Gender Roles and Personality Development


Haviland defines personality as “the distinctive way a person thinks, feels, and behaves,” (2002, p. 129) and is shaped by many factors that circulate in a person’s environment. What a person learns, how they learn it, early childhood experiences, and dependence training vs. independence training, all plot points on the person’s cognitive map and outlines the basis for their personality. The development of a strong and healthy personality is vital to a person’s sense of belonging, worth, and self. If negative experiences overwhelm the cognitive map, the person may develop personality disorders or mood disorders that impede their ability to function in society.

Native American View of “Two-Spirits” vs. Euro-American view

Native American beliefs state that all things in nature have an equal value and importance. Further they feel that all things exist for a reason. These beliefs are the core of the Native American religion, thoughts and actions. In the case of an inter-sexed child, such as “Two-Spirits,” no stigmatization is applied. Every child is valued as a manifestation of the Great Spirit regardless of whether they are a boy, girl, or inter-sexed child. They feel that the spirit in their physical body determines which gender a child will be. It is considered a great gift and double blessing from the Great Spirit when the child is inter-sexed as they have the ability to experience the world with both male and female perspectives. (Haviland, 2002, p.126-127).

The sense that all life is important and purposeful reflects the flexible nature of Native American religion. Traditions are passed down through stories told by older generations to younger generations. Even though the stories are independent of one another they are taught as a part of the web of life. Each part of this web is no more important than another part. (Haviland, 2002, p.126-127). This philosophy transcends every aspect of the culture including its members. Each member is valued no matter what their sexual orientation, gifts, or disabilities.

In contrast, Euro-American viewed being inter-sexed as a curse. What causes this opposition in views is the deep-seated root of behavioral model of the Euro-Americans, the Christian Religion. This religion strictly demands that a person be definable as either a male or female, and that each sex must display behaviors religiously sanctified by the church. This social model was not flexible at all, and demanded that everyone follow one path. (Haviland, 2002, p. 128).

This unyielding view was cruelly enforced when the Spanish invaded the New World. They oppressed “homosexual practices” of the natives through the use of torture and slaughter. Balboa threw those people displaying homosexual characteristics to hungry dogs, which would then rip the men apart and eat them. Another popular tactic for ridding the New World of homosexuals was burning them to death at the stake. (p. 127). Other tactics implemented was the early “education” of Native Americans by Christian missionaries, who used physical abuse, emotional abuse, and intimidation to force those children who displayed inter-sexed characteristics into conforming to a “righteous” path of behavior. These tactics had devastating impacts on the Native American population and led to mental illnesses, personality disorders, and substance abuse.

Anthropological Contributions to the Understanding of Personality Development

As mentioned earlier personality is “the distinctive way a person thinks, feels, and behaves.” (Haviland, 2002, p. 129) Even though there are similarities in generalized personality traits, each person has their own unique personality. The uniqueness of personality derives from the unique circumstances and elements that shape the development of personality. Anthropologist have studied the issue of personality development and have ruled that gender differences caused by biological factors vary from culture to culture, and depend a great deal the economy of the culture and the way in which they are raised. (p. 146).

Anthropologists John and Beatrice Whiting and Irvine child made a connection between personality, child rearing practices, and cultural practices in their cross-cultural study. (Haviland, 2002, p. 131). This pointed to the impact that child rearing techniques like dependence training and independence training has on the formation and development of personality. Dependence training, as seen in many food foraging societies, encourages an inter-reliance of members of the group by assigning tasks to each individual that others in the group will depend on. In turn the child will depend on the contributions of the others to provide for their needs. This strategy helps to maintain group unity. Independence training, on the other hand, is a form of child rearing practice that encourages independence and self-reliance. This type of practice is common in industrialized countries were dependence on a group is not valued, but rather self-reliance and personal achievement are valued. (p. 132). The result of each type of child rearing practice results in different personality characteristics that develop. In the case of dependence training, the child will develop a personality that is cooperative, sharing, more intimate with group members, whereas those who experience a high level of independence, will develop personality traits that are more aggressive and self-satisfying.

Cultural practices also shape the development of a person. Sex roles, manifestation of psychoses, and social pattern are all influenced to a high degree by cultural practices and influences. Anthropologist have examined why culture has so much influence on a person’s personality and came to a hypothesis that a culture selects personality traits and behavior that it deems important and virtuous and rewards those that exhibit these traits and punishes those that display alternate traits. This practice helps to create a modal personality for the group. (Haviland, 2002, p. 135).


Each individual’s personality is shaped by a unique set of circumstances and experiences. The way in which one learns about themselves and their world, and what they learn affects the way their personality develops, and determines if a positive or negative self-image will be created. In cases of cultural rejection, such as the experience of “Two-Spirits” in the Euro-American world, created a conflict within her mind about her value as a person. However she was fortunate in the fact she had another cultural tie that validated her existence and worth as a person and helped to balance out the damage caused by the discrimination and rejection she received from the Euro-American world. Other factors that shape one’s personality are the techniques used in one’s upbringing. Dependence training encourages dependence and unity of a group, while independence training encourages self-reliance and striving for personal gain. The culture one grows up in also has influential power on personality development. Cultural model personalities define what is “normal” and “abnormal” within a society. It also helps to define sex roles, and social patterns.


Haviland, William A. (2002). Cultural Anthropology. (10th ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.Lee, Valerie L., and Searles, Richard T. (2002). Study Guide for the Telecourse Faces of Culture. (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

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