You Are Where You Live

Sharon Begley points to new research that suggests we live in places that fit our personality.

Illustration by Malin Rosenqvist

Everyone knows that New Yorkers think “multicultural” means cursing at someone in their own language. Californians send their dogs to psychiatrists, while Southerners driving behind a little old lady going 30 in a 65-mile-anhour zone think, “Bless her heart.” Midwesterners, we all know, carefully install security lights on their house and garage—and then leave them both unlocked.

Generalizations anyone? American regional stereotypes date back to the 17th century, when Virginians thought Massachusetts Bay colonists were an awfully intolerant lot. Obviously, many of our jokes about people from different parts of the country exaggerate their character traits just a bit, but a new field of research—the geography of personality—finds that even if some regional stereotypes are fictions, Americans with similar temperaments do seem to cluster. The research has implications both practical and philosophical. It sheds light on America’s increasing red-blue polarization and suggests how enduring it may be. And it raises profound questions about who each of us is as an individual and how much control we really have over that.

To construct America’s personality map, scientists led by psychologist Jason Rentfrow of Cambridge University, who grew up in Louisiana and Texas, correlated people’s demographic data, including where they live, with their psychological traits. Their findings are reported in a 2014 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers organized traits around the “Big Five” elements that have become standard in personality research: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (defined as being in negative emotional states for long periods of time). For data, the scientists mined the online Personality Project (you can participate at personality-project.org) and Facebook’s My Personality app. The 1.6 million sample skewed young but was otherwise nationally representative in gender, ethnicity, education, and other characteristics.

What did they find?

The “neuroticism belt,” the data showed, runs roughly in a curve from Maine to the southeast to Louisiana, never reaching the mellow West or Midwest.

Extraversion is highest in the friendly Great Plains, Midwest, and Southeast and lowest in the Northwest and Northeast.

You’re more likely to find agreeable and conscientious people in the Midwest and Southeast but not the Northeast (take that, all you surly and irresponsible New Yorkers).

Openness—willingness to entertain novel ideas and embrace new experiences—is highest in the New England, Middle Atlantic, and Pacific states and low in the Great Plains, Midwest, and Southeast.

The researchers ultimately used combinations of the Big Five to come up with three personality types: conventional and friendly, relaxed and creative, and temperamental and uninhibited.

Conventional and friendly is defined by moderately high conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extraversion (these folks are friendly even to strangers); fairly low neuroticism; and very low openness.

You find this type a lot in the north-central Great Plains and South. People there are sociable, considerate, dutiful, and traditional. They have higher levels of what’s called social capital (they participate in associations like PTAs, bowling leagues, and churches) and less tolerance for people different from themselves and for ideas at odds with their own. The conventional-and-friendly belt overlaps with the politically conservative red states and bypasses the Rocky Mountain states, the Pacific Coast, and the mid-Atlantic and New England regions.

Relaxed-and-creative types score low in extraversion and agreeableness, very low in neuroticism, and very high in openness. This personality cluster characterizes the Pacific seaboard and Rocky Mountain states, which are comparatively low in social capital but high in their tolerance for cultural diversity.

People in these regions value open-mindedness, tolerance, and individualism and tend toward the blue end of the political spectrum. Conversely, residents of the Midwest, Great Plains, and Gulf Coast are the least relaxed and creative.

The temperamental-and-uninhibited personality type is marked by low extraversion, very low agreeableness and conscientiousness, very high neuroticism, and moderately high openness. Such people tend to be “reserved, aloof, impulsive, irritable, and inquisitive,” Rentfrow says. “Residents are passionate, competitive, and liberal.” You’ll find them in New England and the mid-Atlantic states and less so in the Southeast, Great Plains, and Rockies.

What explains the sharp personality differences between regions? In part, self-selection: people tend to move to places where they’ll feel comfortable and leave areas where they don’t fit in. “Not just anyone picks up and moves,” says Rentfrow. The creative, iconoclastic, authority-challenging kid in Fargo is more likely to head for San Francisco than is her tradition-bound classmate, thus increasing the Bay Area creativity and unconventionality supply while raising Fargo’s conventionality score.

The temperamental and uninhibited Northeast has lost many residents over the decades, and it’s not all about escaping northern winters. Typically, people high in conscientiousness and openness (i.e., seeking new experiences) pick up stakes, says Rentfrow. This constellation of traits is the antithesis of the temperamental and uninhibited type that dominates in the Northeast. As a result, the region becomes more temperamental, uninhibited, and neurotic.

Even if your childhood personality doesn’t match the predominant traits of those around you, just wait. Personality likely has some genetic components, but environment can override DNA.

“The personality traits that predominate in a region can alter people’s natural dispositions,” says Rentfrow. The high neuroticism at the core of the temperamental-and-uninhibited profile might “spread anxiety and irritability across the region” in a process called social contagion. We may like to think of ourselves as consciously choosing to be conscientious, or agreeable, or open to new experiences, but we are also personality chameleons, picking up the personality coloring of those we live among.

That could dash any hopes that the blue-red divide will lessen soon. It’s typically ascribed to differences in education, religion, age, racial diversity, and wealth. But geography of personality research suggests otherwise. People in politically blue areas tend to be more open to new ideas and socially distant, whereas those in politically red regions are traditional and friendly. If the scientists are right, these regional personality differences will only continue to grow, and so will the political differences they bring.

The work also carries a sobering economic implication. Certain regions are economically vibrant, Rentfrow and others argue, because of the psychological characteristics of their residents, in particular openness to new ideas and experiences. In the relaxed-and-creative belt, people are wealthier, have more formal education, and are more innovative. The friendly-and-conventional region—middle America—is less affluent than others, has fewer highly educated residents, and is relatively less innovative. The latter can try all sorts of innovation-boosting ideas, such as high-tech incubators at universities and tax breaks to attract entrepreneurs, but short of a personality transplant the region may never produce its own Silicon Valley.

It goes without saying—but it must be said—that these generalizations are only that: generalizations. You can find hordes of unconventional Southerners, temperamental Coloradans, hyper-cheery New Jerseyians, and others who play against type. But the growing evidence that personality types cluster geographically, globally as well as in the United States, raises intriguing questions about how we come by our personality.

This article also appeared in the April 2014 issue of Mindful magazine.

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