AUSTIN, Texas — People with similar personality types are so likely to cluster in certain areas of the country that a map of the United States can actually be divided into regions with distinct personalities, according to new psychology research from The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Cambridge.
The study, co-authored by Samuel Gosling, professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, shows some parts of the country are conventional and friendly, while others are relaxed and creative. The findings, published online in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reveal important insights into economic factors, voting patterns and cultural stereotypes.
"We know that ultimately these traditional political, economic, health, and other indicators are largely driven by the individual behaviors of people,” Gosling says. “When these behaviors get aggregated they add up to create national trends. One of the many factors at the heart of these decisions and behaviors is personality. What's exciting about this new work is that it goes straight to the source in characterizing geographic areas directly in terms of the personality traits that are more prevalent in different regions."
Using a variety of online surveys, the researchers analyzed the personality traits of 1.5 million people. They were then able to develop three separate psychological types based on “Big 5” personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
To determine regional political, economic, social and health factors, they examined data from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, state board of elections offices and the Association of Religion Data Archives. The data were collected over 12 years in five samples with participants from the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia.
The study, led by University of Cambridge Psychology Professor Peter J. Rentfrow, shows that people in the north-central Great Plains and the South tend to be conventional and friendly. Those in the Western and Eastern seaboards lean toward being mostly relaxed and creative. And New Englanders and Mid-Atlantic residents are prone to being more temperamental and uninhibited.
According to the analysis, people in the friendly and conventional regions are typically less affluent, less educated, more politically conservative, more likely to be Protestant and less healthy compared to people in the other regions. In contrast, the relaxed and creative states’ residents are more culturally and ethnically diverse, more liberal, more educated, comparatively healthy and less likely to be Protestant than those living in other regions. The temperamental and uninhibited region has a larger proportion of women and older adults who are more affluent, politically liberal and unlikely to be Protestant.
As for what might have shaped the regional personalities, theories plus research on migration and social influence offer clues. For instance, research has shown agreeableness is a trait often found in people who stay in their hometowns, and the analysis indicated that a large proportion of residents in the friendly and conventional region lived in the same state the year before. The relaxed and creative region may have been influenced by a frontier mentality that endures with large numbers of young people, professionals and immigrants moving to the region for educational and employment opportunities.
In the temperamental and uninhibited region, significant numbers of people have moved away, and research has shown that people who move to another part of the country are typically high in openness and conscientiousness and low in neuroticism — almost entirely the opposite of the temperamental and uninhibited profile.