By René Mõttus, University of Tartu, Estonia
Is there a kernel of truth at the root of people’s beliefs about “national character?” For example, are the English really more stalwart than Italians? Are the Spanish, as a people, more affable than Bulgarians? Do people’s personalities differ depending on the culture where they were raised?
In the last decade or so researchers have started to compare one nation to another to understand how nation-level or culture-level variables affect personality traits and vice versa: How personality traits may contribute to such phenomena as economic success or health. To this end, researchers administer standardized personality questionnaires in different countries, having translated them into proper languages beforehand. Possible issues with this type of research, however, are quite obvious: in addition to the biases in personality self-reports that researchers encounter when studying people only within particular cultures (e.g., responding in socially desirable ways), differences in questionnaire translations and cultural differences in the meaning of questionnaire items sometimes create quite unexpected findings.
One of the personality traits that demonstrates replicable, yet surprising, national rankings is Conscientiousness—the tendency to be orderly, diligent, disciplined, determined, and cautious. Guess, what nations score highest on these characteristics? Heard of Germans and Japanese being disciplined and working hard and everything being well organized in Switzerland? Wrong on that one. Its often residents of African and South-East Asian nations that report themselves being high in Conscientiousness, whereas Japanese, Koreans and Hong-Kong Chinese tend to be at the bottom of the rankings. And Germans and Swiss do not report exceptionally high levels of Conscientiousness either. When national rankings of Conscientiousness are compared to rankings of national wealth and longevity, the associations are strong but inverse, such that higher Conscientiousness goes with poverty and low longevity. This is exactly the opposite of what one would intuitively expect and what is usually seen at the level of individual people.
These findings suggest that the national rankings of Conscientiousness may be in some ways biased. For example, it may be that Japanese have very high standards for being conscientious and, judging themselves according to the high standards, they only appear to score low (Heine, Buchtel, & Norenzayan, 2008; see, however, Mõttus et al, 2012). Recent research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, in contrast, points to a different source: cross-cultural differences in what is called extreme responding—a tendency to prefer extremes of subjective ratings scales to more neutral response options regardless of what exactly is being rated.
What distinguished this study from the previous ones was how the extreme responding was operationalized. Typically, studies have tried to derive it from self-ratings, for example, by calculating the ratio of extreme responses to more moderate ones. However, an obvious problem with this approach is that true differences between people and possible biases are hopelessly confounded. One can prefer extreme responses because he or she is high on the trait that the questions tap, in which case there is no extreme responding bias. Or one may prefer extreme responses simply because he or she likes more extreme responses, in which case there is the bias. Researchers have attempted to get by this problem in various ways but have rarely managed to completely separate self-reported trait levels from response biases.
This study did something different in that it attempted to quantify extreme response style on the basis of something that was designed to be independent of true individual differences. In particular, nearly 3,000 participants in 20 countries were presented the same list of 30 short vignettes describing people with various levels of Conscientiousness-related traits and asked to rate these people using six bipolar rating scales that were designed to measure Conscientiousness. On the basis of these ratings, extreme response style—the proportion of extreme responses to the more moderate ones—was calculated. The crucial thing to note here is that the vignettes were the same for everyone (assuming equivalence of translations, of course) and therefore any variance in ratings was inherently due to biases. As a result, the likelihood of mixing up true individual difference and response biases was low compared to the studies that attempt to guess both from the same ratings. There simply were not any true individual differences.
Country-averages for the proportion of extreme ratings over more moderate ones were calculated. It appeared that respondents from Hong Kong, South-Korea, Germany and Japan were the least likely to prefer extreme responses, whereas members of several African and South-East Asian countries as well as Poland and a mainland Chinese sample demonstrated the highest rates of extreme responses.
Participants also provided self-ratings using the same six ratings scales, which allowed us to calculate country-level scores for self-reported Conscientiousness. The two rankings appeared to be in a relatively strong positive correlation, suggesting that high self-reported Conscientiousness levels characterized the samples that had preferred more extreme responses whilst rating the the vignettes. We interpreted this as potential evidence that tendency to use more extreme response categories of the rating scales may have contributed to—inflated, to be precise—the Conscientiousness scores. Based on this interpretation we then corrected national rankings of self-reported Conscientiousness for national differences extreme responding. The effect of this correction was not massive but it was notable and, to the extent that we can rely on national stereotypes, it made intuitively sense. For example, Hong Kong Germany, South-Korea, Mauritius, Sweden, Beijing (China), and Japan moved upward in terms of mean Conscientiousness scores.
Therefore, we concluded that cross-cultural differences in the tendency to prefer extreme responses of subjective rating scales may to some extent confound national rankings of mean self-reported personality trait levels. And we thought that this might be partly responsible for the unexpected national rankings of Conscientiousness. However, as ever, we need to acknowledge alternative explanations for our findings. For example, we might have got the causal direction wrong: perhaps it may be high Conscientiousness that makes people prefer extreme responses? Clever experiments will tell.
René Mõttus is a Senior Researcher at the Department of Psychology, Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, University of Edinburgh, UK, and at the Department of Psychology, University of Tartu, Estonia. His research interests span several areas in the broad field of human individual differences, including psychometrics, personality traits and processes, cognitive abilities, health and genetics.
Heine, S. J., Buchtel, E. E., & Norenzayan, A. (2008). What do cross-national comparisons of personality traits tell us?: The case of conscientiousness. Psychological Science, 19, 309-313.
by Shige Oishi, University of Virginia
What is a good society? What is an ideal society? Every four years, the presidential election makes Americans think of this philosophical question. In the end, the choice of president reflects which America is the ideal America: the (pseudo-) meritocratic, winner-take-all, “strong” America or the egalitarian, “compassionate” America.
One of the central debates to this end is concerned with taxation: who should pay and how much? President Obama thinks that the rich should pay more, whereas Governor Romney does not. Beyond the rhetoric of “tax relief” versus “tax cut”, there is one fundamental aspect missing from the debate on taxation: namely, what is the purpose of taxation to begin with?
Of course, the main purpose of taxation is to pay for public and common goods. In a modern society, residents expect to have access to clean water and air, reliable roads, primary education, parks and green space, personal safety, and services such as garbage pick-up, sewage disposal, and recycling. The government, both local and federal, is responsible for the basic infrastructure, so that its citizens can live healthy lives.
Even a libertarian might agree that people’s quality of life would suffer if residents do not have reliable police, clean water, safe roads, good schools, or garbage pick-up and recycling, and that public and common goods are necessary. Ultimately, then, the optimal taxation system is the system that allows the society to function well, while minimizing the burden (tax) to its citizens.
One way we can decide what the taxation system is optimal is to measure the quality of public and common goods across various societies with different taxation systems, and identify the tax system that maximizes the quality of public and common goods. Where do you see the best public transportation, public education, public space, and social welfare?
Another way to address the issue of the best taxation policy is to see which citizens are the happiest. If the taxation is to provide good public and common goods to citizens, and if providing good public and common goods is important to the quality of citizens’ lives, then we might as well measure citizen’s perceived quality of life directly, and identify the taxation system in which citizens are the most satisfied with their lives in general.
Uli Schimmack (U of Toronto), Ed Diener (U of Illinois), and I took the latter approach, and examined whether a certain taxation policy was associated with the happiness of the nations. Considering the main political debate has been between progressive taxation (the rich pays the higher rate of tax) and flat taxation (everyone pays the same rate of tax), we examined the relation between the degree of progressive taxation and the average happiness of citizens across 54 nations (see Oishi, Schimmack, & Diener, 2012, Psychological Science for details).
The bottom line: The residents of the nations with more progressive taxation were happier than those of the nations with less progressive taxation. The correlation coefficient was non-trivial: r = .33 with general life satisfaction and r = .46 with daily positive experiences (e.g., enjoying, smiling, doing something interesting, feeling well-rested).
The nations with the most progressive taxation among the 54 nations were Sweden (the top income bracket’s tax rate is 57%, whereas the lowest income bracket’s tax rate is 0%, i.e., a 57% difference), the Netherlands (52% difference), and Japan (45% difference). The U.S. ranked #34 among 54 nations with 20% difference (the top income bracket rate is 35%, the lowest is 15%). The nations with the least progressive taxation were Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia and other countries that have flat tax rates. The first observation is that rich Americans do not pay as much as rich Swedish, Dutch, or Japanese people in absolute terms as well as relative terms (relative to non-rich). So, the argument that rich Americans are already paying too much seems inaccurate at least from a global perspective.
Some might worry that the “official” tax rate is different from the “actual” tax rate (the tax that residents actually pay after various deductions). We checked, therefore, the “effective” tax rate (published by OECD, which is close to the “actual” tax rate). The results were virtually the same (r = .36 with general life satisfaction, r = .46 with daily positive experiences).
Of course, the above correlations are, well, simple correlations. Thus, third variables could account for this association. To our surprise, however, progressive taxation was not associated with GDP per capita (r = .15) or income inequality, Gini coefficient (r = .13). Statistically controlling for these variables did not reduce the original correlations.
More interestingly, the degree of progressive taxation was associated with higher levels of satisfaction with public and common goods (r = .54, p < .01). Finally, we showed that the association between progressive taxation and the subjective well-being of the nations was mediated (explained) by citizens’ satisfaction with public and common goods. That is, the citizens of the nations with progressive taxation were more satisfied with public and common goods such as transportation, education, and clean water, and also satisfied with their lives in general and reported smiling, enjoying life, being well-rested, and doing something interesting on a daily basis.
Some readers might also wonder if our findings mean that the bigger the government, the better (another important political issue in the U.S.). We checked whether larger government (higher % of GDP spent on the government) was also associated with greater satisfaction with public and common goods and greater life satisfaction and well-being in general. To our surprise, that was NOT the case. The government spending as a percentage of GDP was NEGATIVELY associated with general life satisfaction (r = -.46) and daily positive experiences (r = -.45): the greater the government spending as a percentage of GDP, the LOWER citizens’ life satisfaction and positive daily experiences were (FYI, the U.S. is relatively a “small” government at this point, ranked #49 out of 73 nations in government spending per GDP).
So, the second observation from our analyses was that it is not the amount of government spending per se, but the progressive taxation that is associated with higher levels of well-being. I suspect that the greater spending is not always translated into better public or common goods, in part because some governments spend a lot of money on public and common goods, but due to various factors (labor cost, pension, bribes, who knows?), that type of spending does not result in better roads, better transportation, better police, better housing or better education. For some reason, the nations with progressive taxation are doing better in the public and common goods department (the “why” is an important future research question).
Going back to the presidential debate on taxation, I wish President Obama and Governor Romney debated about the tax policy in the context of citizens’ happiness. There are relevant scientific data and findings here. When our paper was published in Psychological Science this January, a Japanese journalist from NHK (Japanese version of BBC) called and asked me “Has your paper changed the discussion of the tax policy in Congress?” I must admit that was the most astonishing question that I have ever received from a journalist. I just laughed and said “No way!” I bet no one on Capitol Hill has ever heard about our paper on taxation and happiness. I have never heard any politicians talk about our paper, let alone newspapers or news magazines seriously talking about our findings in the context of the presidential debate. I wish our paper had such an impact on real politics! Maybe someday…
Dr. Shige Oishi is a professor in psychology at the University of Virginia. His research centers on culture, social ecology, personality, and well-being. His primary research goals are (a) to uncover the causes and consequences of subjective well-being, and (b) to delineate how social ecology and human psyche make each other up. Specific research topics include residential mobility, life satisfaction, feeling understood and misunderstood, relationship satisfaction, self-concepts, pro-community behaviors, goals and values, and emotion. He is a regular contributor to Personality and Social Psychology Connections (click here to read his previous posts).
Oishi, S., Schimmack, U., & Diener, E. (2012). Progressive taxation and the subjective well-being of nations. Psychological Science, 23, 86-92.
I thank Jordan Axt, Matt Motyl, Minha Lee, Thomas Talhelm, Yishan Xu, and Casey Eggleston for their comments.
Image (ID: 10013658) courtesy of Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
by Mark Brandt, Tilburg University and P.J. Henry, New York University–Abu Dhabi
Authoritarianism–subordination of personal needs and values in the service of the group’s requirements–makes most people’s list of negative interpersonal qualities. The independent free-thinker and dissenting protestor garner praise and admiration, but the ever-obedient authoritarian: pity and disdain. Researchers, too, have affirmed this negative view by tracing many of society’s most pernicious social problems–prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping–to qualities that are characteristic of an authoritarian outlook.
Recent findings reported by social psychologists Mark Brandt and P.J. Henry (2012), however, challenge this simplistic conception of authoritarianism. Rather than viewing authoritarianism as a dysfunctional interpersonal orientation, these researchers seek to understand who adopts authoritarian values and what psychological benefit might accrue through an authoritarian view of the world. Rather than portraying authoritarianism as a psychologically problematic set of values, this work recognizes the value of both dissent and respect for the status quo.
Authoritarian values encourage support and obedience to social groups and their leaders. In a sense, authoritarianism represents an extreme version of solidarity and identification with one’s important social groups (for example, family, religious congregation, ethnic group; Duckitt, 1989; Stenner, 2005). When people feel rejected or excluded from their social circles, they may be especially likely to affirm authoritarian values in order to cope with the aversive feelings of social rejection.
Brand and Henry tested this hypothesis in a simple experiment. They asked the participants in the experimental condition to relive and write a paragraph about a personal experience of rejection and exclusion. Those in the control condition, in contrast, relived and wrote about a neutral event (their most recent commute to school or work). Following this experimental manipulation, participants completed a measure of authoritarian values. Consistent with expectations, people who were reminded of their experience of rejection expressed more authoritarian values than people who thought about their commute to work. That is, a reminder of rejection was enough to increase authoritarian values. Authoritarian values can be psychologically reassuring.
Brandt and Henry took the idea that authoritarian values can be psychologically reassuring and applied it to groups that typically are disadvantaged in society, that is, groups that have less power (economic or political). Previous research has found that disadvantaged groups experience rejection and exclusion because their society does not value them. Brandt and Henry proposed that authoritarianism, which helps give people a sense of connection to others, might be one way to compensate for the devaluing that is associated with being a member of a disadvantaged group.
This logic was applied to one specific group that experiences disadvantage globally, women. However, the inequality that women face (compared to men) from one country to the next is not uniform. In some countries, women face greater disadvantage than in other countries, whether that be through lower incomes, fewer educational opportunities, or less representation in politics. The prediction is pretty straightforward: The greater the gender inequality in a country, the greater the devaluing of women, and therefore the greater the endorsement of authoritarianism by women compared to men. In other words, Brandt and Henry expected the greater endorsement of authoritarianism by women to be a function of their disadvantage in a society.
The hypothesis was tested using data from the publically available World Values Survey (http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/), which contains data including measures of authoritarian values and gender from well over 100,000 people in countries from all over the world. The United Nations Human Development Report (http://hdr.undp.org/) provided a measure of gender inequality across a wide range of countries across the world.
The results supported the prediction that women were more authoritarian than men in countries with higher levels of gender inequality. However, this prediction does not hold across every country in the world. Countries that are more collectivistic seem to be exempt from this inequality-authoritarianism relationship for women. Why? Research in collectivistic contexts has shown that endorsing authoritarian-type beliefs (e.g., following the norms of a society) is a normal thing to do for both men and women, regardless of gender inequalities that may exist. In other words, both men and women in collectivistic societies are likely to endorse authoritarian beliefs, a pattern that seems to obscure any effect of gender inequality.
But for individualistic countries, gender inequality seems to matter for determining the greater endorsement of authoritarianism by women compared to men. These results contribute to a growing social psychological literature attempting to understand why people hold onto authoritarian values and beliefs and suggest that authoritarianism may arise in part because of the basic human desire for social connection. Moreover, the results of this study join a growing literature on the effects of inequality, social status, and stigma on a variety of consequential attitudes and behaviors. To truly understand a person, we must also understand their place in their society.
Mark Brandt is an assistant professor of social psychology at Tilburg University. His research program investigates the causes and consequences of ideological and moral beliefs, including religious fundamentalism, authoritarianism, political ideology, and moral conviction. More information about his work can be found at sites.google.com/site/brandtmj/
PJ Henry is an associate professor of psychology at New York University – Abu Dhabi. His research program examines prejudice and intergroup relations, with a focus on the justifications people create for prejudice and discrimination and the consequences of stigmatization. His website is http://nyuad.nyu.edu/academics/faculty/pj-henry.html.
Brandt, M. J., & Henry, P. J. (2012a). Gender inequality and gender differences in authoritarianism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1301-1315.
Duckitt, J. (1989). Authoritarianism and Group Identification: A New View of an Old Construct. Political Psychology, 10(1), 63-84.
Stenner, K. (2005). The authoritarian dynamic. New York, NY:Cambridge University Press.
by Kenneth Vail, University of Missouri-Columbia
What is the psychological function of religion? Countless religious and supernatural beliefs have emerged over the course of history. In today’s world, a majority of people are devoted, for example, to the deities of Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism, among many others; but, at the same time, a considerable number of people also reject religions or doubt religious claims to know god (Ipsos/Reuters, 2011; Pew, 2012).
Such convictions, both religious and skeptical, raise important questions about the function of religion. What motivates faith in the supernatural? And, when that motivation is triggered, how might our prior beliefs – whether religious or skeptical – determine which god(s), if any, will become the sacred objects of devotion?
With new research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB), my colleagues and I at University of Missouri (USA) and Islamic Azad University (Iran) help shed some light on the answers to these questions.
To explore that first question – what motivates religious belief? – we started with an idea with a long history: that religious belief is motivated, at least in part, by the awareness of death. In the last 25+ years, social psychological research inspired by terror management theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986) has illuminated a variety of ways in which people use their cultural identifications to help quell the subtle, and often not conscious, awareness of mortality. From this view, religious beliefs help people manage the awareness of death by directly denying death with supernatural beliefs about literalimmortality. Religions commonly involve some form of spiritual afterlife—each offering its own version of the transcendent realm, from the Islamic gardens of delight, to Hindu salvation, to the Christian heaven—and promise eternity for those adhering to the religions’ specific viewpoints and customs.
Philosophers have emphasized the psychological importance of this death-denying theme for centuries, and recent correlational and experimental research attests to its importance as well (Landau, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2004; Norenzayan & Hansen, 2006). But careful experimental work was still needed to provide a clear answer about its causation, so we designed a set of controlled experiments to study whether supernatural belief can be a motivated response to the awareness of death.
We also explored that second question, how individuals’ prior beliefs, whether religious or skeptical, might influence the patterns of such motivated religiosity and faith in supernatural agents. On this point, three different theoretical perspectives offered three different predictions (see Norenzayan and Hansen, 2006).
One perspective was basically the “no Atheists in foxholes” argument; that awareness of mortality makes people believe in any supernatural agent (e.g., God, Allah, Krishna), regardless of whether one was initially Christian, Muslim, Atheist, or Agnostic.
A second perspective basically argued the same, but allowed for the fact that Atheists simply don’t accept supernatural concepts as valid.
A third perspective was grounded in a coping mechanism proposed by TMT called “worldview defense,” by which people can manage the awareness of death by taking part in cultural worldviews that offer the opportunity for literal (e.g., heaven) or symbolic (i.e., perceiving oneself part of a valuable legacy, be it in sports, nationhood, academics, etc.) immortality. This worldview defense hypothesis predicts that the awareness of mortality should increase people’s faith in their initial beliefs, and increase rejection of alternative belief systems that might undermine the legitimacy or superiority of those beliefs. So, if a person followed a particular religion, let’s call it “Religion-X,” then reminding that person of death should motivate increased faith in the beliefs and deity(s) of Religion-X and rejection of alternative belief systems (Religion-Y or Religion-Z). Similarly, Atheists, who reject the supernatural, would be expected to remain squarely invested in their secular pursuits and thus not increase faith in religious/supernatural beliefs.
We tested these ideas across a series of studies with distinct samples of Christians, Muslims, and Atheists. In each study, all participants were first reminded either of death or of a control topic. Then, they reported their general religiosity (how religious they believed themselves to be and their faith in a higher power) and responded to a series of questions assessing their faith in God/Jesus (Christian beliefs), Allah (Muslim beliefs), and Buddha (Buddhist beliefs).
The Atheist sample flatly rejected all religious and supernatural beliefs regardless of whether or not they were reminded of mortality, reflecting the idea that Atheists are instead more invested in secular pursuits. This result conflicted with the “no Atheists in foxholes” hypothesis, but was consistent with observations that there are, in fact, Atheists in foxholes (see e.g., Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, 2011; Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, 2011; Military Religious Freedom Foundation, 2011). This finding was also consistent with research examining Atheists’ end-of-life preferences, in which Atheists were adamant that healthcare workers respect their rejection of religion (e.g., no bedside proselytizing) and recognize their secular value as “moral and caring individuals, committed to their families, humanity and nature” (Smith-Stoner, 2007, p. 926).
But among the sample of Christians, those reminded of death (vs. control topic) increased general religiosity, strengthened their Christian faith in God/Jesus, and increased rejection of the Muslim and Buddhist faiths. A parallel process occurred in the Muslim sample. Muslims reminded of death (vs. control topic) increased general religiosity, strengthened their Islamic faith in Allah, and increased rejection of the Christian and Buddhist faiths. These findings are consistent with TMT’s worldview defense hypothesis, in which individuals’ pre-existing worldviews guide their patterns of motivated religiosity and supernatural agent beliefs. In contrast, these results conflicted with the two alternative hypotheses that death awareness would lead both Christians and Muslims alike to not only enhance their religiosity and belief in a higher power, but to broadly increase faith in all three Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist beliefs. So at least among the Christian and Muslim samples, as Nietzsche (1895/2003) observed, “One demands that no other kind of perspective shall be accorded any value after one has rendered one’s own sacrosanct with the names ‘God,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘eternity’” (p. 132).
Author Information: Kenneth Vail is a researcher and PhD candidate at University of Missouri-Columbia, working with Dr. Jamie Arndt. Mr. Vail received his BA in psychology at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and his MA in social psychology at University of Missouri-Columbia. His work focuses primarily on understanding the nature of existentially motivated actions and attitudes in political, religious, and health domains. Correspondence: Kenneth E. Vail III, Department of Psychological Sciences, McAlester Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211, email: email@example.com
Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: a terror management theory. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), Public self and private self (pp.189-212). New York: Springer-Verlag.
Ipsos/Reuters (2011). Supreme being(s), the afterlife and evolution. Retrieved on April 25, 2011, from http://www.ipsos-na.com/news-polls/pressrelease.aspx?id=5217
Landau, M. J., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2004). The motivational underpinnings of religion: Comment. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27, 743-744.
Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (2011). Retrieved on May 20, 2011, from http://www.militaryatheists.org/
Military Atheists and Secular Humanists (2011). Retrieved on May 20, 2011, from http://usamash.org/
Military Religious Freedom Foundation (2011). Retrieved on May 20, 2011, from http://www.militaryreligiousfreedom.org/
Nietzsche (1895/2003). Twilight of the idols and The anti-Christ. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.
Norenzayan, A., & Hansen, I. G. (2006). Belief in supernatural agents in the face of death. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 174-187.
Pew (2012). “Nones” on the rise: One in five adults have no religious affiliation. Retrieved on October 11, 2012, from http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx
Smith-Stoner, M. (2007). End-of-life preferences for Atheists. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 10, 923-928.