As early as the fifth century, the Greek philosopher Thucydides contrasted the self-control and stoicism of Spartans with the more indulgent and free-thinking citizens of Athens.
Today, unique behaviors and characteristics seem ingrained in certain cultures.
As developmental psychologists, we’re fascinated by these differences, how they take shape and how they get passed along from one generation to the next.
Our new book, “Toddlers, Parents and Culture,” explores the way a society’s values influences the choices parents make – and how this, in turn, influences who their kids become.
The enduring influence of cultural values
Although genetics certainly matter, the way you behave isn’t hardwired.
Over the past two decades, researchers have shown how culture can shape your personality.
In 2005, psychologist Robert McCrae and his colleagues were able to document pronounced differences in the personalities of people living in different parts of the world. For example, adults from European cultures tended to be more outgoing and open to new experiences than those from Asian cultures. Within Europe, they found that people from Northern Europe were more conscientious than their peers in Southern Europe.
Recently, we’ve been able to trace some of these differences to early childhood.
Parenting – perhaps not surprisingly – played a role.
Working with colleagues from 14 countries, we looked at the way broad societal values influenced how parents raise their children. We then studied how these different parenting styles shaped the behavior and personality of kids.
We did this primarily by administering questionnaires to parents around the world, asking them to describe their daily routines, hopes for their kids and methods of discipline. We then asked them to detail the behaviors of their children.
We also relied on the work of Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, who, in the 1970s, asked IBM employees around the world about factors that led to work satisfaction.
We were able to compare his findings to ours, and we were surprised to see that his results correlated with our own. The cultural values that were revealed through work preferences in the 1970s could be seen in parenting practices and child temperament 40 years later.
This is important: It shows cultural values are relatively enduring, and seem to have an effect on how kids develop over time.
To think about yourself, or to think of others?
Perhaps the most well-known of these broad cultural values are individualism and collectivism.
In some societies, such as the U.S. and Netherlands, people are largely driven by pursuits that benefit themselves. They’re expected to seek personal recognition and boost their own social or financial status.