Heaven, the joke goes, is a place where the police are English, the mechanics German and cooks French. Hell is where the police are German, the mechanics French and the cooks English.
There's just one problem. A new study in the journal Science finds that our stereotypes about different cultures, whether positive or negative, are just plain unreliable.
"Overall, there's about zero overlap" between perception and reality, says Robert McCrae of the National Institute on Aging.
Researchers from around the world asked 3,989 people in 49 cultures to define their cultural character, then compared the self-assessments with separate personality profiles of those cultures conducted by psychologists, says Antonio Terracciano, also affiliated with the federal agency.
The researchers looked at cultures rather than nations. For example, French-speaking and German-speaking Swiss were considered separately.
"It would not have surprised us had we found that there was a kernel of truth in these stereotypes," McCrae says. Instead, researchers found that stereotypes have very little basis in reality.
The least consistent culture is England. The English describe themselves as reserved, introverted and conservative. In fact, they are very extroverted and rated relatively high in openness to experience, researchers found.
Poles knew themselves the best. "They have a fairly unpleasant description of themselves," McCrae says. "They think they're high in emotional instability, disagreeable and introverted. And they do measure up to some degree in those traits."
In general, people's perceptions are wrong. For example, Americans think they are very low on agreeableness but high on assertiveness. It turns out they are close to average in terms of being agreeable and only slightly higher than the global average in assertiveness.
Canadians, who famously see themselves as very unassertive and agreeable, ended up looking almost exactly like Americans.
The lesson to be learned from this, the researchers say, is that the differences between nations in actual personality are very small, even when the differences in stereotypes can be very large.
The National Institute on Aging began the project many years ago to look at U.S. personalities in relation to age and health. However, so many researchers around the world were interested in the work and translated the questionnaires that the researchers suddenly realized they had a large, cross-cultural database.