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Who Works Harder? Separating Claims of Conscientiousness from Nation-level Response Tendencies

November 19, 2012

Image courtesy of Jannoon028/Free Digital

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.

Author Information

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.

Mõttus, R., Allik, J., Realo, A., Pullmann, H., Rossier, J., Zecca, G., … Ng Tseung, C. (2012). Comparability of self-reported conscientiousness across 21 countries. European Journal of Personality, 26(3), 303–317.
Mõttus, R., Allik, J., Realo, A., Rossier, J., Zecca, G., Ah-Kion, J., … Johnson, W. (2012). The effect of response style on self-reported conscientiousness across 20 countries. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(11), 1423–1436.
This project was supported by grants from the Estonian Ministry of Science and Education (SF0180029s08) and the Estonian Science Foundation (ESF7020) to Jüri Allik, by a Swiss National Science Foundation grant (ZK0Z1_131287/1) to Jüri Allik and Jérôme Rossier, by a Mobilitas grant (MJD44) from the European Social Fund to René Mõttus, and by a Primus grant (3-8.2/60) from the European Social Fund to Anu Realo.
Image Credit: Image (ID: 10060385) courtesy of  jannoon028 /
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