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A backdrop to the Brexit - guest post by René Mõttus

A backdrop of the Brexit: Is there a personality divide between the British and Continental Europe(s)?

Recently we spoke to René Mõttus about himself and his paper on personality development in children. This week René is back with an intriguing guest post on Britain, the Brexit, and country-level personality. 

The UK has voted to leave the European Union (EU) and is currently (stuck) at some point on its way out of the pan-European bloc of countries. Note that inmany ways the UK may have had somewhat distant relationships with the EU for decades. Among many, one of the possible reasons for why British people were susceptible to the messages of those campaigning to leave the EU may have been an underlying belief that Britain is somehow different from the other European nations and should perhaps forge closer ties with non-European nations with which it shares historical roots (or have otherwise “special relationships”).

Surely there are many ways to operationalize (dis)similarities between nations such as demographic profiles, workings of political or judicial institutions or indicators of economics. But one way to do this is to look at psychological similarities between people from different nations. And this is something that psychologists, and cross-cultural personality psychologists in particular, are good at. Personality psychologists have measurement frameworks for comprehensively describing differences between people—in tens of characteristics at a time. Also, there exist large datasets that allow comparing the typical (average) scores on these characteristics across countries.

So, how do the British look in terms of their personality—a comprehensive set of stable tendencies to think, feel and behave in particular ways—when compared with the rest of the world? Several studies have mapped countries in terms of their personality profiles. One of the most comprehensive of them was recently published by Allik and colleagues (2017) who plotted 62 countries in terms of the similarities of the mean scores of 30 personality traits (Five-Factor Model facets). Although the mean score differences between countries tend to be quite small compared to variability within countries, a rather clear pattern of country differences appeared. What is interesting here is that the British clustered together with other English-speaking nations (along with Northern European countries), whereas many of the Western and Central European EU countries clustered together—and somewhat further away from the British. In this research, however, people from different countries had completed the questionnaire in their own languages and there may also have been uncontrolled demographic (i.e., age and gender) differences between the samples. For example, the similarity of English-speaking countries may have resulted from participants completing the questionnaire in the same language.

To validate these findings, I combined data from two very large Internet samples (described in Johnson et al., 2014). The participants had completed an overlapping set of 120 personality test items measuring the same 30 facets used by Allik and colleagues (2017). All respondents completed the questionnaire in English, even though they were from countries across the globe*. The data was collected between 2001 and 2011. From the 926,463 subjects I selected 891,112 who were between between ages of 18 and 60 years and I calculated mean scores of the 120 items for each country that was represented in the dataset; however, I only retained mean scores for the 49 countries with at least 500 participants. I residualized the mean scores for the mean ages and percentages of women in the country samples to control for demographic differences. I then standardized all mean scores of the 120 items using the means and standard deviations of the 37,487 British participants and carried out multidimensional scaling on the resulting scores, projecting countries along two dimensions. I relied on item scores rather than the scores of the 30 traits because items have been found to contain valid incremental descriptive information over and beyond the variance of facet scores (Mõttus et al., 2017). Furthermore, using items may help to mitigate some of the issues related to comparing aggregate scores across countries (Rossier et al., 2016). However, I rotated the dimensions in such a way that the vertical axis of Figure 1 is maximally aligned with Neuroticism and the horizontal is maximally aligned with Openness.


The plot replicates the findings of Allik and colleagues (2017) in that the typical British respondents tended to be somewhat distant from many of their Continental European peers in terms of their personality characteristics (even though they tended to be very similar to the Irish respondents). In contrast, many of these Continental countries (e.g, Italy, Austria, France, Netherlands, Denmark or Germany) were rather similar in the average personality scores of their respondents. The countries with large proportions of Muslims (e.g., Albania, Afghanistan, Algeria, Indonesia and Malaysia) tended to be somewhat close to each other, as where many of the Asian samples (e.g., Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong); this appears to validate the plot. Of course, not all proximities appear to make sense (e.g., Romania and China)—but most do.

Interestingly, many of the other English-speaking and/or Commonwealth countries were not necessarily very close to the British in terms of mean personality scores (although Canada, Australia and New Zealand tended to be very similar to each other) and United Sates tended to be even somewhat closer to the Muslim-majority countries and Philippines than to the UK.

In Figure 2, the countries are ranked in terms of the (intraclass) correlations of their mean personality profiles with the mean British profile. Because scores of other countries were standardized in relation to the British scores, the correlations range from positive to negative in the almost symmetrical way. Two countries with the closest personality profiles to the UK were Ireland and Belgium, two most distant countries were China and Romania.


Therefore, it seems that that there may be a kernel of truth in the uniqueness of the British people. That is, in terms of cross-country differences in how people report that they typically think, feel and behave, the British may be somewhat different from many other Western European nations (apart from the Irish). In particular, the British score higher on traits falling in the Neuroticism domain. At the same time, the “British personality” may not necessarily be much closer to that of the non-European nations it may be considered to have “special relationships” with such as the United States or India, and several of these (e.g., Canada, New Zealand and Australia) may in fact be more similar to each other than they are to the UK.

So, to the extent that these findings tell us anything meaningful where do they leave us? They may suggest that in terms of personality, the British-continental Europe divide may have already happened far before the Brexit. Was this divide perceived by the British and could it contribute to the Brexit? It is very hard to tell, but anyone can guess.

*This, of course, may raise concerns over the representativeness of the respondents from non-English-speaking countries in relation to their typical fellow countrymen.


Allik, J., Church, A. T., Ortiz, F. A., Rossier, J., Hřebíčková, M., de Fruyt, F., … McCrae, R. R. (2017). Mean Profiles of the NEO Personality Inventory. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48, 402–420. doi:10.1177/0022022117692100

Johnson, J. A. (2014). Measuring thirty facets of the Five Factor Model with a 120-item public domain inventory: Development of the IPIP-NEO-120. Journal of Research in Personality, 51, 78–89. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2014.05.003

Mõttus, R., Kandler, C., Bleidorn, W., Riemann, R., & McCrae, R. R. (2017). Personality traits below facets: The consensual validity, longitudinal stability, heritability, and utility of personality nuances. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112, 474–490.

Rossier, J., Aluja, A., Blanch, A., Barry, O., Hansenne, M., Carvalho, A. F., … Karagonlar, G. (2016). Cross-cultural Generalizability of the Alternative Five-factor Model Using the Zuckerman–Kuhlman–Aluja Personality Questionnaire. European Journal of Personality, 30, 139–157. doi:10.1002/per.2045


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René Mõttus, University of Edinburgh,

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