National Character and Scientific Enterprise

Is there something in our cultural heritage that makes us better or worse at biotech?

By | November 1, 2008

Recently, at a party in Oslo for the life sciences community, I was asked to make a few remarks, and decided to blurt out what had come into my head about the trip. Which was given what I'd grasped about the "Norwegian character," the country would likely have a growing impact on the life sciences.

What I felt exemplified the Norwegian character was independence and outspokenness: The men and women that I met all held firm views about their research, their patients, patents, the industry, the economy, the weather, where to eat and what to eat - on everything, essentially. They expressed themselves in a forceful, enthusiastic fashion without ever being confrontational. They came across as individualistic and egalitarian, and many combined high intellect with a strong streak of practicality. There was a genuine sense of community too, with researchers, CEOs and clinicians at different locations knowledgably discussing and promoting each other's projects.

The experience piqued my interest: Is there firm evidence for national character, in Norway or anywhere else? And, if so, does this character really factor into real-life pursuits such as success in the sciences? My everyday experience suggested to me that there is and it does. However, I could have unconsciously had a "Norwegian stereotype" in mind before I set foot in the country and discounted the encounters that contradicted it.

I turned to the social sciences literature for answers. It's a murky area. Cultural anthropologists say yes to national character, psychology says no.

According to Robert J. Smith, "the belief in national character differences is deeply embedded and stubbornly defended... These impulses to classify are powered in part by the tendency to seek order and simplicity in making sense of the myriad of stimuli, whether person or object, with which we are confronted daily."1 Of course this doesn't necessarily mean that defined national characters exist, just that we want them to.

A high-profile study published in Science in 2005 resolved the issue for many.2 Antonio Terracciano and colleagues argued that if national character had a "kernel of truth," then the traits that made up that character should find correlations in individual personality profiles from residents of said country. This was spectacularly disproven: For example, using the perceived national characteristics, German-speaking Swiss scored 28 points higher than Indonesians with respect to conscientiousness. But when real Swiss and Indonesian people were compared in personality tests the difference was just 3.9 points. Indeed, the largest difference in any trait between any two groups of people of different cultures was just 8 score points. So while Australians see themselves as highly extraverted, they are in reality about as extraverted as Estonians, who consider themselves to be archetypal introverts. (Frustratingly for me, Norwegians weren't included among the 49 cultures assessed).

Critics such as Smith however, view the study as simply disproving crude national stereotyping. He promotes the value of having more than one approach to human complexity. There is a sense in which culture, including national character, "finishes off " personality, in ways limited by individual traits. A Notebook article in this very issue ("Drug wars") illustrates this, perhaps. It describes a "war game" competition, pitting experienced professionals from the United Kingdom against their American counterparts to develop a fictional biotech company. The result? The US team wiped the floor with the British one, their "ambitious, confident, and strategic" approach beating their "more hesitant" opponents. How many of us are surprised, given the national character of the two countries?

Last year a European Commission study reported that the factors determining the success of a nation's biotech industry are public R&D spending, favorable political policies, publications and the number of patents granted. Typical of the bureaucracy, they left intangible personal and interpersonal factors off the list, yet these are the keys to success. My tip: get your money on the Norwegians.


1. R.J. Smith, "In defense of national character", Theory Psychol, 18:465, 2008. 2. A. Terracciano et al., "National character does not reflect mean personality trait levels in 49 cultures," Science, 310:96-100, 2005.


Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

December 1, 2008

In economics there is this concept of social capital, which underlies all economic activity. Social capital is the ability to trust and perform contracts without enforcement cost. An additional part of social capital is cooperation and collaboration for mutual benefit. Certain religious communities had high social capital, such as the Amana community, the Oneida community which ended up making them wealthy, and then the courts turned their communal enterprises into corporations. \n\nI think that what you are discussing here is something that would be an addition to those social capital concepts. I expect that if you look for it, you may find literature about it in economics, although fairly sparse, but maybe not. \n\nIt also seems to me that there is another aspect of national character that could be a confounder of the results of the study you mentioned. That is, to what extent do people in responsible positions, the active segments, have the national character features? One could propose that a nation where people with characteristics which are not appropriate for some function don't put themselves in there would greatly change the effective results.

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