Some personality traits are a product of where we live, not who we are

Shuar children in the Amazon
Yale anthropologist Dorsa Amir travelled to the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador to survey Shuar children about attitudes toward patience and risk-taking.

Qualities such as patience or risk-taking are often thought of as product of an individual’s innate character. But a new Yale study of children from four countries suggests many behaviors may not be a product of who you are, but where you are.

We tend to think of qualities like patience as an innate part of who we are but virtually all of what we know about how these behaviors develop comes from children in industrialized societies,” said Dorsa Amir, anthropologist and lead author of the Yale study published Sept. 16 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The team compared choices made by indigenous Shuar children, who live in forager-horticulturalist societies in Amazonian Ecuador, to their peers from India, Argentina, and the United States. In a test of patience, children were told they could get a piece of candy immediately or more, up to five candies, if they waited until the next day. To assess tolerance for risk, children were asked to choose a marble from a bag with all yellow marbles guaranteed to net them one candy or from a second bag, which contained five green marbles that would net nothing, but also one red one, which would earn them a variable number of candies, from one to five.

A Shuar child plays a game to test her patience and risk-aversion.
A Shuar child plays a game to test her patience and risk aversion.

Shuar children from the rainforest communities showed less patience than peers in developed countries, more often opting for the candy immediately. They were also much more risk averse, usually taking a sure bet from the bag of yellow marbles.

This is what we expected,” Amir said. “With industrialization often comes buffers, like storable food or money. Perhaps because of that, kids can afford to be bolder.”

When the researchers ran the same tests with a second group of Shuar kids who lived closer to cities, they found little difference in the choices the second group of children made and those made by children in the industrialized countries.

These Shuar kids were behaving more like the Americans, and less like their Shuar counterparts in the forest,” Amir said. “This suggests that industrialization can shape behavior rather dramatically, and if we really want to understand the full range of human behavior, we need to include participants from pre-industrial societies”.

Yarrow Dunham, professor of psychology at Yale was senior author of the study, which was primarily funded through a fellowship from Yale’s MacMillan Center.

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Bill Hathaway: william.hathaway@yale.edu, 203-432-1322