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National Character

George A. DeVos

The term “national character” is used to describe the enduring personality

characteristics and unique life styles found among the populations of particular national
states. This behavior is sometimes considered on an abstract level, that is, as cultural
behavior without actual reference to necessarily different personality modalities. It may
also be considered as motivated by underlying psychological mechanisms characteristic
of a given people.
History of the field
Europe has had a long history of self-conscious awareness of national differences. In
ordinary conversation and in essays one finds discussions of the differences between
Danes and Swedes, between Belgians and Dutch, between Germans and Italians, or even
between northern and southern Italians, northern and southern Belgians, or northern
and southern Dutch. Every national group develops over a period of time certain
stereotypes of members of other national entities. Commonly held stereotypes may be
discussed in a tone of objective detachment or with varying degrees of approval of the
traits considered. While the perception of behavioral differences has led to a great deal
of verbal expression and impressionistic writing, only since the 1940s have serious
efforts been made to explore systematically the validity or precise nature of the
perceived differences with respect to underlying personality configurations.
The social or cultural anthropologist’s observations of the behavioral configurations
found in highly divergent non-Western cultures have afforded him a much wider view
of manifest variability in human behavior than is found within the western European
tradition. The anthropologist has had to contend with radically different language
structures and cognitive-perceptual patterns which define the natural and social
environment; divergent patterns of causality and logic; unusual decision-making
patterns in social groups; patterns of internalized or coerced responsibility and authority
unknown in the West; different patterns of expressing, disguising, or denying feelings
and emotions—not to mention wide variations in moral definitions and values. Almost
every generally accepted, unquestioned “universal” concerning the psychological nature
of man and the basic elements of social, economic, or political life has been seriously
challenged by the anthropological data which present the full spectrum of world
During the course of World War n, a number of anthropologists developed the idea that
their concern with culturally determined personality differences had equal relevance to
understanding differences among Western nations. They believed that careful
evaluation of characteristics common to significant segments of the populations of the
nations involved in world conflict could lead to more meaningful analysis of diverse

sociopolitical developments occurring within these national states. Moreover, they
contended that a systematic analysis of the differences in “national character” within
the Western societies would lead to insights into the periodic tensions and
misunderstandings that had arisen between individual members of both the then allied
and enemy national groups.
Culture and personality
Anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski had been stimulated by dynamic
psychosocial theories of human nature, principally the theory of psychoanalysis, and
were prompted to search out test cases challenging universal statements concerning
man’s psychological functioning. By the time of World War n social anthropologists in
the United States, as a group, had become increasingly concerned with crosscultural
studies in the problems of personality development. The subdiscipline of culture and
personality became a valid specialization within anthropological research. The methods
developed in culture-and-personality studies were considered applicable to analyses
that would produce a deeper understanding of the behavior of nationals from various
European countries and from Japan. In addition to employing the careful observations
used in ethnographic work, culture-and-personality research also borrowed techniques
and methods developed in clinical psychology and psychiatry for individual
psychodiagnosis. Culture-and-personality research employed direct observation of child
socialization in the family, depth interviews, detailed life history data, dream analysis,
and projective psychological techniques such as the Rorschach and the Thematic
Apperception Test.
Culture at a distance
Since a number of the national-character studies were conducted in a period of total
war and were concerned with enemy or occupied countries, which were therefore
inaccessible to direct research, substitute techniques had to be developed. Research of
this kind came to be known as “the study of culture at a distance” (Mead & Métraux
1953). Nationals residing outside their countries were interviewed for reminiscences
about child-rearing patterns and social attitudes influencing interpersonal relationships
within their national states. In addition, since the societies studied were highly literate
and employed mass means of communication, novels, cartoons, newspaper articles, and
photographs were all available for systematic analysis. These materials were carefully
examined for recurrent themes or other clues to customary attitudes and social
perceptions that would point to possible underlying personality differences or at least
to differences in the structure or hierarchy of values.
Approaches to national-character analysis
Studies of national character differ widely both in their underlying theoretical
assumptions and in their research objectives. All of them assume, however, that there
are elements held in common by members of a particular state that can be traced in
some manner to the relatively enduring formative influences of the cultural character
of that state on malleable human nature. It is further assumed that common experiences

have a centripetal effect that to some degree or in some areas outweighs the centrifugal
effects of idiosyncratic experiences.
As an underlying objective, national-character studies all share a desire to make the
perception of national differences more comprehensible and to order them more
systematically into over-all patterns. However, the variables considered are often
neither comparable nor rigorously defined. There are variations in what is subsumed
under the concept of “national character,” depending on the author’s approach.
Margaret Mead, a vigorous proponent of nationalcharacter studies, distinguished three
approaches (1953). First, there is the analysis of relationships between the basic learning
common to children within a nation or culture and later characteristics witnessed in the
behavior of adults within the same society. Formative childhood experiences are the
immediate focus of such studies. Second, there are societal studies of the pattern and
structure of interpersonal relationships. There are cultural sanctions operating
continually throughout the society to reinforce behavioral patterns, and thus there is an
expected consistency in cultural configurations. Cultural constraints become fixed and
internalized aspects of personality. Third, there are studies comprising simple
comparative descriptions of those cultural configurations which distinguish one national
unit from another; different life styles and ways of looking at things are defined as part
of national character. Studies of this last variety remain, from a psychological standpoint
at least, surface descriptions of what seem to be consistent culturally defined values, or
behavior patterns, without reference to possible underlying motivations or personality
mechanisms. In contrast, studies included in the first two categories mentioned by Mead
seek to push beyond the descriptive level to trace out certain underlying structurally
consistent aspects of personality that are manifested in the overt behavior peculiar to
members of a given society.
The basic personality
Kardiner, in several studies concerned with personality patterns operative both in non-
Western societies and in certain sectors of American society, developed the concept of
basic personality (Kardiner 1939; Kardiner & Ovesey 1962). By means of this concept
Kardiner attempted to define components of a common personality integration shared
by a significant number of individuals who have had similar cultural experiences. The
concept is based on an interpretation of psychoanalytic theory that de-emphasizes
biological variables and focuses on culturally determined primary (i.e., family) influences
on personality development. Other social institutions as well as ideological and religious
projective systems derive their particular flavor from these socialization experiences. An
important consideration in studying basic personality variables is the position or life
situation of the parents within the society. Changes in the economic structure of a
society strongly influence the experiences of childhood and can radically alter the
primary family, thus causing changes to occur in basic personality.

The modal personality
Linton, subsequent to his collaborative work with Kardiner, developed a somewhat
different concept, that of modal personality. In modal personality, Linton (1945) sought
to emphasize the fact that personality patterns, especially those in more complex
societies, are not invariable. When a concept of modality is used, no judgment need be
made as to the degree, range, or variety of personality configurations found within a
particular culture. Nor does the concept of modal personality define the number of
possible personality types found within a particular group. The concept is quantitatively
descriptive rather than based on a series of assumptions derived from psychoanalytic
theory. (See the discussion in Duijker & Frijda [1960] for more elaborate differentiation
of the Kardiner and Linton concepts.)
Child rearing
A number of studies in national character are concerned with correlating the central role
of culturally prevalent child-rearing practices with resultant personality modalities
found in the adult. One can consider studies of class and ethnic differences within a
particular nation as a form of national-character study. In this respect there have been
attempts to describe systematically the child-rearing practices of different classes and
ethnic groups in America (e.g., Miller & Swanson 1958). In these studies, variables such
as weaning and toilet-training practices are seen as diagnostic of differential formative
socialization experiences.
Functional prerequisites
Another type of national-character study examines the basic personality traits that are
necessary for at least a working minority of individuals within a society to keep that
society functioning on its own terms. When Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst, discussed
national character (1941) he contended that in an industrial society with ever-increasing
bureaucratization and standardization of occupations, the personality traits of
discipline, orderliness, and punctuality are necessary. These traits have to be present in
a significant portion of the population if a complex industrial society is to continue to
function effectively. Robert K. Merton, the sociologist, has also concerned himself with
defining the types of personality structure that function best in bureaucratic settings
(1940). He discusses how the settings themselves are influential in determining
personality variables.
Sociopolitical interpretations
One of the basic objectives of national-character studies is to examine the tensions
underlying the political and social structures of modern states. Social tensions are
particularly apparent in societies that are rapidly changing. For example, one type of
social tension that is frequently observed results from the systematic attempts of an
elite to establish particular patterns of directed social change, in spite of the
unavailability of sufficient individuals whose training and social experience equip them
for achieving the goals set by the elite.

Some national-character studies seek to differentiate between the patterns that are
characteristic of the elite and those patterns of the populace that have been imposed
upon it. In one such study, Bauer attempted to demonstrate the social tension existing
between the political elite in Russian society and a large number of individuals who are
not motivationally involved in the same ways as the members of the Communist party
hierarchy (1948).
If necessary personality traits are not forthcoming from a proportionate number of
individuals within the society, the society will not function well in terms of newer values,
whatever the elite controlling the society attempts to do. Even though institutional legal
structures are consciously changed in accord with social planning, if characteristic
changes in socialization experiences do not accompany these changes in such a manner
as to facilitate the appearance of adequate motivational behavior, the sought-after
change will not become stabilized and self-perpetuating.
In another study indirectly concerned with the psychological processes underlying
dynamics of social change, DeVos (1960) analyzed achievement motivations in both
rural and urban Japan. He related a continual preoccupation with hard work and socially
approved accomplishment to the manner in which Japanese children internalize guilt
and suggested that the prior presence of these and other related personality variables
and social values tended to facilitate the rapid change in Japanese social structure from
a feudal society to a modern state.
Hagen (1962), in a comprehensive study of economic and social change in a number of
discrete societies, cogently discussed the relationship of personality variables to
different economic traditions, such as colonialism or feudalism, and the manner in which
they either facilitate or hamper economic development. This study is illustrative of the
fact that considerations of national character are having considerable influence in
augmenting theoretical approaches in economics and political science.
Controversies over research
There has been a great deal of criticism and reaction to national-character studies on
the part of those who regard them as putting undue emphasis on what is considered to
be an unproven relation between the developmental experiences of childhood and
national character.
A most noteworthy example of such controversy is found in the numerous criticisms
leveled at the work of Geoffrey Gorer (Gorer & Rickman 1950) and his attempt to assess
Russian national character. Gorer, a strong proponent of the effect of childhood
experiences, sought to derive certain features of Russian adult personality, especially
attitudes toward authority, from the fact that a large proportion of the Great Russians
are subjected to prolonged swaddling during infancy. He stressed the effects of the
infant’s reaction to swaddling—how swaddling colors later perceptions of constraint
and authority and how it influences both modes of self-control and the expression of
aggression. While some criticism of Gorer’s work has been made with care and restraint,
other opponents have sometimes resorted to overgeneralized statements or have lifted

assertions out of context in order to make the causal sequence he suggests appear
extremely ludicrous. The controversy over Gorer’s attempts at delineating Russian
national character highlights some of the possible limitations and overextensions of
cultureand-personality methods.
There have been extreme examples of attempts to explain behavior on the basis of some
omnipresent psychological mechanism. There was, for example, a hypothesis advanced
during World War II that Germany’s national behavior was, in essence, paranoid, and
that it stemmed from the omnipresence of paranoid mechanisms within the German
people as a whole. A number of nationalcharacter studies do not stand up well when
subjected to careful scrutiny as to methods, care in comparing data, and other necessary
scientific safeguards. In effect, a number of the studies of national character are simply
impressionistic statements based on culturally and psychologically sophisticated
perceptions of a foreign culture.
Lindesmith and Strauss (1950) point out a number of the more severe criticisms it is
possible to level at national-character or culture-and-personality studies. They are
critical not only of some of the general conceptual frameworks offered, but of
conclusions reached, evidence put forward, and methods used. Among the failings they
criticize are tendencies to oversimplify or to overlook or ignore the range and variability
of behavior found even in isolated simple cultures. Some studies they cite do not
adequately distinguish between data and interpretation. In others, there is a lack of
precision in defining the variables considered. Some studies are highly limited or
selective in regard to data and informants used. One of their chief criticisms of
psychoanalytically oriented studies is that the determining or causal links between sets
of data depend on heavily labored ex post facto interpretations not subject to any
scientific validation.
Lindesmith and Strauss suggest that genuine advances await the application of
additional and better-controlled psychological research on specific issues within
cultures on which there is already a considerable amount of ethnographic material.
Unresolved questions
Although very promising, national-character studies must be considered a relatively new
approach in social science. At this stage of development one can only guess the further
direction of progress. A principal aim of national-character studies is to relate particular
forms of observable behavior characteristic of a given population to the relative
distribution of structural personality components. It is assumed that this relationship is
a partial cause of behavioral differences or similarities between groups. To accomplish
this goal adequately one must distinguish between observable behavior that is related
to surface social patterns and behavior that is related to underlying psychological
structures or personality components. The purpose of national-character studies,
therefore, is to discover the distribution of underlying psychological structures in a given
population and to determine the nature of their relationship to behavioral phenomena.

Can it be that the distribution of underlying personality modalities in the form of
motivational patterns within the population is actually not very different from one
Western society to the next? Can it be that with changes in economic distribution or in
the structure of political allocation of power observed changes in behavior may occur
without any over-all shift in the relative presence of motivational patterns in the society
itself? Do power shifts simply redistribute the roles played by personality variants
present within a modern state that, given the proper social ambience, become more
visible? Consider, for example, whether people in West Germany today are any different
in underlying motivational structure from what they were under Hitler. The greater
equality of behavior between the sexes in Japan today does not necessarily reflect actual
structural changes in the personality of many Japanese men and women but may
represent the range of expression in overt behavior patterns that is now possible under
a more egalitarian legal system.
It is most probable that what we call the “personality” of an individual in actuality has a
far wider behavioral potential than the patterns allowed for within any particular
culture. Observed consistencies of behavior within a given culture may therefore be the
result of cultural limitations and selection. From this point of view one does not
necessarily have to presume commonly held personality traits for given populations.
From the standpoint of national character, we can examine, for example, the present
rapid and almost world-wide occurrence of certain commonly recognizable types of
adolescent behavior that are considered, in some cases, “delinquent” or antisocial. The
behavior expressed by a small percentage of modern youth may attest more to
similarities in anomic social conditions for youth in industrial societies than to shifts or
changes in behavioral controls related to personality.
From the standpoint of national character one has to evaluate to what extent the rapid
spread of patterns of behavior that have become available through culture contact (e.g.,
mass media) is dependent on the presence of latent personality characteristics not
readily expressible within older culture forms. These examples can be interpreted as
changes in behavior related to social change without necessarily invoking explanations
related to personality patterns. There are, however, instances where some attention to
personality structure appears more relevant. Explanations at a psychological level may
be more relevant when anticipated behavioral change fails to materialize in spite of
social, legal, or economic inducements toward change.
Rapid shifts may occur only when the newly defined behavior is peripherally related to
complex types of personality functioning. Some patterns of behavior demand less
restructuring of deeper aspects of personality. One may cite, for example, the observed
difficulty encountered when planned change demands the presence of long-range goals
or entrepreneurial attitudes in cultures previously generally lacking such orientations in
behavior. There is no easy diffusion of the integrated behavioral patterns necessary to
carry the burden of planning activity even though culture contact takes place.

Allowing the assumption that one can demonstrate statistically ascertainable underlying
modal personality types within relatively discrete societies with unique cultural
histories, would one not also find similarities or differences of long standing within these
societies that are based on rural-urban or class-occupational living patterns? Would
these class differences not cut across national boundaries?
Viewed historically, it may be that structural personality distributions do differ in various
national states, but that, given the establishment of similar social objectives such as
industrialization, observed behavioral patterns in at least some segments of the
population come to bear increasingly close superficial resemblances without any
immediate change in the actual distribution of underlying personality differences.
However, change in patterns of socialization, including formal education, may
subsequently come to affect the newer generation. With changes in the patterns of
socialization, shifts within personality patterns of the population may then materialize,
depending on the nature of the original patterns affected. For example, among the
emerging national states there have been varying degrees of success in achieving similar
values. The acceptance of these values may be highly dependent upon the presence and
persistence of underlying psychological structures that are differentially distributed
among the various populations.
A most important question for many of the emerging nations in the world today is: What
length of time is necessary for changing motivational patterns within sufficiently large
segments of a society so that new economic or occupational roles can be performed? It
is obvious that some “psychological” lag occurs between legal and planned economic
changes and the point at which the prevailing formative influences on the child have
been changed so that he is motivated and able, by the time he becomes an adult, to
participate effectively in the new society being formed.

Comprehensive reviews of national-character studies, from five somewhat different
perspectives, can be found inDuijker & Frijda 1960; Inkeles & Levinson 1954; Klineberg
1944; Mead 1953; and Mead & Métraux 1953.
Bauer, Raymond A. (1948) 1953 The Psychology of the Soviet Middle Elite: Two Case
Histories. Pages 633-650 in Clyde Kluckhohn et al. (editors), Personality in Nature,
Society, and Culture. 2d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Knopf.
Benedict, Ruth 1946 The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → Perhaps the most significant and distinguished example of
the study of culture and personality at a distance, although criticized for
DeVos, George A. 1960 The Relation of Guilt Toward Parents to Achievement and
Arranged Marriage Among the Japanese. Psychiatry 23:287-301.

Duijker, H. C. J.; and Frijda, N. H. 1960 National Character and National Stereotypes. A
trend report prepared for the International Union of Scientific Psychology. Amsterdam:
North-Holland Publishing. → This is an overview with a relatively complete bibliography.
Erikson, Erik H. 1942 Hitler’s Imagery and German Youth. Psychiatry 5:475-493. → An
analysis illustrating perceptual patterns related to authoritarianism.
Fromm, Erich 1941 Escape From Freedom. New York: Farrar & Rhinehart. → A
psychoanalytic-cultural study of the nature of the authoritarian personality.
Gorer, Geoffrey; and Rickman, John (1950) 1962 The People of Great Russia: A
Psychological Study. New York: Norton.
Hagen, Everett E. 1962 On the Theory of Social Change. Homewood, 111.: Dorsey.
Inkeles, Alex; and Levinson, Daniel J. 1954 National Character: The Study of Modal
Personality and Sociocultural Systems. Volume 2, pages 977-1020 in Gardner Lindzey
(editor), Handbook of Social Psychology. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
Kardiner, Abram 1939 The Individual and His Society: The Psychodynamics of Primitive
Social Organization.New York: Columbia Univ. Press; Oxford Univ. Press.
Kardiner, Abram; and Ovesey, Lionel 1962 The Mark of Oppression: Explorations in the
Personality of the American Negro. New York: World.
Klineberg, Otto 1944 A Science of National Character. Society for the Psychological Study
of Social Issues,Bulletin No. 19:147-162.
Kracauer, Siegfried 1947 From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German
Film. Princeton Univ. Press.
Lindesmith, Alfred R.; and Strauss, Anselm L. 1950 A Critique of Culture-Personality
Writings. American Sociological Review 15:587-600.
Linton, Ralph 1945 The Cultural Background of Personality. New York: Appleton.
Mead, Margaret 1953 National Character. Pages 642-667 in Anthropology Today: An
Encyclopedic Inventory. Edited by A. L. Kroeber. Univ. of Chicago Press.
Mead, Margaret; and MÉtraux, Rhoda (editors) 1953 The Study of Culture at a Distance.
Univ. of Chicago Press.
Merton, Robert K. (1940) 1957 Bureaucratic Structure and Personality. Pages 195-206 in
Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure. Rev. ed Glencoe, III.: Free Press.
→ First published in Social Forces, Volume 18, pages 560-568.
Miller, Daniel R.; and Swanson, Guy E. 1958 The Changing American Parent. New York:
Riesman, David 1950 The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character.
New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → An abridged paperback edition was published in 1960.

Schaffner, Bertram H. 1948 Father Land: A Study of Authoritarianism in the German
Family. New York: Columbia Univ. Press; Oxford Univ. Press.
[Withers, Carl] (1945) 1958 Plainville, U.S.A., by James West [pseud.]. New York:
Columbia Univ. Press. → A study of small-town America by the participant-observer
Wolfenstein, Martha; and Leites, Nathan 1950 Movies: A Psychological Study. Glencoe,
111.: Free Press. → Thematic analysis of English, French, and American movies
suggesting differences in perception of heterosexual relationships and concepts of
legitimate authority.
"National Character." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.
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