New study indicates Canadians and Americans have similar personalities

It is accepted wisdom that Candians are much less aggressive and obnoxious than most Americans. I have frequently encountered statements to this effect during my extensive international travels. A recent personality survey indicates that Canadians are not much different from Americans personality-wise.The conventional view is that Americans are brash, arrogant and aggressive. Canadians, on the other hand, are polite, modest and somewhat introverted.

Of course the national sterotypes are not confined to Canadians and Americans. This is illustrated by a story about the difference between heaven and hell.Heaven, the joke goes, is a place where the police are English, the mechanics German and cooks French. Hell is where the police are German, the mechanics French and the cooks English

A recent study of national personalities suggests that these sterotypes don't hold water. I remain unconvinced and will report back after looking into the study methodology. Meanwhile here's the spin on the story as reported by Canadian Press.

"These stereotypes are as Canadians see themselves and Americans as they see themselves," said Robert McCrae of the U.S. National Institute on Aging, a principal investigator of the study on national personalities around the world.

"Canadians think they're extremely agreeable; the Americans think they're very disagreeable," he said. "Canadians believe that they're very calm and not irritable, very even-tempered, whereas Americans think they're more anxious and hostile.

"The fact is Canadians and Americans have almost identical average personality traits."

In a measure of five main areas of personality, covering a total of 30 traits, Canadians and their U.S. cousins fell roughly in the middle. Not only that, but they weren't all that different from other cultures around the globe, researchers found.

The study, published in the latest issue of Science, collected data through personality questionnaires given to thousands of people living in 49 countries.

Over and over, stereotypes about different nationalities emerged, but all were left wanting.

"These are very interesting sociological phenomena," McCrae said. "They get made into myths and they turn up in literature and in songs and in jokes and kind of have a life of their own."

Take the Brits, for example, whose national character is typically viewed as reserved and stalwart.

"The English showed the worst agreement in the entire set between the stereotype and the measured personality," said McCrae. "The stereotype of the English is that they're very reserved, whereas as in fact English are extroverts.

"And English think that they're relatively conventional and closed, but compared to most people in the world, they're pretty open to experience."

Germany was one example in which at least part of the stereotype matched reality, he said. "Germans think that they're conscientious and industrious and they measured out as conscientious and industrious."

Argentines believe they're a nation of disagreeable folk, and that reputation is pervasive throughout Latin America. But Argentines scored as average on the agreeableness scale.

McCrae noted that one Canadian researcher, upon seeing the results, said: " `Well, the Canadians are not going to like this story, because they really want to believe that they are much nicer than Americans.'

"I think that shows that at least one of the functions that stereotypes serve is to assert a national identity. We want to distinguish ourselves from Americans, so we'll invent some kind of difference and exaggerate it, and in this case it has to do with things like agreeableness," he said of the so-called Canadian identity.

Paul Trapnell, a professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg, agreed that claiming particular national character traits can support certain motives: differentiating a population from other cultures and building its self-esteem.

"So we'll try to see ourselves as different from Americans and the differences we'll latch onto are the differences that also serve our desire to think good about ourselves," said Trapnell, one of three Canadian researchers who contributed data to the study.

What he found interesting was how homogenous the notion of the "typical Canuck" was across the country.

"The views that persons in Vancouver have about Canadians are very similar to the views that Nova Scotians have about Canadians," Trapnell said. "So we do possess a somewhat loosely organized but shared perception of what our national character is like, even though that shared perception doesn't turn out to be a real one."

What another country does on the world stage or on home soil may also contribute to national stereotypes, suggested psychologist Delroy Paulhus of the University of British Columbia, who also took part in the study.

"Canadians confuse typical Americans with their country's foreign policy, which seems belligerent," Paulhus said by e-mail. "Or Canadians extrapolate the higher rate of crime in the U.S. to infer typical character."

Whatever the reasons, typecasting an entire people can be dangerous, the authors say, leading to prejudice, discrimination and persecution.

"Clearly it tells us that we need to be very cautious about making generalizations about groups of people, any kind of groups of people," McCrae said. "Because often those generalizations are unfounded.

"Instead, what we have to do is remind ourselves that we're dealing with individuals, and regardless of what their nationality or their age or their gender, we should look at their personality as it is in themselves."

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