What's more influential: your brain or your values?

I recently gave a presentation to my local chapter of the Association for Psychological Type, called Nature and Nurture: Where Personality Type and Culture Frameworks meet. We talked about how people in the same country behave differently according to how their brains are wired (type), and how people from different countries behave differently according to their values and belief systems (culture).

I asked a question: would you lie for your friend? 

Trompenaars and Hampden Turner researched seven cultural dimensions surveying thousands of managers and publishing their findings in their book, Riding the Waves of Culture. Let's look at one of them:


Imagine you riding in a car, you are the passenger and your best friend is driving. He is going over the speed limit and hits another car. The police arrives, and your friend asks you to lie for him and say you were going the speed limit. Would you lie for your friend?

The audience was made up of mainly US Americans, but also Germans, Spanish, and Chinese nationals. Some nodded straight away, some immediately shook their heads. What would you do?

The follow-up question is: you're riding in a car with your friend driving over the speed limit, and he hits a little girl on a bike. The police arrives, and your friend asks you to lie and say he wasn't speeding. Would you lie for your friend now?

Universalism and Particularism

Every society has rules, the cultural difference lies in how consistently they are applied. In universalist cultures, rules are the same for everyone. Broadly speaking, we see this in Northern and Western countries, where contracts matter, trust is built by doing what you say, meaning what you say, and the focus is on task and literal interpretations. For example, I'm from Germany, and when I first heard the questions, my response was that my friend wouldn't put me in a position to break rules by asking me to lie in the first place. If he decides to speed, he has to take responsibility for his actions. Even more so if someone comes to bodily harm.

On the other hand, we have particularist cultures, where the operative word when it comes to rules is: "depends". Of course there are rules, like in traffic and business etiquette, but if friends, relatives, or members of important families are involved, exceptions will be made. Trust is built upon personal relationships, the connections one has to a group, and the focus is on reading between the lines and honor. A Brazilian colleague said of course she would protect her friend, he wouldn't even have to ask. Broadly speaking, we see a preference for particularism in Southern and Eastern countries, where written contracts will change if circumstances change, and friends may be protected even more when there's bodily harm involved and consequences would be worse.

Differentiating between type and culture

To type practitioners, this dimension sounds a lot like and is easily mistaken for decision-making by Thinking or Feeling preferences. If your brain is wired to prefer the Thinking function, you are more likely to base your decisions on logical analysis and objective detachment. If your brain is wired to prefer the Feeling function, you are more likely to base your decisions on personal values, harmony, and empathy. Thinking focuses more on the object, Feeling focuses more on the relationship. This creates a dilemma: people with a Thinking preference in particularist cultures may break the rules - and resent it. People with a Feeling preference in universalist cultures may not protect their friend - and feel very bad about that indeed. The question now becomes, which over-rides for you? Do you make a decision based on your type / brain wiring, or on your culture / values?

As Type practitioners, we cannot ignore the cultural dimension if we want to validate our clients' best fit type accurately. More research will be needed into clarifying what the distribution is, but I for one am convinced we need to look at nature and nurture to understand our fellow man better. I'd even go a step further: people are more complex than brain wiring and cultural belief systems: our genetics, education, upbringing, skills, experiences, and general context also matter.

Would love to hear your thoughts, so if you'd like to continue the conversation, please leave a comment below or sign up to the right to say up-to-date with upcoming webinars and events.

Cheers and until next time!

Image by Faramarz Hashemi, Flickr, Creative Commons License.