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The Role of Race and Gender in Shaping Personality

The Role of Race and Gender in Shaping Personality

The personality theorists we cover in this book offer diverse views of the nature of the human personality. Despite their disagreements and divergences, however, they all share certain defining characteristics in common. All are White, of European or American heritage, and almost all are men. There was nothing unusual about that, given the period during which most of these theorists were developing their ideas. At the time, nearly all of the great advances in the arts, philosophy, literature, and the sciences, including the development of the scientific methods, were propounded and promoted by White men of European or American background. In most fields, educational and professional opportunities for women and people of ethnic minority groups were severely limited.

In addition, in the field of personality theory, virtually all the patients and subjects the earlier theories were based on were also White. Even the laboratory rats were white. Also, the majority of the patients and subjects were men. Yet, the personality theorists confidently offered theories that were supposed to be valid for all people, regardless of gender, race, or ethnic origin.


None of the theorists stated explicitly that his or her views applied only to men or to Whites or to Americans, or that their ideas might not be useful for explaining personality in people of other backgrounds. Although the theorists accepted, to some degree, the importance of social and environmental forces in shaping personality, they tended to ignore or minimize the influence of gender and ethnic background.

We know from our own experiences that our brothers, sisters, and friends were exposed to different childhood influences than we were and that, as a result, they grew up to have different personalities. We also know from research in social psychology that children from different environments—such as a predominantly White Midwestern town, a Los Angeles barrio, an Appalachian mountain village, or an affluent Black suburb—are exposed to vastly different influences. If the world in which people live and the factors that affect their upbringing are so different, then surely their personalities can be expected to differ as a result. They do.

We also know that boys and girls are usually reared according to traditional gender stereotypes, and this upbringing also influences personality in different ways. Research has documented many differences between men and women on specific personality factors. For example, one large-scale study of the intensity of emotional awareness and expression compared male and female college undergraduates at two American universities and male and female students at medical schools in the United States and in Germany

The results showed that women from both countries displayed greater emotional complexity and intensity than did men (Barrett, Lane, Sechrest, & Schwartz, 2000). A study of more than 7,000 college students in 16 Islamic nations found that women measured significantly higher in anxiety than men did in 11 of the 16 samples studied (Alansari, 2006). We will see many examples throughout the book of gender and sex differences in personality.

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