Wednesday, 30 November 2011

National Psychology - the limits of stereotypes

Happy St Andrew's Day! St Andrew's Day is, of course, Scotland's national day so we thought it fitting to take a look at national psychology, which dates back to the mid-19th century.

The Scots are tight, the French are romantic and the Germans are serious, or so they say. We've all heard these stereotypes and, whether or not they are true, stereotypes exist for a reason – to help us form opinions about people we don't have time to get to know. 

The psychological makeup of particular nations, ethnic groups or peoples is believed to be characterised by a combination of human attitudes, values, emotions, motivations and abilities. These are culturally reinforced by our education, upbringing, the state and media.

Closely related is national character which refers to the values, norms and customs which people of a nation typically hold, and in particular, how they habitually respond to situations. Indeed, reference is sometimes made to a 'national psyche' to explain why certain events trigger such strong reactions or why countries are enthused by a particular sport or cultural practice. In this respect, National psychology can be useful in explaining why political or economic events occurred as they did.

Although stereotypes seem unfair, scientists believe it is possible to observe and measure average national characteristics. This doesn't mean all individuals share all the characteristics, but the number who do are sufficiently large to be 'typical' in the country.

However, the concept of national psychology has been criticised on both political and scientific grounds.

Some argue it encourages racist generalisations and stereotypes which can lead to certain nations regarding themselves as superior.

In addition, psychologists have found subjects cannot accurately recognise or identify the ethnicity or nationality of individuals when observing a line-up of different people. 

People can, however, often recognise a representative stereotype of a certain ethnic group or certain national characteristics. So it seems stereotypes do have a purpose, but, of course, we need to look much deeper before we can truly understand others.

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