Cross-cultural personality traits

August 14th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

A friend of mine passed on a very interesting research report to me the other day. It’s called Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman?  Sex Differences in Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 cultures (Schmitt, Voracek, Realo, Allik, 2008). The full report isn’t available online, unless you are a student or a researcher yourself, but I’ll be quoting some relevant passages.

As you may know, I’m interested in the emerging research that investigates the innate differences  between men and women. Even though innate sex differences shouldn’t be overexaggerated, it is a breath of fresh air that we are actually studying these differences, instead of pretending that they don’t exist. The whole gender discourse needs to be infused with solid research — be it biological, sociological or cross-cultural.

Innate sex difference can be studied in a few different ways:

  1. Mapping brain structure and function using new imaging techniques such as PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging)
  2. Studying the behavior of newborns or infants
  3. Studying evolutionary psychology
  4. Doing cross-cultural studies

Number 2 and 4 are perhaps the two most reliable sources, since differences between newborns are innate by definition, and traits that persist across cultures can hardly be said to be culturally constructed. The article that my friend gave to me, is an excellent example of a cross-cultural study. Let’s see what the authors have to say about personality traits in different cultures:

In many studies, including several meta-analytic investigations, it has been found that men tend to be more assertive and risk taking than women, whereas women are generally higher than men in anxiety and tender-mindedness (Brody & Hall, 2000; Byrnes, Miller, & Schafer, 1999; Feingold, 1994; Kring & Gordon, 1998; Lynn & Martin, 1997; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974). These sex differences in personality traits can be detected in early childhood (Else-Quest, Hyde, Goldsmith, & Van Hulle, 2006; Wilgenbusch & Merrell, 1999) and remain fairly constant across adulthood (Feingold, 1994; McCrae & Costa, 1984). The effects of these sex differences lead to predictable differences in men’s and women’s leisure behaviors, occupational preferences, and health-related outcomes (Browne, 1998; Collaer & Hines, 1995; Lippa, 2005).

Observed sex differences in personality traits such as assertiveness and anxiety also appear to be culturally pervasive (Costa, Terracciano, & McCrae, 2001; Lynn & Martin, 1997). Feingold (1994) found that women in Canada, China, Finland, Germany, Poland, and Russia tended to score higher than men on scales related to the personality traits of neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Men, in contrast, scored higher in the extraversion related trait of assertiveness across cultures. In a much larger study, self-report responses to the Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R) across 36 cultures revealed that women in most countries are higher in several traits related to neuroticism, agreeableness, warmth, and openness to feelings, whereas men score higher on scales measuring assertiveness and openness to ideas (Costa et al., 2001; McCrae, 2002).

In other words: important sex differences in personality traits persist across cultures to an extent that would be highly unlikely if these traits weren’t inborn. This is of course what evolutionary psychologists have been claiming all along, but here we have a wealth of actual research backing up those claims.

However, the study itself was not only about validating these sex difference in personality traits across cultures (though it did that too), it was also about comparing the magnitude of these sex differences in traditional and modern societies. Many of us probably believe that sex differences become smaller in post-traditional societies, due to gender equality and women entering the work force. But this research presents some counter-intuitive results:

Sex differences in most personality traits, however, are not uniform in magnitude across all samples. At times, sex differences can be much larger in some cultures than in others (Fischer & Manstead, 2000; Guimond et al., 2007; Schwartz & Rubel, 2005). One unexpected finding has been that sex differences in personality traits are often larger in prosperous, healthy, and egalitarian cultures in which women have more opportunities equal with men (Costa et al., 2001; McCrae, 2002). Both in self-report and in other-report data, Asian and African cultures generally show the smallest sex differences, whereas European and American cultures—in which living standard and gender equity indexes are generally higher—show the largest differences (McCrae et al., 2005). With improved national wealth and equality of the sexes, it seems differences between men and women in personality traits do not diminish. On the contrary, the differences become conspicuously larger.

This study provides strong support for the claim that with greater human development and with greater opportunities for gender equality, the personalities of men and women do not become more similar (see also Costa et al., 2001; McCrae, 2002; McCrae et al., 2005). To the contrary, in more prosperous and egalitarian societies the personality profiles of men and women become decidedly less similar. Moreover, these changes appear to result from men’s cross-cultural personality variation. In more traditional and less developed cultures a man is, indeed, more like a woman, at least in terms of self-reported personality traits.

These are interesting findings indeed. The explanation that the authors offer is that in traditional societies, people are restrained by the lack of resources, making individual differences smaller. For example, if everyone is starving, then everyone will be short, but if everyone gets enough food then individual height differences will be more prominent. Similarly, when men and women have ample resources and the freedom to choose their own lifestyles, innate differences will be more prominent than in a traditional society where everyone needs to sacrifice individual needs to help secure food and safety.

Ironically, the more egalitarian we become, the more we can expect men and women to display different personality traits. This may not be what some feminists intended, but it appears to be an unavoidable consequence of “releasing” the innate differences into action.

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19 Responses to “Cross-cultural personality traits”

  1. Eivind F S Says:

    To say that these results are surprising is an understatement. They boggle my mind. They seem to, at least on the surface, to fly right in the face of models such as Deida’s (and indeed my own personal experience), which describe how increasing egalitarianism makes for an increase in femininity in men and masculinity in women.

    Clearly, Deida’s model is not wrong – it’s perfectly functional, indeed enlightening – so I wonder what is actually going on here. Could it be that e.g. the women that operate in a masculine way at work still feel themselves deep inside to be essentially feminine? That they don’t define themselves as much through their work as we have thought? Could the self-reporting be an expression of a yearning to be true to who we really are just as much as it is an expression of how we life our lives?

    I would love to have more information around this topic, Pelle. There is something important here, and I’m not quite grasping it yet.


  2. Mark Davenport Says:

    If these reports stand up, then I’m not as “evolved” as I thought I was! Here all along I’d been seeking historical justification for not being as “macho” as other men. And now I can’t simpy point out that “naturally” as a post-modern guy I would be more likely to feel comfortable manifesting some traditionally feminine personality features. Were my ex-wives right all that time with expecting me to aggressively pursue, for example, making a pile of money.

    Back to the drawing board to reconfigure my rationalizations.

  3. Gilesy Says:

    Hi Pelle

    Btw a parallel to this – another way to study (and probably most common way) is identical twin / fracturnal twin studies – one group in same home, one group in adopted homes. Biggest problem -> This style of investigation assumes homes are very different (and it may be the case – but you need decent measurements to prove it) as most results tend to scream ‘innate innate!’ afterwards. It been the go-to guide for heritability of psychological disorders for decades, but would be fine for studying anything else.

    Its the same with cross-cultural studies – a lot of measurements on exactly HOW cultures vary would inform the debate greatly.

    On our current culture (men / women being more different) – this actually doesn’t suprise me, starting from Pelle’s point of ‘lack of restriction’ which I think is definately valid, theres more after that fact of cultural pressures – for women to take their appearance extremely seriously, it becoming their highest trading point when it comes to relationships (if you look at what men / women want in those questionnaires it frequently becomes #1). With freedom, women compete against each other freemarket style to become the most feminine / desired (something that not a priority in 2nd/3rd world countries). Some psychological differences from this could arise from competition / experience / pressure / influence – neuroticism especially.

    (Getting off topic) This is a little something I take issue with within a few feminist circles – the active desire of many ‘non-feminist’ women to conform and enjoy stereotypes – with their opinion being undercut. But this is a topic on ‘beliefs’ for another day.

    Another way of studying this is animal studies – taking hormones etc and varying them in animals as we see in the physiology of the sexes – then looking for broad behavioural differences before and after the hormones (or with identical twins – one varied on hormones the other not). Not perfect but useful – established some links with aggression and testoserone for example.

  4. Pelle Billing Says:

    @Eivind and Mark

    I think that this kind of research captures the difference between traditional and modern societies, and not so much postmodern societies. After all, most Western societies are still modern, and only very few (Scandinavia and the Netherlands?) have tipped over into postmodernity. Many Western societies have strong postmodern fractions, but they are not postmodern on the whole.

    So this research needn’t negate how men and women change in a postmodern culture, where everyone is encouraged to challenge their gender role (men should be softer, women should be tougher, and so on).

    I think that a lot of what postmodern feminists are attacking is actually the personality traits in modern societies, while they think that they are attacking the situation in traditional societies. Traditional societies were certainly gender polarized when it came to division of labor, but they were generally very communal which tends to erase any strong individual personality traits – and that would lessen the expressed differences in personality traits between the sexes.

    David Deida has done some very interesting work on sexual polarities, and masculine and feminine essences. He also has a three-stage model on how the sexes develop. However, in terms of personality traits I think his stage 1 is modernity, stage 2 postmodernity and stage 3 experimental cutting edge. I don’t think his stage 1 is an accurate description of traditional societies and how men and women related to each other back then – nor has he ever claimed that of course, but other people have read that into his work.

    When Deida speaks of the macho husband and the submissive housewife, that is modernity in a nutshell (the US in the 50s for example). I don’t believe that that is how men and women were relating to each other back in the traditional days, and this research seems to back that up.

  5. Pelle Billing Says:


    “This is a little something I take issue with within a few feminist circles – the active desire of many ‘non-feminist’ women to conform and enjoy stereotypes – with their opinion being undercut. But this is a topic on ‘beliefs’ for another day.”

    Could you expand on this? I don’t quite get what you’re saying but it sounds very interesting.

  6. Gilesy Says:

    Hi again,

    that comment was about people only being considered ‘enlightened’ or having a ‘valid opinion’ if they agree with feminism (but of course this thinking outstretches to virtually all argumentative stances).

    I know many women who revel in the exact things feminism is de-crying as harmful, some like the ‘sexes game,’ hating the idea that we might be more similar than the media tells us (hell, this even extends to publication bias’ in science journals), where men are happily objectified in different ways (ie. ‘someone to pay for me’ / status symbol etc). Similar to the traditional men-objectifying women as sex objects line.

    Theres a demand for this that feminism largely delegitimises, female orientated magazines couldn’t survive unless the (largely un-feminist) content is something women seek out – the reason for WHY they seek this out is largely deconstructed by feminists, reduced purely to social forces – thereby making the purchasers the ‘unenlightened’ and undercutting their opinion (a simple argumentative tactic).

    For instance this has come to the forefront with the Burka in europe – a historical symbol of female oppression, but also something some women WANT to wear (not all women, but enough) – this puts feminism is the hardest place of all – pressured to either deny oppression or 1st hand burka-wearing women’s opinions – for when concluding if wearing it is ok or not. I get the feeling it’ll probably fragment radical (ban it!) and libertarian (down to the individual!) feminists again (like with porn wars). They’ll have common ground on wanting to educate others about its history though.

    There are extensions from all of this to men & ‘lads culture’ – something thats stifled any growth of a mens gender liberation that takes into account both social/innate forces.

  7. Pelle Billing Says:

    Great stuff Gilesy, I thought that that was what you were getting at.

    Radical feminists claim to be representing women, but the legitimacy of that claim can indeed be questioned. Lots of women have no interest in being “rescued” by radical feminists, nor do they enjoyed being spoken down to by the feminists who presume that they know better than other women.

  8. Gilesy Says:

    I come across this problem in feminism all the time – best friend (radical feminist) and myself (basically a libertarian feminist) have talked a lot about porn / prostitution, its effects and the people involved in it. Outside of this, I happen to have a lot of friends who are pornstars, models and prostitutes, so I’ve seen a lot in the way of their motivations, their treatment and how they feel about themselves afterwards. Many I know have great financial situations, great education and bright futures but still want to cash in on ‘easy-money,’ experiment, or want to have pornstar status (they see as a positive). I’ve seen a positive influence on their lives contrary to standard perception (I remember reading a horrifying article in daily mail – a popular rightwing UK paper, equating prostitutes as sub-human).

  9. Andreas Dahlin Says:

    This sounds like a very interesting study. I think I have generally underestimated the power of cross-cultural studies. I’m not sure I get the conclusion that “the more we are free the more different we become”… It feels like it might as well be the other way around, depending on what attribute is measured. For instance, if men are better at acting calmly in dangerous situations (are they?), this should be more pronounced and visible in earlier societies or?

  10. Andrew Says:


    I think a good analogy would be plant growth. When they are saplings it can be difficult to tell sometimes, depending on the species, what genus they are, and it’s only when they grow (ie become more free of their initial conditions based on securing survival) that they grow into what they had the potential to be (with their innate differences becoming more pronounced). I think this research is highlighting and uncovering the particular details on this common evolutionary trend in gender differences.

    I agree with you in that it certainly depends on what attributes are measured. According to Deida, the masculine is better at facing death and that theme would go all the way up – males on the battlefield and male existentialists. The feminine embraces life and relationships from being better equipped to caring for the young, to pioneering the first gender liberation movement, feminism. Once biological determinism is overcome, these general themes become more pronounced in endeavors in the mental domain. Both masculine and feminine may end up in the same endeavor, but each will have it’s own distinct ‘flavour’. At least, this is what I’m reading into it…


    I’m with you on your understanding of Deida. I think that’s exactly how his stage conception operates. Great post Pelle! Thanks for this. Very interesting…

    Taking this evolutionary idea into the other themes highlighted – I think most feminists still suffer from what Wilber calls ‘flatland’ in that they mistakenly believe that all women (people) are at the same developmental stage and want their particular view of gender liberation (or they’re sheep). For example, the burqa and hijab have been seen as a form of gender liberation by many Islamic feminists at different periods and in different places in recent history. Just as they have also been used as a form of oppression. If the feminists truely investigate this particular aspect of Islamic history, hopefully this will give them a greater insight into gender dynamics and it’s relationship to the evolution of consciousness. At the very least, it will confuse them!

    I think the situation is the same with porn (ie very complicated!). Developmentalism still informs the best analysis. In some cases, as Gilsey has experiences with, there are some aspects to it that some women find liberating. My personal view is that most forms of porn are not capable of this and are in fact damaging to both men and women, depending where the participants and users are coming from. I think it can only really become in any way beneficial in post-modern societies. Most forms of porn are degrading to both men and women.

  11. Captain Courageous Says:

    In support of your article: I posted a piece on masculinism in the arts. Feminists usually decry it. They posit aggression as the prime factor differentiating masculinism from feminism. From aggression, they derive self-aggrandizement
    (Codespeak for assertiveness). The other items they list are further insulting distortions and not worth writing here. But, the main point is that aggression and assertion belong to masculinists, even in the arts!

  12. Mattias Says:

    This all makes perfect sense if you view it from Abraham Maslow’s angle.

    In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs it is stated that all humans (regardless of sex) first fill their basic needs like food, water and physical safety before they move on to issues like love and esteem. Last, and highest, in the hierarchy is self-actualization which might be called “individualism” which is what we are talking about.

    The interesting part, in my opinion, is when you compare the individual struggle for ascent in the hierarchy with the same struggle for society, or humankind. Do we control the direction of humankind or is the humankinds direction controlling me?

  13. Pelle Billing Says:


    I use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when I lecture about these things!

    “The interesting part, in my opinion, is when you compare the individual struggle for ascent in the hierarchy with the same struggle for society, or humankind. Do we control the direction of humankind or is the humankinds direction controlling me?”

    I think it’s both :)

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  17. Mark Davenport Says:


    Google doesn’t translate this term, Pelle. Does it roughly refer to those who are involved in gender studies?

  18. Pelle Billing Says:

    Yes. Your translation is spot on, Mark.

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