000 people in 49 cultures, asking respondents to assess the character of their country: that is, to answer the questions from the perspective of a typical national, not their own view. Only New Zealand, Poland, Australia and the Lebanon gave a significant match between the two. However, all of these had stereotypes which placed them right in the middle of each of the OCEAN dimensions, so the match is unsurprising.

Britain had the most strongly negative correlation between the observers' stereotype - closed, introverted - and what the data show about the population. Russia saw itself as open, affable, casual and emotionally stable, which once again was not what was found.

Why, then, are stereotypes so powerful? Cartoonists show Germans as middle aged, overweight and guileless-looking men, the French as slim women with an "I have suffered" look. The last British manager discarded his bowler hat in 1975, but they are still depicted in this way. And so forth. The answer is, of course, twofold. First, it gives us something against which to measure ourselves, an embodied ethos of what it is the be American, or Mexican. It may not be an attractive ethos, but "we are just like that" seems to excuse many failings in countries where failure is commonplace. Second, stereotypes are useful in thinking about things where we have neither personal experience nor meaningful metrics. We can rely upon measures of the Pacific Ocean, but, if we have not visited the area, we have nothing as objective on which to lean when it comes to assessing the people who live around it. Wild generalisations feel better than nothing, even though they are often worse than nothing.

How do stereotypes arise?

How do stereotypes arise?

Anthropologists have long noted the importance of flags of difference: 'on this side of the mountain we wear red feathers, on the other they use green ones'. We long to give structure to our world, groping for viable sets and the dimensions which support them. What creates these sets is a mixture of self-definition and of rejection of the other. Those who have power often force people to define themselves as subject to the sovereign or the object of his hostility: Jew or Christian, capitalist or worker. As the boundaries of difference become clearer, so people on either side of the divide tell themselves stories so as to reinforce these distinctions. People over there - the red feathers - eat babies!

This is, however, only half of the story. It does not explain why so many groups take on a negative interpretation of themselves, as is characteristic of many developing countries. It is extremely common to hear people in Latin America, for example, railing against their own 'stupid' society and its inability to get things to work as expected. A significant reason why Britain became embroiled in World War I was something called the 'condition of England', a sense of not-quite decadence that had to be purged in conflict. Rupert Brooke wrote of young men going to the trenches as "turning like swimmers leaping/ From a world grown old and cold and weary.'

One view of how particular interpretations of events become dominant in a society is the following. We live much of our lives preoccupied with our personal concerns, and everything else is an unconsidered back drop. During such periods, many ways of thinking about events develop in specialist channels, but there is nothing to carry them into general attention. Like Darwinian mutations, they are neutral, and do not spread through the population.

When events produce a systematic challenge, however, communicators and politicians cast about for a way of talking about the problem. A few themes present themselves, some backed with evidence, some easily digestible by the general public. These rival explanations appeal more or less to different sections in the population, based a mixture of how much harm or good they imply for them, on how well they resonant with the stories which individuals in that group have learned to tell themselves, on the affiliations that the individuals may have formed and the views expressed through these. This is a complex process, but its outcome is that some ideas find it easy to propagate in some groups, whilst others languish, or excite a group which is incapable of articulating its views. Clear stories addressed to a clear issue, with a strong claque backing them are irresistible to the media and ultimately to politicians, and so these views become received wisdom, quenching out rival views and becoming the established wisdom. It becomes a part of the narrative against which we calibrate our lives.

This is not a rational process. It creates distinctions where none exist, and creates filters which prevent us from taking on new information. Indeed, isolated groups that are under pressure tend to increase their distinctiveness, separating themselves and their narratives yet further from the mainstream. One can see something of this sort happening in the Middle East, where a separate identity is regarded as not merely desirable but essential, and where a great deal of commentary aims to emphasise differences and not similarities. This is an understandable response to relative failure, so placing the causes externally, denying the validity for the grounds on which embarrassing comparisons are to be made, and reinforcing stereotypes. Countries which have a strongly negative view of themselves in stereotype are, for the most part, responding to groups who are doing much the same. In essence, they say to themselves that my negative situation is not my fault, and beyond my control: it is They who are damaging me.

If this assessment is correct, then there may be messages for conflict resolution. First, perceptions of situations are constructs, and can be deconstructed, broken into their parts and addressed piecemeal. They can be reassembled in more sensible ways to seeing. Second, the formation of ways of seeing is a process which is also open to manipulation, best managed by those who have defined what constitutes a useful perspective well in advance and tailored a package for the various interests and psychological types who exist in the society.

We do this when we sell toothpaste, but not when we make peace, or urge development on a nation. It is somehow felt to be dishonest, or to trivialise what to be a triumphant march of the human spirit, or some such. That is because we see it as 'propaganda', when it is in fact process facilitation. Writ somewhat larger than the typical flipchart and pen approach to facilitation, but as open to structure as any other project.

National brand: a survey

National brand: a survey

GMI (Global Market Insite Inc.) asked 25,907 people in 35 countries to rank nations for how they perceive various qualities about them: essentially, to describe their brand successes and shortcomings. The resulting rank order is, of course, controversial, but is shown below in descending order of excellence:

(2003 figures in brackets)

1 (1) United Kingdom

2 (5) Switzerland

3 (9) Canada

4 (6) Italy

5 (7) Sweden

6 (2) Germany

7 (4) Japan

8 (8) France

9 (12) Australia

10 (3) United States

Britain retained a lead position in the ranking. It scored well on many issues and badly on none. Positive issues were associated with finance and integrity, sport and culture. It's people were seen as highly skilled and well-educated - but also polite and extremely dull. (It is telling for Britain's self-image that when the press reported these findings, not one mentioned the UK's top rating, but all led with the "dull" epithet.)

The US ranked tenth; but with a huge spread between respondents. It was seen as a top performer in product branding, popular culture, education, technology and sport; but this was offset by social and institutional issues. It was placed near the bottom of the survey on governance, cultural heritage, personal ignorance and aggressive ambition. In essence, the respondents liked what America made but did not like what it did.

The following are the top five nations for a number of categories.

Innovation, science and technology
United States
United Kingdom
Human rights of citizens
United States
United Kingdom
Competent, honest and fair government
United Kingdom
United States
Responsible international relations
United Kingdom
Good place to study
United States
United Kingdom

The authors have used brand methodologies to calculate what these national brands are worth. This is done using a standard accounting methodology which is used in valuing brands. It established the license fee that one would have to pay to use a third party brand, and discounts this at a standard rate. Brand-heavy industries often have market values that are well in excess of their book assets, and such methods do in fact match the value which markets appear to attach to intangibles quite well.

Applying this to nations has all manner of difficulties, but is nevertheless an interesting experiment. The outcome is that the brand value often exceeds the GNP of the nation in question. Whilst this may raise eyebrows as an absolute measure, it is nonetheless an index that has some validity. The figure shows the brand value per capita of the population. Denmark's citizens appeared to add - or to have added, prior to the "cartoon" incident - a huge sum by their conduct, but nations such as China or Poland add much less. There are, of course major issues with analysis of this sort - this is what is deemed to be added by the nation's "customers", a curious concept when one delves into it - and not what is actually traded or capable of being traded. Nevertheless, the nations which do best by this assessment are a mixture of the startling and the usual suspects.

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