LiveScience Staff Writer
LiveScience.com Thu Oct 6, 3:00 PM ET
Americans are assertive, Italians are very passionate,
and Germans are the picture of efficiency.
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
* How outgoing someone is (extroversion),
* How cooperative and altruistic they are
* Whether they're disciplined and structured
* How often they experience negative emotions like
anxiety or sadness (neuroticism),
* How open they are to new ideas and experiences
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
"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
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,"
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
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
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."