Most research in personality views personality as a collection of stable traits that can be used to predict thoughts, feelings, and behaviors over time and across situations. However, many cultural psychologists believe that this stable trait-like view of personality is primarily representative of individualistic cultures. What has been found is that individualistic cultures (“me”-centered cultures like the United States and Western Europe) and collectivist cultures (“we”-centered cultures like China and Japan) vary in how much the individual personality versus situations determines behavior.
To illustrate this difference, situations can be thought of as having different “strength”. Sometimes situations are weakly structured enough to let a person’s personality shine through. At a party, an extrovert can mingle and socialize to her heart’s content while an introvert can find a quiet area or join a game that doesn’t require him to be the center of attention. But other times, situations are more strongly regulated so that individual personality is suppressed. For instance, while watching a serious movie at a theater, it is not appropriate to laugh, add commentary, or chat with a neighbor. Violating this movie theater etiquette may lead to punishment, such as a fellow audience member angrily telling you to be quiet or even getting kicked out of the movie theater. Because this situation has rules in place that govern behavior, an extroverted movie goer is indistinguishable from an introverted one.
The differences in personality between cultures can be viewed in a similar way. In collectivist cultures, people tend to see themselves as interdependent with others, place priority on group goals, and allow rules and norms to guide behavior. The group’s rules, goals, and needs create strong guidelines for what is acceptable and what is not in each situation. So, differences in personality are not as noticeable because people behave in ways that conform to what is required by the situation.
However, in individualist cultures, people see themselves as unique, independent people, place priority on their own personal goals, and let their personal attributes guide their behavior. Because the individual is emphasized, the situation in which behavior occurs becomes weaker, allowing people to modify the situation and act in ways that are consistent with their unique personality.
There is plenty of evidence that personality traits like the Big 5 (Agreeableness, Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, and Openness) do exist across cultures, but how predictive these traits are depends on the culture. Individualist cultures view their personality as stable and the situation as changeable, whereas collectivist cultures view the situation as being stable and alter their personality to fit the needs of the situation. Those from collectivist cultures have a weaker connection between their personality and their self-concept and as a result, will experience less discomfort when behaving in a manner that is inconsistent with their personality. So, in an individualist culture, it is possible to predict how people will behave based on their personality because people tend to behave in manners consistent with their personality. But in a collectivist culture, personality does not guide behavior in the same fashion, making it more important to consider the situational context.
Church, T.A. (2000). Culture and Personality: Toward an integrated cultural trait psychology. Journal of Personality, 68(4), 651- 703.
Triandis, H.C. (2001). Individualism-collectivism and personality. Journal of Personality, 69(9), 908-924.