Louigi Verona's Workshop


National stereotypes are bullshit. Seriously.

Louigi Verona
January 2020

It is customary to say that national stereotypes have a grain of truth to them, or that they are accurate on average. The only problem with this view is that it is completely wrong.

The perceived accuracy of national stereotypes is achieved through a number of cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, Barnum effect, hasty generalization and a number of others.

Existing scientific evidence supports the conclusion that national stereotypes are highly inaccurate and say little to nothing about real personalities.

In other words, national stereotypes are good at creating an illusion of telling us something about somebody, while actually providing very little accurate information.

1. National stereotypes: definition and types

National stereotypes are beliefs about typical characteristics of members of a given ethnic group or nationality. These beliefs typically take the form of generalizing statements, such as "Germans are efficient", "Brits are cold", etc.

It is helpful to differentiate between two types of stereotypes:

2. Perception vs reality

It is also important to distinguish between perception of accuracy and actual accuracy.

For instance, astrological horoscopes are frequently perceived as accurate, although scientific evidence shows that they are not. The illusion is created through confirmation bias and the so called “Barnum statements”, statements which seem very personal, but are actually applicable to the majority of people in similar circumstances.

Frequently, people might feel that even type A stereotypes inform them about deeper character traits, although there is no evidence linking them. For instance, saying that Italians gesture a lot might translate in someone’s mind into a statement about Italians being more excitable.

3. Problems with national stereotypes

3.1 Lack of general plausibility

The fundamental problem with national stereotypes is their implausibility. They claim to say something very specific and meaningful about a very large group of people.

Apart from pseudoscientific claims that it has something to do with genetics, a more intelligent explanation is that the foundation for being able to say something about a whole nation is culture. A person from a certain country is more likely to behave a certain way due to the way they were raised.

And this is a good argument that can indeed lend credence to several statements that focus specifically on culture. For instance, a stereotype that Italians love pasta can very well be stating a trivial observation that a certain type of food is customary in a certain region, and this might be relatively accurate.

The problem with the cultural argument as a defense of national stereotypes as a whole is that many stereotypes go well beyond trivial cultural things and foray into areas of character, personality traits and even professional performance.

3.2 Vagueness

National stereotypes tend to be statements similar to astrological horoscopes: they seem to be saying something very particular about a very large and diverse group of people, yet on closer inspection turn out to be extremely vague and ill-defined.

For instance, a stereotype about Germans is that they are extremely punctual. But what does "extremely punctual" mean? And how does it differ from simply “punctual”? Are Germans punctual in all circumstances or only in specific circumstances?

Here is a quote from an expat website that depicts "typical German behavior":

What I find amusing is how some Germans will search up schedules on the Deutsche Bahn website, so it’s not even, "Hey, let’s meet at around 5," but rather, "Hey, let’s meet at exactly 17.27." And when they say 17.27, you better be there at 17.27.

Of course when you do run late, they’ll tell you it’s fine, but underneath their happy, smiling exterior, you can totally sense their disappointment. Unless of course, you blame the transportation. In the land of punctuality, for some reason the Deutsche Bahn is never fully reliable. All Germans seem united in their hatred for the Deutsche Bahn, so just work that into your excuse, and your tardiness will be forgiven.Source: German Stereotypes (Truths! Lies! And more!) - The Perpetual Expat

Notice how this reads like your typical horoscope. And we are likely to find the description plausible if we can remember at least one case when someone from Germany displayed behavior akin to this. But we won’t be counting the amount of times when that did not happen, nor will we count the amount of times when non-Germans did this.

On the other hand, if we are talking about a situation when a train arrives once per hour and the next one is going to be there only at 18.32, anyone, regardless of their nationality, will make sure they make it on time. Additionally, with various digital services helping us out with commutes, it is not impossible that the person they are talking about in the article did not mean it very seriously, but just said that according to Google Maps they should be there at 17.27 in order to make it to the train.

So, the description is trivially true, generalizable to most people in similar circumstances, and is unlikely to be fundamentally true for Germans on average.

Additionally, notice that another stereotype inserted into the description is that Deutsche Bahn is "never fully reliable". But no service in the world is ever fully reliable. So, it’s not clear what this means. Additionally, it contradicts the stereotype that Germans are "extremely punctual". Deutsche Bahn employs thousands of Germans, so if they all are extremely punctual, why can’t they make Deutsche Bahn punctual?

In reality, of course, such texts are completely unscientific, based on anecdotes, internally inconsistent and lack any evidence for their claims.

Ill-defined traits also allow for the proliferation of confirmation bias. It’s easier to count something as a hit when quite a bunch of situations can count as successes. "Extremely punctual" is not a meaningful qualifier, therefore being only slightly late can also be considered "extremely punctual", depending on the situation.

Finally, vague traits make it easier for the people to attribute the stereotype to themselves. Stereotypes can seem persuasive to people about whom they are being said too, even when the stereotype in question has a negative connotation.

3.3 Anecdotal evidence frequently contradicts national stereotypes

It is not uncommon to cling to certain stereotypes, and yet have no evidence for such behavior in real life. When this is pointed out, frequently people will employ a double standard, a form of a “true Scotsman” fallacy to say that the people they are hanging out with are, of course, not like that, but in general the stereotype is true.

This actually undermines the plausibility of the hypothesis that national stereotypes are accurate. The hypothesis that you just happen to attract people who are from a single country, yet display very little or none of the “national traits”, has less explanatory power than the hypothesis that no such national traits exist.

For instance, I know many Italians. Yet, not a single one of them manifests excessive "Italian gesturing". Does it mean that I somehow magically meet Italians who just don’t do that? If the stereotype is true, then this is highly unlikely, since according to the stereotype the majority of Italians should be gesturing. Therefore, somehow I stumbled upon the minority. And I am managing to stumble upon that minority again and again, across time, workplaces and countries. The mystery of this strange situation vanishes if we make an assumption that the stereotype is simply false.

3.4 National stereotypes have "some truth to them"

It is very common to say that "there must be at least some truth to national stereotypes".

The problem with this statement is that, just like the national stereotypes it purports to defend, it lacks meaningful qualifiers.

If the majority of Italians don’t excessively gesture, is it meaningful to say that the stereotype is true at least to some degree? And which degree would that be? If 5% of Italians excessively gesture, can this be considered a "national trait", which is "true to some extent"?

It would seem to me that this objection is more like a way to stop the conversation, signal a lack of desire to engage with the topic and provide a reconciliatory "we both have a point".

3.5 Actual scientific evidence

While many more things can be pointed out, I would conclude with this: the science that exists today on the subject is very clear. National stereotypes are inaccurate.

Studies involve people describing themselves and personalities of people they knew. People would be grouped into countries and their data would be averaged to produce “national traits”. Then this data would be compared to another questionnaire, which would focus instead on national stereotypes. And then the results would be compared. Several studies found that national traits bore no correlation with real personalities.

4. Useful links:

Some of the studies mentioned in the links above also talk about how stereotypes form and how they end up being so completely inaccurate.