Cross-posted at Neuroskeptic.

“Personality differences” between people from different countries may just be a reflection of cultural differences in the use of “extreme” language to describe people.

That’s according to a very important paper just out from an international team led by Estonia’s René Mõttus.

There’s a write up of the study here. In a nutshell, they took 3,000 people from 22 places and asked them to rate the personality of 30 fictional people based on brief descriptions (which were the same, but translated into the local language). Ratings were on a 1 to 5 scale.

It turned out that some populations handed out more of the extreme 1 or 5 responses. Hong Kong, South Korea and Germany tended to give middle of the road 2, 3 and 4 ratings, while Poland, Burkina Faso and people from Changchun in China were much more fond of 1s and 5s.

The characters they were rating were the same in all cases, remember.

Crucially, when the participants rated themselves on the same personality traits, they tended to follow the same pattern. Koreans rated themselves to have more moderate personality traits, compared to Burkinabés who described themselves in stronger tones.

Whether this is a cultural difference or a linguistic one is perhaps debatable; it might be a sign that it is not easy to translate English-language personality words into certain languages without changing how ‘strong’ they sound. However, either way, it’s a serious problem for psychologists interested in cross-cultural studies.

I’ve long suspected that something like this might lie behind the very large differences in reported rates of mental illness across countries. Studies have found that about 3 times as many people in the USA report symptoms of mental illness compared to people in Spain, yet the suicide rate is almost the same, which is odd because mental illness is strongly associated with suicide.

One explanation would be that some cultures are more likely to report ‘higher than normal’ levels of distress, anxiety — a bit like how some make more extreme judgements of personality.

So it would be very interesting to check this by comparing the results of this paper to the international mental illness studies. Unfortunately, the countries sampled don’t overlap enough to do this yet (as far as I can see).

Source: Mõttus R, et al (2012). The Effect of Response Style on Self-Reported Conscientiousness Across 20 Countries. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin PMID: 22745332


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Norton Sociology recently posted an image that illustrate differences in rates of imprisonment in a number of countries. Imprisonment rates are influenced by a number of factors — what is made illegal, how intense law enforcement efforts are, preference for prison time over other options, etc. The U.S. does not compare favorably, with 74.3 per 100,000 10,000 of our population behind bars (click here for a version you can zoom in on, and sorry for the earlier typo!):

Here’s a close-up of the breakdown of the U.S. prison population:

Via Urban Demographics.

UPDATE:  Since posting this, I’ve discovered that the numbers do not accurately reflect the ratio of CEO vs. worker pay.  Writes PolitiFact:

We don’t doubt the chart’s underlying point that the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay is high in the United States, and is likely higher in our free-wheeling economy than it is in the historically more egalitarian nations of Europe.

But in its claim that the U.S. ratio is 475 to 1, the chart conveys a sense of certitude and statistical precision that simply isn’t warranted — and which is contradicted by the facts. The latest number for the U.S. is 185 to 1 in one study and 325 to 1 in another [though in previous years, those ratios have reached as high as 525 to 1] — and those numbers were not generated by groups that might have an ideological interest in downplaying the gaps between rich and poor. We rate the claim on the U.S. ratio False.

I apologize for not vetting this more carefully.

H/T KeepYourHopesUpHigh via GlobalSociologyBlog.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

As we enter the last frenzied days of Christmas shopping, Dmitriy T.M. thought it was worth looking at international comparisons in spending on the holiday. The Economist posted a graph based on Gallup polls and other data sources about how much individuals in various countries in Europe, plus the U.S. and South Africa, plan to spend on Christmas shopping this year, plotted against national GDP. Overall, Christmas spending correlates with national wealth, with the Netherlands being a noticeable outlier (spending less than we’d expect) and Luxembourg in a spending league of its own:


In Capital, Karl Marx discusses how the products we buy are separated from any recognition of the people who produced them. If I want to buy a TV, I’m unlikely to be involved in any kind of interaction with the people who made it. I don’t see the factory where they worked, I don’t have any idea what the conditions were like, I have no specific idea where it was made, outside of “Made in  _____” written on the box. Instead, I exchange money for the TV at a store that almost certainly had nothing to do with manufacturing the TV; no one at Best Buy or Wal-Mart could tell me any more about the specific conditions of production than what I can figure out from reading the package.

Marx referred to this as commodity fetishism. The social relations embedded in products — the fact that someone made that TV, under particular conditions, making a certain amount of money for their labor while producing profit for their employer — are obscured and workers become invisible. Instead, we focus on how much we pay for it, and which store charges the least. Marx argues that relationships between workers, employers, and consumers are presented to us simply as relationships between things; we exchange paper money (an abstract measure of our labor) for commodities, and we rarely pause to think about how the price of a TV is determined by the worth placed on workers in a particular place at a particular time.

Social activists concerned with working conditions, environmental impacts, and a range of other concerns often push back against commodity fetishism, attempting to make the social relations of production visible to consumers again. Craig Martin of Religion Bulletin provided an example from South Africa’s Apartheid Museum. This poster, produced during the struggle against apartheid, calls for a boycott on South African fruit (UPDATE: A reader found a larger image so you can see more detail; via):

The visual of workers soldiers superimposed on the fruit, with workers and protesters in the background, and the phrase “Every bite buys a bullet!”, remind consumers that items they buy having meaning for the world around them, and that they aren’t just exchanging money at a grocery store in return for that fruit; they are buying into a system of production that provides profits for a racist government, which uses those profits to buy military supplies used to enforce its brutal, unequal racist policies.

As Martin says,

In Capital Marx says that commodity fetishism presents relations between men as relations between things — and this poster is a powerful example of an attempt to demystify commodities and reveal that they are in fact relations between human beings.

Deeb K. sent in a story from the New York Times about who does unpaid work — that is, the housework, carework, and volunteering that people do without financial compensation. Based on time-use surveys by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), this chart shows how many more minutes per day women in various nations spend doing such activities compared to men:

Childcare stuck out as an area with a particularly large gap:

On child care in particular, mothers spend more than twice as much time per day as fathers do: 1 hour 40 minutes for mothers, on average, compared to 42 minutes for fathers…On average, working fathers spend only 10 minutes more per day on child care when they are not working, whereas working mothers spend nearly twice as much time (144 minutes vs. 74) when not working.

The full OECD report breaks down types of unpaid work (this is overall, including data for both men and women):

The study also found that non-working fathers spend less time on childcare than working mothers in almost every country in the study (p. 19). And mothers and fathers do different types of childcare, with dads doing more of what we might think of as the “fun stuff” (p. 20):

Source: Miranda, V. 2011. “Cooking, Caring and Volunteering: Unpaid Work around the World.” OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 116. OECD Publishing.

Last month, Lisa posted a video of Jennifer Lee discussing the U.S. racial ideology with Dalton Conley. Jennifer (who teaches sociology at the University of California-Irvine) emailed us to let us know there’s now a second video, in which she discusses the difference between race and ethnicity, as well as how racial ideologies are socially constructed:

Peter Nardi, of Pitzer College, sent in an image that illustrates the social construction of race. He visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, and took a photo of a plaque on the wall that reprinted information published in the Johannesburg-based newspaper The Star on March 21, 1986. The article reported on changes in the official racial classification of over 1,000 South Africans in 1985:

Because race is socially constructed, racial classifications change as underlying racial ideologies shift, sometimes opening up opportunities (for instance, allowing groups to be classified as a less stigmatized race) but also often reinforcing racial stratification (such as when the U.S. made the “one-drop” rule, by which you were African American if you had even one Black ancestor, official policy, preventing mixed-race individuals from avoiding the stigma of being Black).

And I’m visiting my family until the 28th, so I will have very sporadic internet access. I’ve scheduled posts for the whole week, but I won’t be able to update/correct/respond much, so I apologize in advance. On the upside, my trips home often provide material for at least one post, so yay!

Abby Kinchy, Assistant Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Richard M., and Alana B., who blogs at Pecan Pie, sent us a link to a post by Maya at Feministing about an anti-domestic violence PSA from South Africa. The group that created the ad, People Opposing Women Abuse, set up an experiment of sorts. A man first played drums loudly in his townhouse, quickly leading to multiple complaints by neighbors about the noise and a written warning. On a different night, the group loudly played a tape of what sounded like a violent dispute between a man and a woman.  The reaction? Watch:

Aside from the obviously horrifying implications about domestic violence, I think it’s an interesting illustration of what people feel comfortable intervening or complaining about. As Maya points out in the original post, we all  like to think we would immediately be at the door or on the phone with police, but many of us have, at one point or another, encountered a situation where we didn’t know whether to intervene or not:

…I once sat in a subway station in Manhattan late at night and watched a man try to get a sobbing, drunk woman to leave with him. I hesitated, not sure what to do. A few minutes later the police arrived; someone had acted, but it wasn’t me. Just last week, I saw a man aggressively slap a woman’s butt as she walked past in my neighborhood. I looked the other way, and she didn’t say anything either. I ignore sexual harassment—directed at me or others—pretty much every day.

I suspect what is going on here is a mixture of factors: that we put violence between partners into a different, less serious category than, say, a fist-fight between strangers at a bar, an unwillingness to intervene in what many think of as a private family matter, and fear about our own safety if we get involved or call authorities, among others.

For a thorough discussion of the so-called “bystander effect,” and the complex reasons people may not report behavior they find inappropriate, check out this article (free of charge) from the Journal of the International Ombudsmen Association.