What is it about?

Lexical studies of personality define the most important person-descriptive concepts and their structure in a population. In the 1990s, lexical studies in English, German and Dutch, converged on the same model, and the Big Five was born. Questionnaires to measure it have since been used in thousands of studies. Claims that it was universal were made early and probably went too far, considering that the original studies were in such closely related languages and cultures. Lexical studies in other languages have not consistently found the "Big Five." Other common-denominator models have been proposed, but ultimately tests for universality require evidence from all over the world. This study reports on the first lexical studies of personality in Africa, in two far-separated regions, representing 2 of the 3 main language families of Africa, in order to reflect some of the great diversity in Africa. Maasai participants, traditionally herders in rural Kenya and Tanzania, have a highly structured, traditional culture. Supyire-Senufo participants are traditional horticulturalists in Mali, thus with different environmental, social and economic conditions. After the most common person-descriptive terms in Maasai were administered to participants, the optimal solution included 5 factors: virtue/moral-character, debilitation/vulnerability, boldness/surgency, hubris/pride, and timidity. In the Maasai context, descriptions of well-regarded individuals were very uniform, suggesting the role of personality language in norm socialization in tight, traditional cultures. In Supyire, the optimal solution included 10 factors: social self-regulation, well-being, vitality/resilience, broadmindedness, diligence versus laziness, madness, stubbornness versus attractiveness, acceptance versus discontent, hurry/worry, and peacefulness. The two languages had similar dimensions up to three factors (virtue; well-being; power), but they included culture-specific content starting with the fourth.. In both languages, 2-factor solutions matched the Big Two, but 5-, and 6-factor solutions failed to overlap with the popular Big Five or Big Six models. There was no Openness content, for one thing.

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Why is it important?

The field of psychology relies too heavily on evidence from Western industrialized countries, which together make up only 11% of the world's population. Understanding the human psyche more globally will require input from around the globe. Furthermore, most personality studies rely on college students, but here we were able to access regular people in their villages and communities.


There were many challenges to data collection in these rural village areas in Africa (managed by my co-author). Analysis also brought up new challenges, since there are very few, if any, resources for translating Maa and Senufo into English. But every challenge led to new rewards, for example, the need to discuss the meaning of words with local people led to much richer insights than if google translate was available. It is also highly rewarding to contribute the first lexical study evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa to our colleagues in personality psychology.

Dr. Amber Gayle Thalmayer
University of Zürich

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This page is a summary of: Personality structure in east and west Africa: Lexical studies of personality in Maa and Supyire-Senufo., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, September 2019, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000264.
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