Talent, Character, and the Dimensions of National Culture

By Meisenberg, Gerhard | Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Talent, Character, and the Dimensions of National Culture


Meisenberg, Gerhard, Mankind Quarterly


This study investigates the dimensions of cultural variation in the modern world as assessed by the World Values Survey. It confirms the previously reported existence of two major dimensions of cultural variation that can be described as modern and "postmodern," respectively. Modern values are characterized by skepticism and critical thinking, with a rejection of religion and traditional authority along with an interest in politics. In multiple regression models, modern values are directly related to the IQ of the population. Postmodern values are characterized by trust, tolerance, and self-realization. In multiple regression models, they are inversely related to corruption. Subjective wellbeing is positively related to postmodern values and negatively to modern values. Modern values are interpreted as the emancipation of reason from the constraints of traditional custom and religion, and postmodern values as the emancipation of pleasure-seeking and social emotions from the constraints of dysfunctional social systems. The historical context and the roles of these value orientations in the evolution of contemporary societies are discussed.

Key Words: Cultural evolution; IQ; corruption; World Values Survey; Modern values; Postmodern values.

Culture, narrowly defined, is the variance component of psychological traits that is explained by membership in social groups. In other words, culture is what makes members of the same socially defined group similar to one another, and members of different groups different from one another. The psychological traits in question consist of the beliefs, emotions, attitudes and values that describe the way people perceive the world, impart meaning to it, and respond to it behaviorally.

Cultural traits are best understood as the responses of people to the physical, economic and social conditions in which they find themselves. Thus, shared environmental conditions in the society cause similarities in attitudes, values and beliefs among its members through individual and social learning.

According to one view, these learning processes are unconstrained by biological programming. In consequence, cultural variation is erratic and unpredictable. For R.H. Lowie, for example, "the principles of psychology are as incapable of accounting for the phenomena of culture as is gravitation to account for architectural styles," and "culture is a thing sui generis which can be explained only in terms of itself... Omnis cultura ex cultura." (Lowie, 1966 [1917]). This view of cultural diversity was popular through most of the 20th century.

The alternative to this tradition is the sociobiological view that responses to environmental conditions are hard-wired into the human brain. Social behavior, in particular, is guided by a fairly large array of special-purpose abilities and behavioral dispositions that reach all the way from language learning to incest avoidance (Tooby and Cosmides, 1992). Unlike classical social science, sociobiology sees individual and social learning not as passive responses to environmental conditions, but as the outcome of a match between genetically pre-wired learning dispositions and the environment. This "reductionist" view implies that cultural diversity can be created by differences in the environmental conditions to which people in different societies have to adapt, and also by genetic differences in learning abilities and learning predispositions among human populations.

However, the sociobiological emphasis on many special-purpose behavioral mechanisms is hard to reconcile with the finding that much of the variation in personality can be explained by a small number of general personality traits. The most commonly identified traits are neuroticism (negative emotions), extraversion (positive emotions), agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, honesty, and intelligence. These dimensions o( personality are seen in similar form in many and perhaps all societies (Ashton et al. …

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