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  • Invited Essay: Could the People of the Great Plains Have Distinctive Character Traits? Looking to Scientific Research for Clues
  • John R. Hibbing (bio)

“Flat Places, Deep Identities.” The first two words of the title of the 2017 Great Plains Symposium mesh nicely with the intended emphasis on geography and mapping, but it is the final two words that are potentially more controversial and that serve as the point of departure for this essay. Is it possible that people residing in the Great Plains have deep and distinct identities, values, philosophies, creeds, and personalities? More generally, is there such a thing as national or regional characters? If the people living in individual countries or areas are indeed distinct, what produces these differences? In other words, what are the precise mechanisms by which variations in character across geographical territories appear and are perpetuated? Disputes and conflicting claims on these matters have persisted since the beginning of history (Herodotus [1968]), and I do not pretend to offer firm answers here, but recent work in leading scientific journals sheds interesting new light on the topic. My purpose in this essay is not to make claims of my own but rather to summarize and integrate several of these studies so that readers might be better positioned to reflect for themselves on whether and why there could be such a thing as a Great Plains identity or character.

Do National and Regional Character Exist?

Are Germans serious and hardworking? Are Japanese conformists? Are Canadians friendly? Are Australians outgoing? Are Californians laid back? Are Northeasterners brusque? Are Southerners polite? Are Indigenous People of the Plains more assertive than those hailing from coastal areas? To some, even considering the possibility of behavioral and attitudinal differences across groups is deeply troublesome, yet beliefs in the existence of distinct character traits are widespread and stubborn. To take one oft-cited example, Daniel Elazar argues that people living in certain states of the Upper Midwest display “moralistic” tendencies; that those living in many states in the South are “traditional”; and that those living in many states primarily in the Northeast are “individualistic” (Elazar 1972). Does systematic empirical research provide guidance on whether national and regional character traits are myths or have a basis in fact? Yes, though it would seem the answers suggested by that research are anything but consistent. Two major studies, each including dozens of coauthors from around the world and each appearing in the leading journal Science, come to remarkably different conclusions.

Terracciano et al. (2005) asked individual samples of people in 49 diverse countries (or distinct subcultures within selected countries), from Burkina Faso and Indonesia to Canada and Denmark, to rate their [End Page 79] own personality traits as well as those of acquaintances. Mean ratings for each country were then compared to the results of a separate survey in the same countries and subcultures in which people were asked to “describe the typical member of your culture.” For example, a German Swiss might be asked to report whether a typical German Swiss is “anxious, nervous, and worrying” or “calm and relaxed.” The juxtaposition of the results from these two surveys is interesting. Though perceptions of national character traits often followed expected patterns, with Australians believing Australians in general to be extraverted, Germans believing typical Germans to be conscientious, and Canadians believing Canadians to be agreeable, averaging people’s perceptions of themselves and their acquaintances produced quite a different message. Beliefs about national characteristics did not at all reflect the traits that people saw in themselves or the people they knew. In fact, self-assessed personality traits varied remarkably little from country to country while perceptions of national character varied dramatically, leading the authors to conclude that the existence of real rather than perceived national character differences is either exaggerated or simply “not descriptive of the people themselves” (99).

Another equally ambitious but more recent effort to collect data on cross-cultural differences comes to a very different conclusion, however. Gelfand et al. (2011) focus not on personality traits but rather on the degree to which cultures are “tight” or “loose.” Tight cultures are those that have numerous strong norms and a low tolerance for deviant behavior...


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