The Not-Quite-So-Big Big 5
Cultural arrangements may influence the underlying dimensions of personality.
Posted Dec 24, 2020
Even Hamlet is WEIRD. His exchanges with what appears to be his father’s ghost certainly haunt him. As Freudian critics have noted, however, his mother’s decision to marry his uncle leaves him no less perplexed. That is because Hamlet, Shakespeare’s fictional Prince of Denmark, and most audiences who have seen productions of the famous tragedy, have what Joe Henrich and his colleagues call ”WEIRD” minds because they live in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich Democracies.
Although Shakespeare’s fictional Denmark is certainly neither industrialized nor democratic, Henrich argues that the socio-cultural arrangements responsible for the emergence of WEIRD minds predate Shakespeare’s era by many centuries. Gertrude’s choice to marry her former brother-in-law seems to Hamlet so out of character for her as to be virtually inexplicable. The available evidence in the play suggests that Gertrude had been a faithful wife to Hamlet’s father and a loving mother to Hamlet. In the altered circumstances after her husband’s death, though, she has done something that Hamlet finds nearly unimaginable.
Hamlet, and WEIRD people generally, assume that individuals, including Gertrude, have stable personalities and that invoking those stable personalities is the key to explaining their behaviors. In non-WEIRD cultures, people are far more likely to look to relationships and social roles and contexts for such explanations.
The WEIRD conception of human beings and of the well-springs of their behaviors puts a premium on possessing a sound theory about the variation among human personalities. For many decades the dominant account in social and personality psychology has focused on five comparatively independent dimensions of personality often referred to as the Big 5.
The Big 5 are extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Each dimension represents a continuum of possibilities ranging between two extremes – in the case of extraversion, for example, whether someone tends to be outgoing and sociable on one end or socially reticent on the other. The theory holds that on each of these five continuums, people fall somewhere or other and that those five positions jointly constitute their personality.
The empirical research has suggested that most people do not change much on these dimensions across their lifetimes, especially once they reach early adulthood — and that these dimensions seem collectively to characterize personality across a variety of cultures. It indicates that personalities are stable over time and that the Big 5 capture universal dimensions of personality.
Henrich is skeptical.
The Big-5 vs. the WEIRD-5
Henrich argues that cultural arrangements play a pivotal role in shaping the available options for personality in a given society. Henrich proposes that non-WEIRD societies, in which kinship-intensive social relationships dominate, offer fewer social niches and, thus, cannot sustain as wide a variety of personality combinations as culturally viable options. He suggests that the Big 5, then, are not universal dimensions of personality and are probably better construed as the WEIRD 5.
Henrich raises multiple considerations in support of this view. He argues that most of the cross-cultural research in this area has employed non-representative samples. The participants in these studies are overwhelmingly literate, college-age students at educational institutions in urban settings. Cities and universities in non-WEIRD cultures are just the sorts of arrangements that foster WEIRD sensibilities and engender WEIRD possibilities. So, he argues, participants in these studies are precisely the people in these non-WEIRD cultures who are most likely to manifest the WEIRD 5.
Henrich also looks to Michael Gurven and his colleagues’ studies of the Tsimane, a mostly illiterate indigenous group of forager-horticulturalists in the Bolivian Amazon. They found little support for the Big-5 framework among the Tsimane. (Gurven and his colleagues translated a 44-item inventory commonly employed to assess the Big 5.) Their research was extensive, with more than 600 Tsimane participants in their first study. They subsequently replicated their initial negative results in a new sample of more than 400 Tsimane couples, who evaluated their spouses. (It is worth noting that Henrich argues against the principal objections to this research, which look to putative genetic and phylogenetic considerations in support of the Big 5.)
Gurven, M., von Rueden, C., Massenkoff, M., Kaplan, H., and Lero Vie, M. (2013). How universal is the Big Five? Testing the five-factor model of personality variation among forager–farmers in the Bolivian Amazon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104 (2), 354–370.
Henrich, Joseph. (2020). The WEIRDEST People in the Word: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.
Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., and Norenzayan, A. (2010). The Weirdest People in the World? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2-3), 61-83, commentaries and replies 83-135.