Along with the study of human personality, scientists have also attempted to understand the geographic variations in psychological characteristics. There has been extensive research examining the variations across and within nations and different analysts have utilized diverse theoretical frameworks for their study of Personality.
Through the better part of the twentieth century, psychologists focused on the psychoanalytical view of personality that emphasized the importance of early childhood experiences and unconscious motives. Differences in child-rearing practices and societal values were examined in order to understand personality differences. However, there was a lack of theoretical clarity and a fervid debate as to what actually measured personality. The surveys and autobiographical essays that had been used were rather subjective and could not be easily unified under a single theoretical perspective. The same was the case with the analyses of children’s books and popular movies.
With the occurrence of the trait approach to personality and, more specifically, the Five Factor Model of Personality (FFM; i.e. Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness), there has been a renewed interest in the study of geographic variations in personality. Today this is a widely accepted framework for conceptualizing the structure of personality (Costa & McCrae, 1992; Goldberg, 1990, 1992; John & Srivastava, 1999). The measurement of five personality traits that remain relatively stable throughout adult life (McCrae & Costa 2003; Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer, 2006; Srivastava, John, Gosling, & Potter, 2003) and can be found in different cultures (Benet-Martinez & John, 2000) notably objectifies the research.
One of the studies focused on personality differences within the USA. It was an extensive research, using personality data from over half a million U.S. residents from different states. The results indicated strong patters of regional variations in personality as well as “strong relationships between state-level personality and geographic indicators of crime, social capital, religiosity, political values, employment, and health” (Rentfrow, Gosling, & Potter, 2008). The Wall Street Journal published its “United States of Mind” based on these findings.
It turns out some of the cliches are indeed true: New Yorkers are stressed-out and Californians are laid-back. In fact, the research influenced a tourism official in Florida for the new Florida tourism pitch: “Come visit us, we’re not neurotic!” The study really confirms most of the regional stereotypes, but also comes with a few surprised. The results are perceptible on WSJ’s Interactive Graphics that map the state personality means.
According to the data “New Yorkers are less warm and dutiful yet more high-strung and creative than are people in the rest of the country. “North Dakotans are more sociable and affable and less anxious and imaginative than are people in other states”(Rentfrow, Gosling, & Potter, 2008).
Neuroticism was highest in the Northeast and Southeast (West Virginia, New York, Mississippi, New Jersey, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio). Utah was marked as the least Neurotic state, followed by Colorado, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona.
Extraversion is highest in the Great Plains, Midwest and Southeastern states (North/South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Georgia and Florida). Lowest scores were found in Maryland, New Hampshire, Alaska, Vermont, Washington and Idaho.
Openness is most pronounced in Washington D.C., New York, Massachusetts, Oregon and California. The least open to new experiences people appear to live in North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Alaska and Wisconsin.
Agreeableness blossoms in North Dakota, Minnesota, Mississippi, Wisconsin and Tennessee. It is least found in Alaska, Wyoming, Nevada, New York, Maine, Virginia and Connecticut.
Conscientiousness appeared highest in New Mexico, followed by North Carolina, Georgia, Utah, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Florida. Lowest measurements of Conscientiousness were taken from Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Wyoming, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
The results provide plenty of food for thought and are still being analyzed. Psychologists try to find the roots for the prominence of certain personality traits in certain regions. Each of the traits can be influenced by the myriad of factors, such as physical environment (climate, temperatures), levels of urbanization, crowding, neighborhood characteristics, housing quality and availability of basic necessities. Neuroticism, for example, can be explained by the crowding and busy lifestyle (which is probably the case in New York), but also by poverty and high crime rates.
Historical migration patterns probably have a lot to do with the patterns we are observing today: “geographic differences in personality could have emerged as a result of immigrants selectively migrating to places that satisfied and reinforced their psychological and physical needs” (Rentfrow et al, 2008).
Selective migration is equally important. People are social beings that need understanding and approval. Naturally then, “people seek out social environments in which their attitudes, beliefs, and personalities are valued by others and can be easily expressed” (Buss, 1987; McCrae, 2001; Swann, Rentfrow, & Guinn, 2002). Thereupon, it comes as no surprise that regional economics demonstrate bohemians (musicians, artists, etc) tend to settle in diverse cosmopolitan areas where creative abilities are more valued (Florida, 2002) and for several decades, gay people have migrated to large cosmopolitan center that tend to be more open to diversity and novelties.
Most people are readily susceptible to social influence. This has been largely studied within the dynamic social-impact theory, which explains that attitudes and beliefs can changed through social influence. For example, “if a certain personality dimension (e.g., Neuroticism) is common within a region, it is possible that the psychological and behavioral tendencies associated with it (e.g., anxiety, moodiness) could influence the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of people in that region who are initially comparatively low on the relevant traits” (Rentfrow et. al, 2008). In turn, the anxiety and general neuroticism that you may adopt as behavioral tendencies of your own can cause your health to deteriorate (increased chances of depression and anxiety) and even affect your relationships (becoming less trusting and less patient). Therefore, it makes sense to be vigilant when moving to a new state, especially if it is known for a characteristic trait you don’t particularly appreciate.