Chapter 1: Introduction to Personality

Part 3: The Influence of Culture and Society on Personality

Many psychology textbooks mention a few famous anthropologists, such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, whose research included work on child development and personality.  However, less well-known in the field of psychology is the renowned anthropologist Ralph Linton, who paid particular attention to personality development in relation to culture and society.  Linton also collaborated with Abram Kardiner, a founding member of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute (and who was analyzed by Sigmund Freud himself in 1921-1922). Linton and Kardiner freely acknowledged the connections between anthropology and psychology, noting the influence of Benedict and Mead, Franz Boas (recognized as the father of American anthropology and mentor to both Benedict and Mead), and the psychoanalysts Anna Freud, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, and Wilhelm Reich (Kardiner, 1939; Kardiner, Linton, DuBois, & West, 1945; Kardiner & Preble, 1961).

Linton described personality as existing on three levels.  First, personality can be described based on either its content or its organization.  The organization, furthermore, can be examined in terms of its superficial organization or its central organization.  The central organization of personality gives the whole personality its distinctive character, and includes the most invariant aspects of personality, such as the degree of introversion/extraversion, or other aspects of temperament (Linton, 1936, 1945).  Although these temperamental attributes are present at birth, they do not comprise personality per se.  The superficial organization of personality, however; is based on the goals and interests of the individual, and incorporates the individual’s experiences in life within the context of the central organization.  In this regard, the superficial organization should not be confused with something transient or insignificant. It is “superficial” only in the sense that it is on the surface of the personality, and the goals and interests of the person are based on the content of personality that represents their life experiences as they are organized within the personality.  The goals and interests themselves, which incorporate the content of personality, are determined almost entirely by the culture in which the individual is raised. According to Linton (1936), the process of integrating the individual’s experience within the context of one’s temperament (or “constitutional qualities”) forms a “mutually adjusted, functional whole.”

A critical question, of course, is whether cultural experiences can affect the central organization.  Linton (1936, 1945, 1955) believed that no matter how an individual receives the cultural characteristics of their society, they are likely to internalize them, a process known as enculturation.  One of the main reasons that enculturation is so influential in every aspect of the person’s being, is that it pervades every aspect of the society in which the person lives.  Thus, even someone who is considered a rebel, most likely exists within a range of rebellion that is possible within that particular culture. This is directly related to the apparent reality that cultures do give rise to certain types of personality.  Making the matter even more complicated, or simpler depending on one’s perspective, is the role of status within a culture. Thus, although a given culture, society, or one’s own temperament may influence personality in one direction, a particular social class might influence personality in a different direction.  An individual born into a given class, whose personal constitution does not fit that class, may develop what Linton called a status personality, i.e., a persona that fits with society’s expectations for the individual in certain settings.  For example, someone born into an upper middle class family involved in business, who is personally rather introverted and withdrawn, may present a confident and outgoing personality when working, and only upon returning home do they revert to their natural inclination to be shy and quiet.

One of the most interesting points made by Linton is that individuals with complementary personalities are also mutually adjusted.  The most obvious example is that of the gender roles of men and women. Men are expected, in many cultures and societies, to be the dominant member of the family, as well as the “bread-winner.”  Conversely, women are expected to be submissive, and to remain home and care for the household and children. In this way, the men and women together complete the necessary tasks for family life without entering into conflict (at least in theory!).  In some cultures, these gender roles are quite relaxed with regard to the sex of the individual. Among the Comanche (a Native American tribe), men whose personalities were not at all suited to being warriors assumed a special role, that of Berdache (Linton, 1936).  The Berdache wore women’s clothes, and typically fulfilled a woman’s role, but they were treated with somewhat more respect than women (in keeping with the patriarchal nature of the society).  Some were homosexuals (though not all), and even married. This was generally accepted, and any disapproval these relationships received was directed toward the warrior husband, not the berdache!

Abram Kardiner, a psychoanalyst who collaborated with Linton, shared the same general perspective on the relationship between personality and culture, and attempted to put the relationship into psychological terms.  He distinguished between the basic personality, or ego structure, which he considered to be a cultural phenomenon, and the individual’s character, which is their unique adaptation to the environment within their cultural setting.  Thus, each individual develops a unique character, but only within the constraints of the culturally-determined range of potential ego structure (Kardiner, 1939).  The process of personality development, within a cultural setting, results in what Kardiner called a security system.  The security system of the individual is the series of adaptations that serve to ensure the individual’s acceptance, approval, support, esteem, and status within the group.  Thus, for each person within a given cultural group, their basic personality is formed through an ongoing interaction with the very culture in which that person needs to be (and, hopefully, will be) accepted as a member.  Both of Kardiner’s major books, The Individual and His Society (Kardiner, 1939) and The Psychological Frontiers of Society (Kardiner, et al., 1945), offer extraordinary examples of detailed anthropological studies of a wide variety of cultures followed by psychoanalytic evaluations of the functions served by various aspects of the cultural practices of those people.

Robert LeVine, like Kardiner, was an anthropologist and psychoanalyst with a strong interest in personality (LeVine, 1973, 1974).  He begins by asking the question of whether there are differences in personality between different cultural groups. If there are not, then any analysis of the nature or causes of those alleged differences is meaningless.  If there are differences, can we then point to specific evidence that the environment can elicit changes in those differences? The answer is yes to both, and as one example, LeVine points to the dramatic acculturation of rural immigrants from underdeveloped areas of Europe and Asia who emigrated to industrialized countries, such as the United States, and within two or three generations had radically altered not only their basic ways of life, but also their social class (moving from traditional peasantry to the middle-class; LeVine, 1973).  LeVine also continued Kardiner’s approach of using a psychoanalytic perspective to evaluate and compare the nature of different cultures, and he proposed the term psychoanalytic ethnography.  In an effort to justify the use of psychoanalytic ethnography, LeVine argues that there are enough common elements in the nature of all people and cultures to provide for valid comparisons of the differences between those same people and cultures (LeVine, 1973).

One of the most striking discussions of the relationship between culture and the potential for personality development was offered by Pitirim Sorokin, the founder of Harvard University’s sociology department and a colleague of the trait theorist Gordon Allport.  Sorokin points out that culture can have a dramatic influence on the biological substrates of personality. For example, through the use of contraception, abortion, etc., many potential individuals are never born. Conversely, if such measures are prohibited, many unwanted children are born.  In addition, cultural rules and norms against sexual intercourse and/or marriage between certain age groups, races, social classes, families, religions, etc., directly influence the potential for genetic variation within and across different groups of humans (Sorokin, 1947). Indeed, Sorokin took such a broad view of the role of society and culture in the environmental universe of each individual, that he described trying to understand sociocultural phenomena by locating them in terms of sociocultural space and sociocultural distance.  The concept of sociocultural distance has taken on new meaning since Sorokin proposed it over 50 years ago.  Today, anyone can travel around the world in a matter of hours or days, and many people do so regularly. Technology and globalization have dramatically reduced the distance between people, and consequently brought their cultural differences into contact with one another.  Efforts to study cultures and societies alter the location of sociocultural phenomena within our own universe of personal development. In other words, by studying the relationships between society, culture, and personality, we are altering the meaning and influence of those relationships, hopefully for the better.

As a final note, although this section has highlighted the influence of anthropologists and sociologists on cross-cultural research in the study of personality, there has also been an influence from psychology on these investigators.  As noted above, both Abram Kardiner and Robert LeVine were psychoanalysts. In addition, Kardiner acknowledges having learned a great deal from a professor named John Dollard. Dollard was a sociologist who studied psychoanalysis and who collaborated with Neal Miller (a psychologist trained in learning theory) in an effort to apply classical learning theory to psychodynamic theory.  Dollard contributed a chapter to one of Linton’s books, and was cited by both LeVine and Sorokin (who was, again, also a colleague of Allport). Given such an interesting interaction between the fields of psychology, anthropology, and sociology over half a century ago, it seems surprising that psychology is only now emphasizing the value of focusing on cultural influences on personality development.

Different Cultural Factors Affecting Personality

Since culture pervades every aspect of our lives, the number of cultural factors that we might examine in the study of personality is quite large.  However, there are a few major factors that stand out, and that have been the subject of significant research in the field of psychology. Thus, we will take a brief look at four major factors that will come up repeatedly throughout this book:  religion, race, gender, and age.

Religion as a Cultural Influence

Religion, in its turn, exerts the most decisive influence upon all groups and systems of culture, from science and the fine arts to politics and economics.  Without knowing the religion of a given culture or group – their systems of ultimate values – one cannot understand their basic traits and social movements. (pg. 228; Sorokin, 1947)

The essential importance of religion was also recognized by Abram Kardiner and Robert LeVine, both of whom, as noted above, studied anthropology and psychoanalysis (see Kardiner, et al., 1945; LeVine, 1973).  As we will see in the next chapter, the recognized founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, also placed great emphasis on the influence of religion and religious symbolism (though he did not believe in God).

Despite the importance of religion, as perhaps the most significant cultural factor, there is variation in the extent to which formal religious beliefs and practices are a part of the routine life of people in different cultures (see Matsumoto & Juang, 2004).  Since most psychologists were not emphasizing cultural factors as an essential aspect of the early development of the field (leaving that to anthropologists and sociologists), and given Freud’s powerful and convincing arguments against religion, it is not surprising that psychology has not focused on the influence of religion on personality.  But that is changing, and despite the role that religion has played in many political battles and outright war (as has been the case in the Middle East for thousands of years!), religion and spirituality are also recognized as potentially favorable aspects of psychological development in general, and personality development in particular, in the field of positive psychology (Compton, 2005; Peterson, 2006; Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Snyder & Lopez, 2005).  Given the importance of religion as a cultural determinant, and the emphasis on culture in this book, we will examine the influence of religion on personality development throughout this textbook.

The Question of Race and Ethnicity as Cultural Influences

Although religion may be the most significant cultural factor, the concept of race has probably existed even longer, and it is certainly the most visually obvious factor.  But is it really? The fact is, there is no clear answer to the question of what actually constitutes race (Krogman, 1945; Linton, 1936, 1955; Sorokin, 1947). Although most people quickly think of three major races (White, Black, and Asian), and many of us would add a fourth category (Latino), studies have suggested that there may actually be as many as thirty-seven distinct races (see Matsumoto & Juang, 2004).  In addition, genetic studies have suggested that there is more inter-group variation than there is between-group variation, further suggesting that race is nothing more than a social construction. As an alternative to race, some people use the term ethnicity, which identifies groups according to commonalities such as nationality, culture, or language.  This fails to solve our problem, however; since the concept of ethnicity suffers from the same problems as the concept of race (Brislin, 2000; Matsumoto & Juang, 2004; Miller & Garran, 2008; Whitley & Kite, 2006).

Although the terms race and ethnicity are often used interchangeably with culture, they are quite different.  The United States, for example, has large populations of people from different races, ethnic groups, religions, and nationalities, but they all contribute to the greater cultural identity of “American.”  Indeed, the very concept of America as a “melting pot” defies the use of racial or ethnic characterizations of the American people. This argument goes both ways, of course. We cannot simply refer to people who live within the boundaries of the United States as American, and expect that they are similar in every other cultural respect.  Although this may seem rather confusing, that is exactly the point. Critical thinking must always be applied to personality theories and their application in broad ways. This does not mean they are not useful, just that we must be careful in our interpretations of people’s behavior and personality if they are from another culture.

Although ethnicity and race may be of questionable value as cultural factors, there are two critically important issues that arise from them.  A common problem in cross-cultural research is that of ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s own culture has the right beliefs and practices, whereas other cultures have wrong beliefs and practices (Matsumoto & Juang, 2004; Whitley & Kite, 2006).  Such value judgments interfere with the objectivity of cross-cultural research, and can have negative effects on intercultural communication. The other, very serious problem is that of racism.

Gender and Culture

Gender has been the subject of a wide range of studies, from pop-psychology books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (Gray, 1992) and Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back Again (Vincent, 2006) to such ominous sounding titles in academic psychology as The Longest War: Gender and Culture (Wade and Tavris, 1994).  In 2005, the president of Harvard University suggested that one of the reasons there were so few women in math and science fields was that they lacked the intrinsic aptitude.  The subsequent uproar led to the end of his presidency at Harvard, and a renewed effort to examine the reasons why few women pursue math and science careers. An extensive study, led by former APA President Diane Halpern, came to no specific conclusions, due to the complex interactions of a variety of factors, but in so doing made it clear that no blame can be placed directly on inherent/genetic ability (Halpern, et al., 2007; see also Barnett, 2007).

Gender is a distinctly cultural term, representing the behaviors or patterns of activity that a given culture or society expects from men and women.  It is perhaps most commonly used to address differences between males and females, with an underlying assumption that sex differences lead to gender differences.  However, apparent sex differences may actually be cultural gender differences, and cultures and societies exert significant influence on gender roles from a very early age (Brislin, 2000; Matsumoto & Juang, 2004; Stewart & McDermott, 2004).  Still, some cultural factors may also have a basis in biological reality. For example, males are typically larger and stronger than females, so it makes sense for males to do the hunting and fight the wars.  Women become pregnant and then nurse the infants, so it makes sense for them to provide early childcare. How this led to men having greater control and prestige in society, however, remains unclear, especially since that is not universally the case (Wade & Tavris, 1994).  Historically, older men often became involved in childcare after their hunting/warrior days were behind them, further complicating the issue.

Among the differences between men and women that seem to be fairly common across cultures, and which may stem from sex differences, are aggression and emphasizing relationships.  Men are typically more aggressive, and women seem to focus more on relationships with other people. In accordance with these tendencies, women typically defer to men, particularly in situations that may be confrontational.  It also leads to conflict between men and women due to their difficulties communicating, hence the popularity of John Gray’s book suggesting that men and women are from completely different planets. Given the status of men, the challenges that these gender differences create for women were not typically given a great deal of attention.  However, Karen Horney, and more recently the women of the Stone Center Group, have made great strides in changing that situation. Not only have the members of the Stone Center Group provided a number of collected works on the psychology of women (Jordan, 1997b; Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, & Surrey, 1991; Jordan, Walker, & Hartling, 2004), there are also textbooks devoted exclusively to the subject (e.g., Matlin, 2004).

Aging Within a Cultural Context

Age is used as routinely as sex to divide the people in a society.  All societies recognize at least three age groups: children, adults, and elders.  Childhood is typically further divided into young childhood and adolescence. Each group has different rights, responsibilities, roles, and statuses (Linton, 1936; Sorokin, 1947).  Sometimes these can come into conflict. For example, among the Comanche, as with most Plains tribes in North America, the adult male was expected to be a warrior, whereas the old man was respected for his wisdom and gentleness.  Transitioning from being a warrior to being an old man was very difficult, and Comanche men often hoped to die in battle in order to avoid the transition. Those who were forced to make the transition became very dangerous adversaries for the young men transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and often the old men would kill the young men when they could (out of sheer envy).  Moving even beyond old age, into death, there are many societies in which the dead remain in the minds of the community members, and deceased relatives and heroes are even worshipped. In some cultures, the relationship with those who are dead is a very important part of daily life (Linton, 1936).

Throughout history, as societies have changed, so have the ways in which they treated and cared for (or did not care for) aged individuals.  Although modern industrialization is correlated with a significantly longer lifespan, such dramatic cultural changes favor the young people who can more readily adapt to the changes.  In addition, industrialized societies typically shift some of the responsibility of caring for the aged from the family to the state. Curiously, this removes the responsibility of caring for aged persons from the very family whom those aged individuals had cared for and raised themselves!  The one area in which aged members of the community are likely to retain their leadership status is religion and the rituals associated with it (Holmes, 1983; Johnson & Thane, 1998; Schweitzer, 1983).

David Gutmann, an early gerontologist with an interest in the effects of aging on personality, has focused his career on studying men in four cultures:  a typical American population (to the extent that there is such a thing), the Navajo in the United States, both Lowland and Highland Maya in Mexico, and the Druze in Israel (see Gutmann, 1987, 1997).  One of the most interesting realities that he begins with is the recognition that the human species is the only one in which aged individuals remain active long past their reproductive prime. What possible evolutionary advantage does this offer our species?  Gutmann believes that our elders fill unique roles in society, thus providing essential benefits to the extended family and the community, particularly for the young. Indeed, Gutmann points out that it is uniquely human to favor the ends of the lifespan, both childhood and old age, over the middle of the lifespan, when reproductive fitness is at its biological peak.  As we noted above, however; the transition into old age is not always easy, and this leads to some unique changes in personality associated with aging.

The beginning of old age is marked by the maturity of one’s children, such that the adult individual no longer needs to provide care for their children.  Thus, both men and women can begin to express those aspects of their personality that were set aside in order to mutually facilitate raising children. Consequently, there is often a relaxing, or even reversal to some extent, of gender roles.  A particularly significant change for men who no longer have the physical strength to be warriors (or to engage in the physical labor of their community) is the manner in which they seek mastery over their lives. Young men have the ability to seek active mastery, they strive toward autonomy, competence, and control.  Older men must seek passive mastery, through adaptation and accommodation.  The oldest men must rely on magical mastery.  The world becomes one of potential providers and potential predators.  They rely on primitive defense mechanisms, and wish fulfillment becomes synonymous with reality.  Their relationship to the world is marked by feelings of vulnerability (Gutmann, 1987, 1997). It is easy to see how they would rely heavily on religion, and the promise of a supernatural being for protection and eternal reward, thus inclining them toward an involvement in religious practice that would naturally lead to a degree of respect, or at least acknowledgement, as religious leaders.  Of course, the degree to which a society provides for its oldest members, such as through retirement benefits, would have a significant effect on this aging process. Nonetheless, Gutmann found evidence for these changes in mastery style amongst men in mainstream America as well as in the Navajo, Maya, and Druze cultures.

Addressing the Degree of Cultural Integration

Adding to the complexity of culture’s role in shaping our personalities are two important factors.  First, is the degree to which an individual is integrated into their culture, and vice versa. As Sorokin points out, it is exceedingly rare that an individual is either totally integrated into their culture or not integrated into it at all (Sorokin, 1947; see also Kardiner, et al., 1945; Linton, 1936).  Thus, culture provides a framework within which individual variation is possible, but at the same time there will always be some consistent basis for understanding the people within a given culture. This becomes particularly important when considering cross-cultural research, since it may be reasonable to make some general assumptions about an individual from another culture, but we must also be prepared for their own unique variation as a person in that cultural group.

A second important factor is that cultural phenomena do not exist in isolation.  Both gender and race/ethnicity, for example, influence how one adapts to the aging process (see, e.g., Arber, Davidson, & Ginn, 2003; Barrow, 1986; Calasanti & Slevin, 2001; Cool & McCabe, 1983; Holmes, 1983).  Gender also interacts with race/ethnicity in determining one’s reactions to group psychotherapy (Pack-Brown, Whittington-Clark, & Parker, 1998) and/or adapting to life as a minority student on a majority campus (Levey, Blanco, & Jones, 1998).  Religion is considered to be such an important factor in the African American community that its role has been the subject of special interest (see, e.g., Belgrave & Allison, 2006; Taylor, Chatters, & Levin, 2004). Obviously many more examples can be found, the point being that as an individual develops, with multiple cultural factors influencing them, and each factor being integrated to a greater or lesser degree, the potential for individual personality differences is extraordinary.  This is true even when the overall effect of the specific culture, or society, is to guide its members toward certain underlying tendencies that become characteristic of that culture’s members.

Culture and Diversity

The importance of studying culture can be found in the diversity of people both around the world and within our own communities.  For example, although many communities may be quite limited in terms of religion and race/ethnicity, nearly all communities have a mixture of gender and age.  Although religion, race/ethnicity, gender, and age may be the major factors that have traditionally been studied in the field of psychology, in the instances where culture was studied, it is important to remember two additional points.  First, there are other cultural factors that may be very important for certain individuals and/or select groups of people, and second, people can be excitingly (or frustratingly, depending on your point of view) unique in their individuality.

One area of diversity that has been receiving more attention as a cultural factor affecting the lives of many people is that of physical disability.  In the past, although it was recognized that individuals with physical disabilities experience basically the same personality development processes as other people, disabilities were considered to be specific conditions that isolated the disabled person from their surroundings (Barker et al., 1953; Pintner et al., 1941).  Over time, as more research became available on the psychology of people with disabilities (e.g., Goodley & Lawthorn, 2006; Henderson & Bryan, 1984; Marks, 1999; McDaniel, 1976; Roessler & Bolton, 1978; Stubbins, 1977; Vash, 1981; Wright, 1983), perspectives on how to study these individuals changed as well. In 2004, the Society for Disability Studies adopted preliminary guidelines for developing programs in disability studies.  They emphasize challenging the previously held view that disabilities are individual deficits or defects that can or should be fixed by “experts.” Rather, they recommend exploring models that examine cultural, social, political, and economic factors which integrate personal and collective responses to difference.

When considering the life of an individual like Shawn Withers, the son of a Maine fisherman, who suffered a massive stroke at the age of 20, but then went on to earn a black belt in Kenpo Karate and then developed his own style known as Broken Wing Kenpo (Withers, 2007), broad descriptions of personality theory and cultural perspectives fall short of giving us an understanding of the person.  Thus, some researchers, like Dan McAdams (McAdams, 1985, 2006; McAdams et al., 2001), have emphasized the need for studying a narrative framework within which we not only live our lives, but actually create them:

…like stories in literature, the stories we tell ourselves in order to live bring together diverse elements into an integrated whole, organizing the multiple and conflicting facets of our lives within a narrative framework which connects past, present, and an anticipated future and confers upon our lives a sense of sameness and continuity – indeed, an identity.  As the story evolves and our identity takes form, we come to live the story as we write it, assimilating our daily experience to a schema of self that is a product of that experience. (pg. v; McAdams, 1985)

Although this textbook will cover broad personality theories and cultural perspectives, there are also reflective elements included to help you try to address your own narrative stories.  In addition, there are biographies at the beginning of each chapter on the major theorists, which although they are not personal narratives, will nonetheless give some insight into the sort of person that theorist was, and hopefully, how their life and their personal experiences helped to shape the personality theory they developed.

Culture and Mental Illness

Although this book focuses on normal personality development, one cannot escape the fact that most of the famous personality theorists were clinicians who were trying to understand how their patients/clients had developed psychological disorders.  So, our understanding of personality development grew hand-in-hand with our understanding of psychological disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders began addressing the importance of culture in the 4th edition, and more recently it has taken a dramatic step forward with the publication of the DSM’s 5th edition (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, 2013).

The DSM-V includes a section on Emerging Measures and Models, one chapter of which is called Cultural Formulation.  Although the DSM-IV began to present an outline for cultural formulation, the DSM-V includes two valuable sets of questions that have been field-tested to help clinicians assess the cultural identity of a patient/client and how that cultural identity may affect the diagnosis and treatment of any potential psychological disorder.  The first set of questions is the basis for the Cultural Formulation Interview, and the second set is comprised of the Cultural Formulation Interview – Informant Version (which is given to someone who is knowledgeable about the life circumstances and potential clinical problems of the patient/client).

In our increasingly global and multicultural world it is more and more likely that therapists will encounter individuals from different cultural backgrounds than their own.  Thus, in order for the therapist to fully understand the individual and the context of their psychological distress, the therapist must be aware of and attentive to possibly significant cultural differences.  Failure to do so might result in what Iijima Hall (1997) has described as cultural malpractice!

Supplemental Materials

How Culture Affects Your Personality

This video [6:24] explains how culture affects personality, focusing on two different cultural spectra: collectivist versus individualist groups and approach versus avoidance groups.


Dr. David Matsumoto Discusses Culture and Personality

This video [7:13] explains the correlation between culture and personality, with an emphasis on the big five traits and whether these traits are culturally universal.  Personal identity, narratives, life history/experiences and values are also discussed as they relate to personality development.



Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.
Practical Psychology.  (2019, August 17). How culture affects your personality.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.
Humintell.  (2009, September 30).  Dr. David Matsumoto discusses culture and personality. [Video File].  Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.