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Age trajectories for personality traits are known to be similar across cultures. To address whether stereotypes of age groups reflect these age-related changes in personality, we asked participants in 26 countries (N = 3,323) to rate typical adolescents, adults, and old persons in their own country. Raters across nations tended to share similar beliefs about different age groups; adolescents were seen as impulsive, rebellious, undisciplined, preferring excitement and novelty, whereas old people were consistently considered lower on impulsivity, activity, antagonism, and Openness. These consensual age group stereotypes correlated strongly with published age differences on the five major dimensions of personality and most of 30 specific traits, using as criteria of accuracy both self-reports and observer ratings, different survey methodologies, and data from up to 50 nations. However, personal stereotypes were considerably less accurate, and consensual stereotypes tended to exaggerate differences across age groups.
Laypersons often have intuitive notions of lifespan development, influenced by literary, philosophical, and media representations, as well as their personal observations. They can readily report their beliefs on the social, emotional, physical, and cognitive features of adolescents, adults, and old persons (e.g., Buchanan & Holmbeck, 1998; Grühn, Gilet, Studer, & Labouvie-Vief, 2011; Löckenhoff et al., 2009), and these stereotypes are thought to contribute to societal attitudes and prejudices towards these groups (Nelson, 2002; Zebrowitz & Montepare, 2000). In this article, we quantify the perceived personality trait profiles of adolescents, adults, and the old using a comprehensive measure of the Five-Factor Model (FFM) of personality (Digman, 1990). We assess perceptions of these age groups in 26 countries around the world to test whether these views are culture-bound or universal, and we evaluate the accuracy of stereotypes of age differences.
Research on age stereotypes generally asks participants to list attributes that describe a group. These free-response assessments have revealed multifaceted beliefs regarding adolescents and the elderly. For example, the elderly are described as demanding but kind (Hummert, 1990; Hummert, Garstka, Shaner, & Strahm, 2004), and pitiful and not particularly capable (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002). Adolescents have been described as rebellious and moody (Gross & Hardin, 2007), yet hardworking and intelligent (Buchanan & Holmbeck, 1998). In order to encompass these multifaceted beliefs in a comprehensive personality profile, we used the FFM framework, which proposes that personality traits can be organized into five distinct domains, namely, Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. Each domain can be further divided into lower order facets (Costa & McCrae, 1995). The structure of the FFM has been shown to replicate across age, gender, and culture (McCrae, 2004). Thus, by using a common measure of personality perception, we can determine whether adolescent boys and girls, men and women, and old men and old women are consistently perceived to differ across the full range of personality traits.
A number of studies have tested the hypothesis that raters in different cultures have substantially different views of adolescents and the old (Boduroglu, Yoon, Luo, & Park, 2006; Yun & Lachman, 2006). Social stereotypes of the elderly vary widely among different ethnic groups (Liu, Ng, Loong, Gee, & Weatherall, 2003), as do cultural ideals and practices surrounding elder care and treatment (Harvey & Yoshino, 2006). National groups also vary in their perception and treatment of adolescents; Americans used more socially negative words to describe adolescents than did the Chinese (Boduroglu et al., 2006), and mothers’ reactions to hyperactive boys differ cross-culturally (Gidwani, Opitz, & Perrin, 2006). Personality stereotypes of different age groups, however, may be more similar across nations (Haslam, Bastian, Fox, & Whelan, 2007; Igier & Mullet, 2003). In particular, Cuddy, Norton, and Fiske (2005) found that stereotypes of the old as high in warmth and low in competence generalized to 6 different nations. Furthermore, age-linked social role influences on personality perception, such as marriage and child rearing (Wood & Roberts, 2006), are likely to be similar across cultures. We further develop this research area by assessing stereotypes about different age groups with an FFM measure of the five major factors and 30 facets in samples from 26 countries. We aim to determine the content and consistency of age stereotypes across cultures, and compare the relative strength of age and culture on such personality stereotypes.
By using the FFM, we can also evaluate stereotype accuracy by comparing stereotypical perceptions to published self-reported and observer-rated personality data for each age group. Measures of assessed personality differences across the lifespan show patterns that are similar across cultures (Donnellan & Lucas, 2008; Lucas & Donnellan, 2009; McCrae, Costa, Hřebíčková, et al., 2004; McCrae et al., 2005; Soto, John, Gosling, & Potter, 2011). The age differences seen in cross-sectional studies are similar to the age trajectories observed in longitudinal studies (Lucas & Donnellan, 2011; Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer, 2006; Terracciano, McCrae, Brant, & Costa, 2005). Roughly speaking, Extraversion, Openness, and Neuroticism generally decline, and Agreeableness and Conscientiousness generally increase, during most of the adult lifespan. However, the strength and direction of these age effects are less clear for some personality factors during some portions of the lifespan, such as at old age. For example, some studies find Openness declining through adulthood (Donnellan & Lucas, 2008; Lucas & Donnellan, 2011; McCrae et al, 2005; Specht, Egloff, & Schmukle, 2011; Terracciano, McCrae et al., 2005), but others report relative stability (Roberts et al., 2006), or even increases (Soto et al., 2011). There are also mixed findings on whether Conscientiousness linearly increases through age (Soto et al., 2011; Roberts et al., 2006) or peaks in middle age and then declines (Donnellan & Lucas, 2008; Lucas & Donnellan 2011; Terracciano, McCrae, et al., 2005). Given these discrepancies in the literature, we will use data from multiple published studies to evaluate the accuracy of age stereotypes.
Do perceived age differences in personality accurately match actual age differences, or are they baseless stereotypes? Literature on the accuracy of personality stereotypes might support either hypothesis. On the one hand, FFM assessments of gender stereotypes roughly match actual sex differences in personality across cultures (Williams, Satterwhite, & Best, 1999); on the other hand, previous work generally found little correspondence between stereotypes of national character and mean levels of personality in a particular country (Terracciano, Abdel-Khalek, et al., 2005; but see Realo et al., 2009; Rogers & Wood, 2010). Perhaps age stereotypes are exaggerated, but have a kernel of truth (Jussim, 2012; Jussim, McCauley, & Lee, 1995). A few studies have assessed the trajectory of age stereotypes within a single country, focusing on the five major factors of personality. In the U.S., 68-year-old targets were rated lower on Neuroticism and Extraversion, and higher on Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, compared to 17-year-olds, 28-year-olds and 45-year-olds (Wood & Roberts, 2006). However, in another American sample, participants rated 69-year-old targets lower on Openness and Conscientiousness compared to 41-year-old and 22-year-old targets (Slotterback, 1996), but no differences were found for the other three factors. Australian raters perceived age-normative linear declines for Neuroticism, Extraversion, and Openness, and increases for Agreeableness and Conscientiousness (Haslam et al., 2007). French participants additionally perceived curvilinear age differences, where the age-normative trends above reversed directions for very old (85-year-old) targets on all factors save Openness (Igier & Mullet, 2003). The present study extends this work by examining the accuracy of age stereotypes across a large number of cultures.