National Personalities & Genetic Traits at the BBC… Plus Something More on the BBC

So the notoriously alt-right fringe fake news organization, the BBC, had an article entitled Different Nationalities Really Have Different Personalities. It begins:

When psychologists have given the same personality test to hundreds or thousands of people from different nations, they have indeed found that the average scores tend to come out differently across cultures. In other words, the average personality in one country often really is different from the average personality in another.

From my perspective, as someone who spent around 30% of his life abroad, if the paragraph above wasn’t true, there’d be little point in traveling. Why the heck go through the hassle and expense of getting yourself to Malaysia, Mexico or Morocco if you’re just going to meet the same people you’ll find on your block?

Now, the Beeb does assure us that many of the perceptions that people do hold about the personalities of different countries are wrong. But that isn’t as comforting as you might think. To make that statement, of course, requires knowing what the personalities of the countries are, which is covered here:

Several large international studies have now documented cross-cultural differences in average personality. One of the most extensive was published in 2005 by Robert McCrae and 79 collaborators around the world, who profiled more than 12,000 college students from 51 cultures. Based on averaging these personality profiles, the researchers were able to present an “aggregate” trait score for each of the cultures.

The highest scoring cultural groups for Extraversion on average were Brazilians, French Swiss and the Maltese, while the lowest scoring were Nigerians, Moroccans and Indonesians. The highest scoring for Openness to Experience were German-speaking Swiss, Danes and Germans, while the lowest scoring on average were Hong Kong Chinese, Northern Irish and Kuwaitis. The study also uncovered variation between countries in the three other main personality traits of Neuroticism, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness.

Of course, it’s important to remember that these are averages and there is a lot of overlap between countries; there are undoubtedly a lot of people in Indonesia who are more extraverted than some from Brazil.

Of course, that result is so 2005. More recent polling seems to indicate that post-experience Danes are less open to more experience in the future, at least when that experience involves immigration from some regions of the world.

German attitudes on this subject are changing too. German Swiss, not so much, but then Swiss immigration laws means the German Swiss experience is more akin to that of the Danes and Germans pre-2005.  Besides, I’m going to go out on a limb and say this particular study isn’t measuring the personality traits that count, namely those that lead to improvements in everyone’s quality of life.

The BBC goes on:

What could explain these national differences in average personality? The reasons are likely partly genetic, perhaps to do with historic migration patterns. For example, people strong on traits related to risk-taking and openness might be more likely to migrate, so these traits are likely to be over-represented in regions that were historically on the frontier of exploration; conversely, an isolated population is likely to become more introverted and inward focused through the generations as bolder individuals are more likely to choose to emigrate.

A recent series of studies conducted with islanders resident in several isolated Italian archipelagos put these principles to the test. Andrea Ciani at the University of Padova and his colleagues found that islanders are less extraverted and open-minded, but more conscientious and emotionally stable, than their mainland neighbours located 10 to 40 miles away. This is likely because, over time, bolder more open-minded individuals have chosen to emigrate away from the islands.

Supporting this, a sample of recent emigrants from the islands to the mainland were found to score higher on extraversion and openness than the remaining islanders. Ciani’s team also genotyped a sample of islanders and mainlanders and found that a version of a gene previously associated with risk-taking (the 2R allele of the DRD4 gene, which codes for a receptor for the neurotransmitter dopamine) was less common among islanders. The researchers said this suggests there is “some genetic basis for the observation that individuals in long-isolated communities exhibit a particular personality type”.

Undoubtedly environmental factors also play a part: for instance, there’s evidence that traits associated with extraversion and openness are lower in regions where risk of infection is greater, which makes evolutionary sense in terms of reducing the spread of disease. Experts have also speculated that differences in climate could influence regional differences in personality, such as cold regions with a lack of sunlight contributing to greater emotional instability.

Again, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the BBC hasn’t asked the folks who are studying personality issues that are of real relevance.  Cold weather and lack of sunlight may contribute to emotional instability is the for example they trotted out, but a more important question is if cold weather and lack of sunlight explains how a tiny population produces a Niels Abel, not to say the rest of the impressive list of scientists and mathematicians generated by Norway over the last few hundred years.  But that’s a quibble.  Maybe they’ll get to that question, eventually.

In my opinion, that isn’t the BBC’s only failing on issues of race and genetics.   To me, the BBC has a clear (and reprehensible) anti-Semitic and anti-Hindu bias. I also feel it occasionally promotes an anti-American slant which I don’t like one bit. But still, credit where credit is due.  Also, the BBC article did remind me of this post that I wrote last year showing a strong correlation between per capita income of a country and the income of immigrants of that country in the US.

As I noted at the time:

From this, it would appear that skillsets and cultures not only survive the move to the US, but in general, they may barely change among first generation immigrants. And since parents’ income is often a strong predictor (if not determinant) of a child’s income, it would seem that the effect can continue for generations. What my old econometrics professor used to call casual empiricism also appears to bear this out, at least for those who aren’t shocked by the results.

I would also note one extremely important implication – different groups can have wildly different outcomes without it being the result of racism, discrimination, or randomness.

As an extra, semi-sorta-more-or-less related piece to the above, perhaps something is changing at the BBC. For instance, as of this writing, one can click on this on the BBC’s news site:

no-go pic 20170415

Not long ago, the BBC wasn’t concerned about getting out the vote in no-go zones.   After all, the BBC’s view was that no-go zones in places like Paris were simply delusions held by the far right, sort of like the inverse of Utopia. Exactly one month ago, for example, the BBC published an article on fake news containing this line:

The map, which first appeared in a Daily Telegraph article on 8 November 2005, to highlight the riots and unrest then, has been shared thousands of times on social media in recent weeks. Far-right accounts have falsely claimed it depicts current rioting in France and have used it to endorse the existence of “no-go zones”.

This isn’t quite on the scale of always having been at war with Eurasia (or is it Eastasia?) but there have been a few times in the past month or two where I read an article in the BBC and said to myself – “it’s kind of odd that this is showing up in the BBC.”  And what the BBC prints does affect the economy.

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