Culture and Personality Research

The research conducted at the Culture and Personality Laboratory follows three main lines of inquiry: (1) Biculturalism: Contextual and individual processes involved in the integration of two or more cultural identities; (2) Culture and personality structure: Identification and measurement of indigenous and universal personality constructs; and (3) Culture and social symbols: How cultural meaning is carried and institutionalized by everyday social tools (e.g., flags, advertisements). Below, each of these lines of research is described in more detail.

1. Biculturalism: Theory and Measurement

In today's increasingly diverse and mobile world, more and more individuals describe themselves as multicultural or bicultural. For example, one out of every four individuals in the U.S. has lived in another country before moving to the U.S., and has presumably been exposed to and is familiar with more than one culture (U.S. Census, 2002). That is, 20% of the US population is, in all likelihood, bicultural. These impressive statistics do not include U.S.-born ethnic and cultural minorities (e.g., descendants of immigrants) for whom identification and involvement with their ethnic cultures in addition to mainstream culture is also the norm (Phinney, 1996). Such individuals are faced with the challenge of negotiating between multiple, and sometimes conflicting, cultural identities and values in their everyday lives. Surprisingly, despite the importance that understanding these issues has for society, there is very little empirical work on the topic of biculturalism. To fill this gap, we have developed psychological models for how biculturals process cultural information, how they integrate their different cultural identities, how they alternate between different cultural behavioral scripts, and how they maintain competing loyalties between different ethnic/cultural groups. The basic overarching question guiding our studies in this area is: What are the specific social, cognitive, and personality processes involved in developing and maintaining a successful bicultural identity?

In exploring the above issues, we follow a dynamic-constructivist approach to culture (Hong, Morris, Chiu, & Benet-Martínez, 2000). The dynamic-constructivist approach makes the following assumptions: (1) culture can be seen as an associative network of ideas, values, beliefs (i.e., cultural meaning systems) that guide an individual's interpretation of his/her social world, (2) multicultural individuals possess more than one cultural meaning system and shift between these systems in response to cultural cues in the environment (a process called cultural frame-switching), and (3) a given cultural meaning system influences behavior to the extent that it is cognitively accessible (it has been recently activated) and applicable (it is relevant to the situation).

An important objective in our biculturalism work is to bridge the dynamic-constructivist approach to culture (which is heavily rooted in social and cognitive psychology) with a personality perspective that is sensitive to individual differences in the bicultural experience. A key finding in this line of work, which relies on both questionnaire and interview methods, is that there are reliable differences among biculturals in the way they cognitively and affectively organize their two cultural identities, a construct that we call Bicultural Identity Integration (BII). Biculturals high on BII tend to see themselves as part of a hyphenated culture (or even part of a combined, "third" emerging culture), and find it easy to integrate both cultures in their everyday lives. Biculturals low on BII, on the other hand, perceive a high degree of tension between the two cultures and feel as if it would be easier just to choose one culture. Interestingly, these two types of biculturals do not differ on their endorsement of Berry's integration strategy. In summary, biculturals high and low on BII identify with both mainstream (i.e., American) and ethnic (e.g., Chinese) cultures but differ in their ability to create a synergistic, integrated cultural identity. Our work shows that differences in BII impact biculturals' overall levels of adjustment and moderate the cultural frame-switching process.

Representative publications:

Hong, Y., Morris, M., Chiu, C., & Benet-Martínez, V. (2000). Multicultural minds: A dynamic constructivist approach to culture and cognition. American Psychologist, 55, 709-720.

Benet-Martínez, V., Leu, J., Lee, F., & Morris, M. (2002). Negotiating biculturalism: Cultural frame-switching in biculturals with "oppositional" vs. "compatible" cultural identities. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 33, 492-516.

Haritatos, J., & Benet-Martínez, V. (2002). Bicultural identities: The interface of cultural, personality, and socio-cognitive processes. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 598-606.

Hong, Y., Benet-Martínez, V., Chiu, C., & Morris, M. (2003). Boundaries of cultural influence: Construct activation as a mechanism for cultural differences in social perception. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 34, 453-464.

Benet-Martínez, V., & Haritatos, J. (2005). Bicultural Identity Integration (BII): Components and psychosocial antecedents. Journal of Personality, 73, 1015-1050.

Cheng, C., Lee, F., & Benet-Martínez, V. (2006). Assimilation and contrast effects in cultural frame-switching: Bicultural Identity Integration (BII) and valence of cultural cues. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 37, 742-760.

Benet-Martínez, V., Lee, F., & Leu, J. (2006). Biculturalism and cognitive complexity: Expertise in cultural representations. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 37, 386-407.

Ramirez-Esparza, N., Gosling, S., Benet-Martínez, V., Potter, J. & Pennebaker, J. (2006). Do bilinguals have two personalities? A special case of cultural frame-switching. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 99-120.

2. Culture and Personality Structure: Indigenous and Imported Personality Constructs

Our research in this area is concerned with the relation between culture and personality description. A key idea behind this work is that the natural language of personality is a window to the sorts of dispositions and attributes that a particular society or culture finds important, and thus, everyday personality description becomes an ideal starting point to develop culturally-informed personality models.

Motivated by the lack of personality research on Spanish-speaking individuals and the widespread practice of assuming that US-developed personality taxonomies can fully and accurately capture personality variation in other cultures and languages, we have developed a research program aimed at: (1) examining the replicability of US-developed personality models (e.g., "Big Five," John, 1990; "Big Seven," Waller, 1999) among Spanish and Hispanic individuals; (2) identifying Spanish indigenous dimensions of personality; and, perhaps more importantly, (3) developing a theoretical and methodological framework to compare the usefulness of these two types of cultural models (indigenous and imported) for personality measurement.

Representative publications:

Benet, V. & Waller, N. G. (1995). The "Big Seven" model of personality description: Evidence for its cross-cultural generality in a Spanish sample. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 701-718.

Benet-Martínez, V. & Waller, N. G. (1997). Further evidence for the cross-cultural generality of the "Big Seven" model: Imported and indigenous Spanish personality constructs. Journal of Personality, 65, 567-598.

Benet-Martínez, V (1997). Theoretical perspectives on the Five-Factor Model of personality: Agreement about five dimensions, disagreement about the concept of trait. Journal of Personality Assessment, 69, 658-664.

Benet-Martínez, V. & John, O.P. (1998). Los Cinco Grandes across cultures and ethnic groups: Multitrait method analyses of the Big Five in Spanish and English. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 729-750.

Benet-Martínez, V. (1999). Exploring indigenous Spanish personality constructs with a combined emic-etic approach. In J.C. Lasry, J.G. Adair,& K.L. Dion (Eds.). Latest contributions to cross-cultural psychology (pp. 151-175). Lisse, The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinge.

Benet-Martínez, V. & John, O.P. (2000). Towards the development of quasi-indigenous personality constructs. American Behavioral Scientist, 44, 141-157. Special issue: 'Personality traits and culture: New perspectives on some classic issues.'

Benet-Martínez, V. & Waller, N.G. (2002). From "adorable" to "worthless": Implicit and self-report structure of highly-evaluative personality descriptors. European Journal of Personality, 16, 1-44.

Schmitt, D.P., Allik, J., McCrae, R.R., & Benet-Martínez, V. (in press). The geographic distribution of Big Five personality traits: Patterns and profiles of human self-description across 56 nations. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

3. Culture and Social Symbols

Most of traditional cross-cultural psychology continues to conceptualize culture primarily in terms of explicit, stable, and domain-general world-views held by individuals (e.g., individualism-collectivism, independent-interdependent selves, etc.). One limitation of this approach is its failure to acknowledge the dynamic nature of culture and its largely symbolic (non-literal) and subjective quality. Our research in this area underscores: (a) how culture is (re)created and enacted through social tools such as folk wisdom (e.g., proverbs), cultural icons (e.g., flags), public messages (e.g., advertisement), and (2) how culture is continually in transit, flowing continually between individuals and their social environments and between different geographic locations in the world.

Representative publications:

Aaker, J., Benet-Martínez, V., & Garolera, J. (2001). Consumption symbols as carriers of culture: A study of Japanese and Spanish brand personality constructs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 249-264.

4. Other Research Interests: Culture and Well-Being

Our interest in culture and its impact on people's lives has led us to study how cultural values (culturally-shared attitudes, beliefs, norms, role and self definitions) impact subjective well-being (SWB), and how this effect is mediated by our personality traits. With this question in mind, we have examined the power of personality traits and individualist and collectivist value orientations (Triandis, 1996) in predicting life-satisfaction across two distinct U.S. ethnic groups, Asian Americans and European Americans. Results supported a culture-personality model of SWB where cultural values (individualism and collectivism) predict the endorsement and expression of personality traits, which in turn, influenced life-satisfaction through self-esteem and relational-esteem (satisfaction with friends and family).

Representative publications:

Benet-Martínez, V. & Karakitapoglu-Aygun, Z. (2003). The interplay of cultural values and personality in predicting life-satisfaction: Comparing Asian- and European-Americans. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 34, 38-61.

Conclusion

The work described here attests to the breath of our interests (acculturation, personality structure, measurement issues, well-being, etc.) and, at the same time, speaks of one unifying theme: culture. Our work on biculturalism moves away from traditional cross-cultural comparisons to study how multiple cultures are internalized and negotiated within the individual, and how this process is multi-dimensional and highly-contextualized. Our personality work shows that culture and ethnicity influence the ways in which we construct and describe our personalities, and that this process involves structures and products with both culturally-specific and -general elements. Our studies on culture and social symbols indicate that consumption symbols are powerful tools of cultural maintenance and transmission. Finally, our research on culture and well-being shows that our personalities and cultural values jointly influence our satisfaction with ourselves and significant others, and ultimately, our overall happiness.

In conclusion, our research program highlights culture as the basic element in which behavior takes meaning and purpose.