Our fascination with personality typing isn't just an American phenomenon, it's a universal one. More than 50 million people around the world are estimated to have taken a test based on the work of Isabel Briggs Myers; that figure is growing at an estimated rate of 2.5 million people per year. Personality in the wider sense has been studied and assessed in over 30 countries, on all continents, in multiple languages. Wherever we are in the world, we trust personality theory to give us valuable insights into our quirks, ambitions, and behaviors. And there's no doubt that it gives us a common language to think about these things.

But is personality type really the same in Japan, in Greece, in Sri Lanka, in Libya? Can we take a single system of personality typing, translate it, and use it to completely explain the modes of human behavior in other cultures besides our own? Or is the depth of human experience too great to make comparisons cross-culturally?

Personality typing - what's the fuss?

Type theories come in all shapes and sizes but fundamentally, they are an evaluation of personality that reveals a person's preferences for interacting with the world. Tests based on the theory put forward by Briggs and Myers, for example, ask people a series of questions designed to position that person on each of four variables or scales: 
  • The direction of your energy - Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I)
  • How you process information - Sensing (S) or Intuition (N)
  • How you make decisions - Thinking (T) or Feeling (F) 
  • How you deal with the outside world - Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)

These choices (I/ E, S/N, T/F, J/P) mark your "type." There are 16 permutations of letters; hence, there are 16 personality types.

Why use personality typing? Lots of reasons. Job seekers, psychologists, educational institutions, businesses and curious individuals rely on personality typing to gain a greater understanding of themselves and to aid personal growth. Specific uses include team building, communication, career development, time management, and organization development.

But we don't turn to personality theories just to be flattered. We want them to be a shortcut for understanding - a way of comparing ourselves to others and finding common behaviors and attitudes or conversely, explaining behaviors that, without the decoder tool of personality, might not make sense.

The problem with personality assessments

At this point, it's worth noting that personality tests are almost always self-reported inventories. It is up to the test-taker themselves to answer a series of questions about their interests, values, preferences, traits and behaviors and thus, put themselves in a personality box.

For Anglo-American citizens, it's easy to work off those experiences. Most of the popular personality tests were created and tested in the USA, and it is reasonable to infer that the questions will reflect the norms and values of American culture. Whenever instruments are translated into other languages for use in other cultures, it is done with the tacit assumption that the tests somehow transcend human language and culture. This fits with Jung's original hypothesis that personality is universal and rises above the diversity of human cultures. The 16-type personality theory is based on Jung's work.

Is Jung's hypothesis correct? It has certainly been met with skepticism. We know, for example, that the U.S. and Western Europe are individualist cultures that value independence with each person working to their own individual goals. But what about the citizens of collectivist cultures where group goals and cooperation are valued, e.g. Japan? Would these people approach personality typing in the same way?

To answer this question, we must return to the nature of the personality test. Since most tests are self-reported, it is fair to say that they will only have value to other cultures if it can be shown that:

  • The test questions make sense to the test taker
  • The type descriptions make sense to the test taker; and
  • The type descriptions are autobiographical, i.e. the test taker can recognize themselves in the type description.

Essentially, we are asking whether behavior has the same meaning in all cultures, even if the cultural perception and understanding of that behavior differs greatly.

What does the research say?

Many studies have compared cultures on various personality measures, but only a few have examined a sufficiently broad sample of subjects and cultures. Despite the limited data, researchers have made some statistically meaningful observations:

  • In every culture studied to date, every single one of the 16 type preferences (E/I, S/N, T/F, J/P) has been self-reported and observed.
  • Test takers in different cultures report that 16-type and Big Five type descriptions are appropriate and make sense to them.
  • Specific distributions of the 16 personality types differ across countries. However, distribution patterns are similar across all cultures, with STJ types predominating in every case.
  • Gender differences in the Big Five personality traits have been observed consistently across a number of cultures. Across the globe, women tend to score higher on neuroticism and agreeableness.
  • In one fascinating piece of research, business people in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia were grouped according to their Keirsey temperament pairs (NF, NT, SJ and SP). When asked to choose an animal that represented their temperament, participants made remarkably similar choices: Idealist NF types chose good-natured, companionable animals, Rational NT types chose animals of wisdom and vision, Guardian SJ types selected loyal and industrious animals, and Artisan SP types chose  adaptable, self-reliant animals.
  • Males within each culture report a preference for Thinking that is 10 - 25 percent higher than that reported by females.
  • Research of business managers in the Philippines, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia showed that the overall dominant leadership personality type of the four Asian country groups was Extraversion, Thinking, and Judging - exactly the same as in the US and UK. Over half of all European managers also have a TJ preference.

These and other studies support the theory that personality typing is applicable, accessible and to some degree universal across cultures.

What's missing?

For researchers seeking to scrutinize personality traits across cultures, one of the more troublesome problems has been the comprehensiveness of an Anglo-American personality test. While the tests are fine as far as they go, some researchers suggest that important aspects of certain cultures are not captured by Western-based personality theories.

For example, a 2009 analysis of Chinese "Big Five" personality traits actually found seven factors, only three of which resembled the Anglo-American Big Five traits. And a Filipino study based on the revised NEO personality inventory (which is closely aligned to the Big Five) found that indigenous traits such as social curiosity (Pagkamadaldal) and risk-taking (Pagkamapagsapalaran) gave a more accurate personality prediction than tests based on the Big Five alone. Similar results have been observed in an isolated forager-farming community in Bolivia. Rather than displaying a Big Five of personality traits, the Bolivian Tsimane were found to display a "Big Two": industriousness and prosociality. These findings represent the unique personality development of highly communal, subsistence societies.

More research is needed before we can draw any real conclusions. But the existence of other traits besides the Western-based 16 types or Big Five is a fascinating proposition which may ultimately improve our understanding of personality across different cultures.

Summing It Up

Is personality type consistent across cultures? The research so far suggests that it might be. Empirically, the theory put forward by Briggs and Myers has been shown to work in different languages and cultures, and the data seems to point in the direction of Jung's theory of personality unity.

But even if type theory is shown to be robust across cultures, it does not mean that the individual types are distributed in the same proportions, or that they manifest in the same behavior, or even that they carry the same status or desirability. An Extravert in India might behave quite differently from an Extravert in America, and that is down to the norms and expectations of their particular culture. What is clear however, is that we are in the early stages of the global evolution of type theory, and much more research needs to be done. 

Molly Owens
Molly Owens is the founder and CEO of Truity. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and holds a master's degree in counseling psychology. She began working with personality assessments in 2006, and in 2012 founded Truity with the goal of making robust, scientifically validated assessments more accessible and user-friendly. Molly is an ENTP and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys elaborate cooking projects, murder mysteries, and exploring with her husband and son.