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“Basic” personality traits may not be universal

March 30, 2013
Courtesy of the American Psychological Association
and World Science staff

Five pe­r­son­al­ity traits widely thought to be uni­ver­sal across cul­tures might not be, ac­cord­ing to a study of an iso­lat­ed so­ci­e­ty.

Psy­chol­o­gists who spent two years work­ing with 1,062 mem­bers of the Tsi­mane cul­ture of Bo­liv­ia found that they did­n’t nec­es­sarily ex­hib­it the five broad di­men­sions of pe­r­son­al­ity – open­ness, con­sci­en­tious­ness, ex­tra­ver­sion, agree­a­ble­ness and neu­rot­i­cism – al­so known as the “Big Five.” 

The Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­socia­t­ion’s Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy pub­lished the study on­line Dec. 17.

Pre­vi­ous re­search has found strong sup­port for the Big Five traits in more de­vel­oped coun­tries and across some cul­tures, but these re­search­ers found more ev­i­dence of a Tsi­mane “Big Two:” so­cially ben­e­fi­cial be­hav­ior, al­so known as proso­cial­ity, and in­dus­tri­ous­. These Big Two com­bine el­e­ments of the tra­di­tion­al Big Five, and may rep­re­sent un­ique as­pects of highly so­cial, sub­sist­ence so­ci­eties, the re­search­ers said.

“Si­m­i­lar to the con­sci­en­tiousness por­tion of the Big Five, sev­er­al traits that bun­dle to­geth­er among the Tsi­mane in­clud­ed ef­fi­cien­cy, pe­r­se­ver­ance and thor­ough­ness. These traits re­flect the in­dus­tri­ous­ of a so­ci­e­ty of sub­sist­ence farm­ers,” said the stu­dy’s lead au­thor, Mi­chael Gur­ven of the Uni­vers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, San­ta Bar­ba­ra. 

“How­ever, oth­er in­dus­tri­ous traits in­clud­ed be­ing en­er­get­ic, re­laxed and help­ful. In small-scale so­ci­eties, in­di­vid­u­als have few­er choices for so­cial or sex­u­al part­ners and lim­it­ed do­mains of op­por­tun­i­ties for cul­tur­al suc­cess and pro­fi­cien­cy. This may re­quire abil­i­ties that link as­pects of dif­fer­ent traits, re­sult­ing in a trait struc­ture oth­er than the Big Five.”

The Tsi­mane are forager-farm­ers who live in com­mun­i­ties of roughly 30 to 500 peo­ple, dis­pe­rsed among about 90 vil­lages. Since the mid-1900s, they have come in­to great­er con­tact with the mod­ern world, but mor­tal­ity rates re­main high (a­bout one in five ba­bies nev­er reach age five) and fer­til­ity is very high (a­round nine births per wom­an), the study said. Few Tsi­mane are for­mally ed­u­cat­ed; lit­er­a­cy is about 25 pe­rcent. Some 40 pe­rcent speak Span­ish in ad­di­tion to their na­tive lan­guage. They live in ex­tend­ed family clus­ters that share food and la­bor and lim­it con­tact with out­siders un­less ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary, ac­cord­ing to the au­thors.

Re­search­ers trans­lated in­to the Tsi­mane lan­guage a stand­ard ques­tion­naire that as­sesses the Big Five pe­r­son­al­ity traits. In 2009 and 2010, they in­ter­viewed 632 adults from 28 vil­lages. The sam­ple was 48 pe­rcent fe­male with an av­er­age age of 47 years (rang­ing from 20 to 88) and lit­tle more than a year of for­mal educa­t­ion.

Re­search­ers al­so con­ducted a sep­a­rate study to gauge the re­li­a­bil­ity of the mod­el when an­swered by peers. They asked 430 Tsi­mane adults, in­clud­ing 66 peo­ple from the first stu­dy, to eval­u­ate their spouse’s pe­r­son­al­ity. The sec­ond study re­vealed that the sub­jec­t’s pe­r­son­al­ity as re­ported by his or her spouse al­so did not fit with the Big Five traits.

The re­search­ers said they ac­counted for educa­t­ion lev­el, Span­ish flu­en­cy, gen­der and age. Pre­vi­ous re­search has sug­gested that for­mal school­ing and great­er in­ter­ac­tion with oth­ers, such as when vil­lagers ven­ture to mar­kets in oth­er towns, can lead to more ab­stract re­flection and may be one rea­son why the Big Five repli­cates in most places, ac­cord­ing to the au­thors. How­ev­er, the au­thors found no sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences be­tween the less ed­u­cat­ed, Tsi­mane-only speak­ers and the more ed­u­cat­ed bi­lin­gual par­ti­ci­pants.

Oth­er re­cent re­search has shown the Big Five pe­r­son­al­ity traits may be lack­ing in some de­vel­op­ing cul­tures, par­tic­u­larly in Asia and Af­ri­ca. But this is the first study of a large sam­ple of an ex­clu­sively in­dig­e­nous popula­t­ion com­plet­ed with rig­or­ous method­olog­i­cal con­trols, ac­cord­ing to Gur­ven. 

He sug­gested pe­r­son­al­ity re­search­ers ex­pand be­yond the lim­it­ed scope of more West­ern, in­dus­t­ri­al­ized and ed­u­cat­ed popula­t­ions. “The lifestyle and ecol­o­gy typ­i­cal of hunter-gatherers and horticul­tur­alists (small-scale farm­ers) are the cru­ci­ble that shaped much of hu­man psy­chol­o­gy and be­hav­ior,” he said. “De­spite its pop­u­lar­ity, there is no good the­o­ry that ex­plains why the Big Five takes the form it does, or why it is so com­monly ob­served. Rath­er than just point out a case study where the Big Five fails, our goal should be to bet­ter un­der­stand the fac­tors that shape pe­r­son­al­ity more gen­er­al­ly.”


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Five personality traits widely thought to be universal across cultures might not be, according to a study of an isolated society. Psychologists who spent two years working with 1,062 members of the Tsimane culture of Bolivia found that they didn’t necessarily exhibit the five broad dimensions of personality – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – also known as the “Big Five.” The American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published the study online Dec. 17. Previous research has found strong support for the Big Five traits in more developed countries and across some cultures, but these researchers found more evidence of a Tsimane “Big Two:” socially beneficial behavior, also known as prosociality, and industriousness. These Big Two combine elements of the traditional Big Five, and may represent unique aspects of highly social, subsistence societies, the researchers said. “Similar to the conscientiousness portion of the Big Five, several traits that bundle together among the Tsimane included efficiency, perseverance and thoroughness. These traits reflect the industriousness of a society of subsistence farmers,” said the study’s lead author, Michael Gurven of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “However, other industrious traits included being energetic, relaxed and helpful. In small-scale societies, individuals have fewer choices for social or sexual partners and limited domains of opportunities for cultural success and proficiency. This may require abilities that link aspects of different traits, resulting in a trait structure other than the Big Five.” The Tsimane are forager-farmers who live in communities of roughly 30 to 500 people, dispersed among about 90 villages. Since the mid-1900s, they have come into greater contact with the modern world, but mortality rates remain high (about one in five babies born never reach age five) and fertility is very high (around nine births per woman), the study said. Few Tsimane are formally educated; literacy is about 25 percent. Some 40 percent speak Spanish in addition to their native language. They live in extended family clusters that share food and labor and limit contact with outsiders unless absolutely necessary, according to the authors. Researchers translated into the Tsimane language a standard questionnaire that assesses the Big Five personality traits. In 2009 and 2010, they interviewed 632 adults from 28 villages. The sample was 48 percent female with an average age of 47 years (ranging from 20 to 88) and little more than a year of formal education. Researchers also conducted a separate study to gauge the reliability of the model when answered by peers. They asked 430 Tsimane adults, including 66 people from the first study, to evaluate their spouse’s personality. The second study revealed that the subject’s personality as reported by his or her spouse also did not fit with the Big Five traits. The researchers said they accounted for education level, Spanish fluency, gender and age. Previous research has suggested that formal schooling and greater interaction with others, such as when villagers venture to markets in other towns, can lead to more abstract reflection and may be one reason why the Big Five replicates in most places, according to the authors. However, the authors found no significant differences between the less educated, Tsimane-only speakers and the more educated bilingual participants. Other recent research, some of which has been outlined in an article in the journal American Psychologist, has shown the Big Five personality traits may be lacking in some developing cultures, particularly in Asia and Africa. But this is the first study of a large sample of an exclusively indigenous population completed with rigorous methodological controls, according to Gurven. He suggested personality researchers expand beyond the limited scope of more Western, industrialized and educated populations. “The lifestyle and ecology typical of hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists (small-scale farmers) are the crucible that shaped much of human psychology and behavior,” he said. “Despite its popularity, there is no good theory that explains why the Big Five takes the form it does, or why it is so commonly observed. Rather than just point out a case study where the Big Five fails, our goal should be to better understand the factors that shape personality more generally.”