The Frontal Cortex

Culture, Disease, Personality

This seems a wee bit reductive to me, but it’s still an interesting hypothesis:

One of the more intriguing patterns in psychology is that different cultures are characterized by different personality types. A team of psychologists has proposed a new explanation: the legacy of disease. They matched the personality scores of people to historical data on the prevalence of major diseases in each country. They found that a history of disease in a country corresponded to a personality characterized by a less promiscuous orientation – especially for women – and by less extraversion and openness to experience. The idea is that more inhibited personalities evolved to prevent the spread of disease by minimizing risky social contact.

Note the verb “corresponded,” which has to do a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. Cultures are incredibly complex entities, so I think one has to be careful coming up with simple explanatory relationships. (We should make every researcher attempting to “explain” history via data-mining read Isaiah Berlin’s classic essay on Tolstoy and history.) This could also be a case of looking for the keys under the streetlight: there is so little quantifiable historical data from a wide-variety of cultures that it can be tempting to put the numbers we do have through the statistical grinder, looking for subtle correlations between rates of leprosy and introversion, etc.

That caveat aside, speculation sure is fun. Personally, I’d be interested to look for correlations between measures of personality in various cultures and the preference for certain types of drugs. Some cultures prefer beer or wine (and have for millenia) while others favor opium or coca. How do these intoxicants influence, over vast stretches of time, the collective habits of people?


  1. #1 bob koepp
    August 11, 2008

    I can’t speak to the interplay of beer, wine, opium or coca and culture. I know a thing or two, though, about how reefer affects culture that I’d like to pass along to your readers — only I’ve forgotten what I wanted to say, and I can’t find the motivation right now to search my memory. A day at the beach should help.

  2. #2 Gilbert Wesley Purdy
    August 11, 2008

    Mr. Koepp’s comment will keep me chuckling for some time to come. As for Murray and Schaller’s thesis, it seems to me that the question is not if but how much. Any persistent environmental factor is likely (perhaps even certain) to have a selective effect. Which is to say that the question is the relative effect of each of the many factors present in any environment. N’est pas?

    Of course there are also the questions: 1) Is this or that truly a persistent environmental factor? 2) What traits in the population has it affected?

  3. #3 jb
    August 11, 2008

    Ah yes. I can’t speak from experience except indirectly. My Buddhist teacher came to the US in 1970 and hung out in a commune until people appreciated his wise and compassionate presence and became interested in meditation. It took awhile. I have heard that he sampled whatever substance came along and they did not have much impact on his well-trained mind. But he did not recommend drugs and was particularly opposed to marijuana because it clouded the mind, he said. He personally drank sake on occasion.

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