Country Culture & Personality: What comes first?

by | Feb 19, 2024 | 0 comments

Country Culture & Personality: What comes first?

Jussara N. Pereira de Souza


A frequent question is what influences an individual more: her/his culture or her/his unique physical and psychological features.

The author dealt with this question in practice, especially when assessing people for different job positions in European countries, where the specific requirements of the work, in terms of competencies and abilities, should be combined with being able to deal with diverse cultural backgrounds.

This paper shares the author’s experience in an intercultural assessment centre. Personality and culture were the bases for understanding that unique person in front of you, leading to ideas as indications of possible future performance. The paper explores the diverse perspectives on these processes and how to ensure accuracy and fairness.


culture, personality, hereditary, genetic, learned, psychology, assessment.


Scientists differ in the way they define and approach personality. In general, we could consider that personality refers, in the first place, to the unique set of a person´s characteristics, which manifests themselves in behaviors and supports people in their adjustment to life. In fact, it comprises a collection of interrelated behavioral, cognitive, and emotional patterns, among them major traits, values, self-concept, and abilities. These interrelated patterns (or core traits) remain relatively stable throughout life, while secondary patterns can change over long periods of time and emerge in certain situations. 

In the 1940s, personality traits were widely discussed and the concepts that became known as the Big Five Personality Traits or the Five-Factor Model of Personality became widely used in situations in which personality issues were in focus, such as to analyze a person´s behavior, assess and try to predict behavior for selection purposes, treat personality disorders, counseling, and coaching, among others. 

In the 1960s, in a search for ways of operationalizing and measuring personality, American psychologist Allport defined personality as the “dynamic organization within the individual of those psychological and physical systems that create the person´s characteristic patterns of behavior, thoughts, and feelings, and determine his unique adjustment to his environment.” (Gordon Allport, 1961).

The trust in the Big Five dimensions of personality has grown over the years. Nowadays, it is still a respected theory and practice when we wish to assess personality traits with a good degree of reliability. 

Behavior is an expression of personality and, as such, presupposes social interaction with an individual´s context, including the values of the culture where they were born and the main values she/he absorbed from the different environments she/he lived in throughout her/his life.

According to Geert Hofstede, the Dutch scholar pioneer on cultural studies, culture is defined as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another”. (Geert Hofstede, 1991)

The culture is expressed collectively and influences the individual in his/her behavior. Therefore, it is safe to say that personality is highly impacted by culture. It´s the combination of hereditary and learned characteristics that form an individual’s distinctive character or way of being. 

Hofstede also stressed that culture, besides being learned from your environment, is both general and relative. General because culture is a construct that helps us to understand different countries and the special way people behave in them, helping also to understand how different groups behave within a nation. There is no such thing as the individual that is exactly as his/her cultural characteristics, since at the individual level, we must consider all the specific characteristics.

Culture is relative because it exists in comparison among different countries. For example, Brazil is less hierarchical than Egypt and much more hierarchical than the Netherlands, or China is much more motivated towards achievement than Denmark, once we have studies that can compare those dimensions in each country. 

So, as Hofstede also stressed, “measuring culture is not the same as measuring personality”. (Geert Hofstede, 1994).

Measuring Personality through the Big Five and More 

In my experience as an assessor, first in my home country, Brazil, and later in the Netherlands and other countries such as Libya and Jordan, where I assessed people for selection purposes, a set of tools is key to understanding a person´s personality, experience and expectations towards a prospected job position.

Different tools and techniques such as personality tests (NEO Personality Inventory Revised, Neo-Pi-R is a good example), role plays, case studies, intercultural questionnaires (Intercultural Readiness – IRC, and Multicultural Personality Questionnaire – MPQ, are good examples), and especially in-depth interviews (one or more individual interviews and/or panel) are some of the tools that I have been using in different combinations in order to have consistent information that supports managerial decisions in hiring qualified professionals.

The Big Five represents a strong support in understanding personality traits.

The big five. What are they?

They are five basic personality dimensions representing broad categories encompassing other traits or facets. The Big Five theory was developed in 1949 by D. W. Fiske and further developed by other researchers, including Norman (1967), Smith (1967), Goldberg (1981), and McCrae & Costa (1987).

There is now a considerable body of research supporting its validity and practical application in clinical and organizational settings.

The personality tests based on the Big Five are also traditionally well-validated and very reliable questionnaires with multiple choices, allowing responses that vary from strongly agree to strongly disagree, determining in what scale the person may be grouped into different personality traits.

Although more studies have been done on each trait over the years, researchers do not always agree on the definitions and how to label them.

Here are the ones that express the way I work.


Openness is a trait that can indicate the extent to which a person is open to new things and experiences, enjoying change, adventure and traveling for example. People who score high in openness tend to be eager to learn, have a broad range of interests and find routine boring, looking for ways of making their life exciting.

Imagination and creativity also play a big part in the openness trait.

People who score low in this trait tend to struggle more when out of their comfort zone, tending to have more traditional approaches to life.


Conscientiousness is also considered by some as the professional sense of responsibility. It is a trait that includes good impulse control and high levels of thoughtfulness. People with high conscientiousness tend to plan, be goal-oriented, and have a structured and organized approach to life. They tend to be cautious, have a sense of duty and are committed to a difficult task until it is completed. A good example is people who work in scientific areas.

People with low conscientiousness tend to be less disciplined and dislike structure and schedules. They might procrastinate and might have difficulty in completing difficult tasks.


Extraversion is a personality trait characterized by stimulation, excitement seeking, and risk-taking. Extroverts are people who get energized in the company of others, especially if being the centre of attention.

They tend to be talkative and assertive and enjoy meeting new people and cultivating big groups of friends and acquaintances. Social interactions are among their major interests. 

Extroverts/extroverts tend to be self-confident and prefer taking the lead to being seen among the crowd. It´s common to see them in public, facing roles such as marketing, sales and politics. 

The opposite of the extrovert trait is someone who prefers privacy and has less energy in social situations. Being at the centre of attention, making new friends or making small talk can be quite difficult for them. They tend to be less energetic than extroverts and prefer doing things at their own pace. They also tend to let others take the lead and are comfortable following social norms.


Agreeableness is a trait characterized by a high level of sociability and trust in others. People who score high in agreeableness tend to exhibit empathy, kindness, and altruism. They are inclined to help other people and enjoy comforting, cooperating and sharing with others.

Those who score high in agreeableness tend to work in areas where they can help the most, such as medicine, mental health, charity institutions and NGOs.

Individuals who score low in agreeableness tend to be less altruistic and less inclined to help others without expecting something in return. They might have a hard time getting along with others and might lack empathy and compassion.

They often consider themselves objective people and may find it difficult to empathize with others, sometimes becoming unpleasant. Since they tend to have little interest in other people, they prefer handling things alone rather than in a team.


Neuroticism, or emotional stability, is a trait that refers to a person’s ability to remain stable and balanced, being able to cope with difficult and unpleasant situations. 

Individuals who exhibit high levels of neuroticism tend to have difficulty handling stress and pressure. They might experience anxiety, irritability, sadness, or mood swings somehow often, feeling discouraged and less energetic. Criticism is quite a struggle for them to face, and they tend to overthink everyday situations. 

People who score lower tend to exhibit a more stable and emotionally resilient attitude to stressful situations. They rarely feel sad or depressed, taking time to focus on the present moment and remaining calm even under pressure. 

Conclusion: The Learned and the Hereditary

As we know, Personality has often been a subject of debate about how much of it is hereditary or learned.

According to Allport, personality is shaped by the interaction of a person´s childhood experiences, experiences in the current environment, and his/her core traits.

According to Geert Hofstede, in his construct of a pyramid, in the base, we find what is common to the whole of humanity, such as physical needs, anger, love, and the need for communication, for example. Those are inherited.

How those needs are expressed in different cultures made for the cultural aspect learned by individuals collectively. 

On top of the pyramid, the individual combines hereditary aspects common to humans, the hereditary characteristics inherited from her/his parents and the learned cultural aspects.

The revised version of the Neo-Pi-R brings some interesting data to that debate. The genetic and environmental impact of the Five-factor Model was assessed through 123 pairs of identical twins and 127 pairs of fraternal twins. 

The findings suggested broad genetic influence on each of the five traits: 61% for openness, 44% for conscientiousness, 53% for extraversion, 41% for agreeableness, and 41% for neuroticism. 

“The facet scales also showed substantial heritability, although the genetic influence was largely nonadditive for several facets. The influence of the environment was consistent across all dimensions and facets. Shared environmental influences accounted for a negligible proportion of the variance in most scales, whereas nonshared environmental influences accounted for most of the environmental variance in all scales”. (Jang, K.L.; Livesley, W.J.; Vernon, P.A., 1996).

A further similar study focusing on openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness suggested that genetic influence was substantial to the first two and there was little evidence of shared rearing environment. Results for Agreeableness were different: genetic influence accounted for only 12% of the variance and shared rearing environment accounted for 21% of the variance. Few significant gender or age differences for genetic and environmental parameters were found in the study.

Although many studies related to this issue can currently be found, when assessing a person´s personality, it´s somehow irrelevant how much of her/his characteristics are inherited or acquired by experiences that this person has during her/his life. What is really relevant in an assessment is to see her/him as a whole. Relevant is to try to get to know that person you see in front of you, her/his motivations, interests, distinctive experiences and the combination of inherited and learned characteristics that made this individual unique. 


Allport, Gordon – Concepts of Trait and Personality –, 2012

Moscovici, Fela – Desenvolvimento Interpessoal – Livros Técnicos e Científicos, 1983

Moscovici, Fela – Razão e Emoção. A inteligência Emocional em Questão – Casa de Qualidade, 1997

Hofstede, Geert; Hofsteede, Gert Jan; Minkov, Michael – Cultures and Organizations. Software of the mind – McGraw Hill, USA, 2010.

Hofstede, Geert – Culture’s Consequences – Sage, London, 2003.

Hofstede, Geert – Measuring Culture is not the same as Measuring Personality (article) – ITIM, 1994

Widiger, Thomas – The Oxford Handbook of the Five Factor Model – Oxford University Press, 2017.

About the author: Jussara Pereira de Souza is a management consultant, facilitator and coach in leadership, individual assessments, team development and cross-cultural relations. She has over 25 years of experience in these fields, working to develop multicultural teams and providing services to international clients in Africa, Europe and Latin America. 

Dutch/Brazilian psychologist, post-graduated in Human Resources Management and Group Dynamics, she has been combining career as a photographer and writer.


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