Cambridge University, personality, Jason Rentfrow

U.S. Regions Display Marked Personality Differences

September 13, 2008 07:54 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A new study by British researchers confirms what many already know – people display psychological differences according to the state or region of their residence.

East Coast Is Stressed, Midwest Is Friendly

Cambridge University researchers have surveyed more than 620,000 Americans over a span of six years to create a "personality map" of the United States.

The study revealed some "striking" geographic trends, according to Dr. Jason Rentfrow, a lecturer in social and political sciences at Cambridge.

"Obviously it's not as simple as saying that a person is guaranteed to be more anxious if they come from West Virginia or more religious because they happen to live in New Mexico; but we did find pretty clear signs that there are meaningful differences in the personalities of people living in different areas of the United States," Rentfrow said.

The researchers used a framework called the "Five Factor Model" that divides personality into five broad categories—extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness—to characterize different areas of the country.

According to the findings, the nicest states, where people display the trait "agreeableness," include North Dakota, North Carolina and Georgia, while the most religious, or those that most display the trait of "conscientiousness" were Kansas, Florida, Arizona, Missouri and Utah. The states that were more open, including New York, Oregon, the District of Columbia and California, tended to be most liberal and tolerant, but also had high rates of robbery and murder.

Neuroticism was found to be highest in "the stress belt," a region in the East stretching from Maine to Louisiana.

Furthermore, the study found that a region's personality traits affect socio-cultural trends.

"The results show the effects of personality on people's social habits, values and lifestyles are so pronounced that they have an impact on much bigger social forces," Rentfrow said.

For example, some states with high levels of extraversion were found to have many people employed in industries that value social interaction, such as sales. States with high agreeableness had lower crime. And areas high in the trait of openness, such as New York, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, have a high concentration of artists, entertainers and scientists.

The study, titled "A Theory of the Emergence, Persistence, and Expression of Geographic Variation in Psychological Characteristics," was published in the latest issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Opinion & Analysis: For the most part, findings conform to conventional wisdom

Newspapers from New Jersey to Hawaii have commented on the study, and for the most part agreed with its findings.

"It has taken British researchers six years and nearly 620,000 test subjects to discover what those of us living in Gawd's Country have known all along," comments Sam Venable of the Knoxville News Sentinel, in Tennessee, where residents scored high in agreeableness.

"I'm happy to see that others are learning what we have known for a long time--that nothing could be finer than to live in North Carolina," North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said to the News & Observer about his state's high sociability rating. "People here are pretty cool."

Wisconsin residents interviewed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel also agreed with the assessment that the state is among the top five in extraversion and agreeableness – basically a "hotbed of nice," according to the newspaper.

"My feeling is, gosh, it's just the nature of the people you live around and become friends with," said Wisconsin resident Mary Van Derven. "I know people who move away and then come back to the state because they miss it."

In neurotic New Jersey, The Star-Ledger says the study highlights the obvious: "We're stressed out ... as if anybody who navigates the densely populated Garden State with all its tensions needed someone to point that out."

The assertion that Hawaiians are more laid-back and less stressed than those in other states is more or less true, but does not completely reflect the reality of living there, comments a University of Hawaii-Manoa psychiatry professor.

Dr. John Huh points out in the Star-Bulletin that many in the state work multiple jobs to deal with high living costs. "There are significant problems with depression and suicide, so we know a lot of people are in significant stress."

While many of the study's findings may conform to what many already suspected about different states and regions, Rentfrow says that the study doesn't stereotype: "It may be that the state personality profiles we found are consistent with existing stereotypes, but this work did not examine them directly and in no way aimed to advocate their use."

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