Submissive Canadians? Efficient Germans? Yeah, Right

Americans are assertive, Italians are very passionate, and Germans are the picture of efficiency.

Right?

Such national stereotypes are common, but they are highly mistaken, a new study shows.

There's an old joke that goes something like this: How do you get three Canadians out of a swimming pool? The answer: You ask them. "Meaning they'll do what they're told," says researcher Robert McCrae, a psychologist at the National Institute of Aging.

Yet the stereotypes of Americans as assertive and Canadians as submissive are illusions, McCrae said. Both groups scored almost identically on measures of assertiveness in the study.

Another stereotype that was debunked was that of Czechs being antagonistic and disagreeable. Not only was this how other groups described Czechs, it was how Czechs describe themselves. Yet in the study by McCrae and his colleagues, Czechs scored higher on altruism and modesty than most people from other countries.

We don't even know ourselves

In the study, nearly 4,000 people from 49 cultures were given surveys and asked to describe a typical member of their own culture.

The surveys measured five criteria that many psychologists believe are accurate measures of an individual's personality:

  • How outgoing someone is (extroversion),
  • How cooperative and altruistic they are (agreeableness),
  • Whether they're disciplined and structured (conscientiousness),
  • How often they experience negative emotions like anxiety or sadness (neuroticism),
  • How open they are to new ideas and experiences (open-mindedness).

When the reports were compared to another survey that asked participants to rate themselves and people they knew who were of the same nationality, the two reports didn't match.

"It seems likely to me that if those are incorrect—if you don't even know the people you live among are like—it isn't likely that your stereotypes [of other groups] are going to be correct," McCrae said.

The research is detailed in the Oct. 7 issue of the journal Science.

Imaginary differences

Past studies have shown that the stereotypes one group has about another generally agreed with the stereotypes people within that group harbor about themselves. For example, Germans think of themselves in ways that are similar to what the Italian, French and British think of Germans.

But if what Germans think of themselves is not an accurate measure of reality, as the current study shows, presumably what the French think of the Germans is also not trustworthy, McCrae said. "Both groups create differences that are essentially imaginary."

"National stereotypes can provide some information about a culture, but they do not describe people," McCrae said.

Instead, the researchers suggest that national stereotypes are social constructs that emerge from the historical experiences of a people, their mythology, literature, social values and policy.

Different groups can also use negative stereotypes to discriminate against one another. History is filled with tragic examples of this, such as the Holocaust and the roundup of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

National stereotypes can be damaging for another reason, McCrae said.

"Wherever it is we get these stereotypes, once we have them we're biased in the way we evaluate our experiences. So if you meet a very assertive Canadian, you say 'Oh, he's an exception,' and you simply discount any information that conflicts with the stereotype."

The first step toward overcoming national stereotypes is to acknowledge that they are stereotypes and that they are pretty much unfounded, McCrae said. "That's not really a new message but it's one we need to keep being reminded of."