The Three Kinds of People Who Live in the United States

This map of personality clusters reveals Midwesterners are sociable but unhealthy, East Coast dwellers are educated but neurotic, and more.

Maps within the study, "Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social, and Health Correlates," paint an American landscape characterized by regional personality traits.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Oct. 22, 2013, 11:08 a.m.

Thanks to demo­graphy re­search­ers and their love for maps, Amer­ic­ans can visu­al­ize where their home states fit in on a na­tion­al scale of a vari­ety of polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, so­cial, and health char­ac­ter­ist­ics. One of the latest maps for­goes these tra­di­tion­al meth­ods of meas­ur­ing the coun­try and in­vest­ig­ates something a little less ob­serv­able: the per­son­al­ity traits of its cit­izens.

The map, pub­lished in a re­cent study in Journ­al of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­cho­logy, chops the coun­try in­to three dis­tinct psy­cho­lo­gic­al re­gions based on a range of em­pir­ic­al data. The re­search­ers didn’t pre­dict what these clusters might look like (or how many of them there would be), but they ex­pec­ted neigh­bor­ing states to be, on av­er­age, psy­cho­lo­gic­ally sim­il­ar. Geo­graph­ic prox­im­ity is of­ten cor­rel­ated with hu­man be­ha­vi­or, such as per­son­al­ity traits and life­styles.

The re­search­ers used self-re­por­ted in­form­a­tion from nearly 1.6 mil­lion people col­lec­ted over 12 years for 48 states (ex­clud­ing Alaska and Hawaii) and the Dis­trict of Columbia. They em­ployed a com­monly used per­son­al­ity scale to meas­ure par­ti­cipants on their levels of ex­tra­ver­sion, agree­able­ness, con­scien­tious­ness, neur­oticism, and open­ness to ex­per­i­ence, as well as sep­ar­ate meas­ures to gauge opin­ion on polit­ics, so­cial is­sues, leis­ure in­terests and mu­sic pref­er­ences. When a giv­en state is said to be high in neur­oticism, for ex­ample, that is to say that the mean level of that trait de­rived from a sample of that state’s res­id­ents is high com­pared with the mean levels of the trait from samples of res­id­ents from oth­er states. State-level factors like eco­nom­ic, so­cial, health, and re­li­gious trends, along with census data, were also in­cluded in the ana­lys­is.

Here’s what they found:

The “Friendly and Con­ven­tion­al” re­gion. The first re­gion fea­tures the states of Middle Amer­ica, in­clud­ing South Dakota, Neb­raska, and Iowa, known as the “red” states. People here ranked highly in levels of ex­tra­ver­sion, agree­able­ness, and con­scien­tious­ness, mod­er­ately low in neur­oticism, and very low in open­ness. Res­id­ents of the re­gion tend to be “so­ci­able, con­sid­er­ate, du­ti­ful, and tra­di­tion­al,” the re­search­ers write. They are pre­dom­in­antly white with low levels of edu­ca­tion, wealth, and so­cial tol­er­ance, and tend to be more re­li­gious and polit­ic­ally con­ser­vat­ive than people out­side of the re­gion. They are also less healthy com­pared with oth­er Amer­ic­ans.

The “Re­laxed and Cre­at­ive” re­gion. The second cluster con­sists of West Coast states, Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon, and Cali­for­nia. Its per­son­al­ity pro­file is marked by low ex­tra­ver­sion and agree­able­ness, very low neur­oticism, and very high open­ness. Cul­tur­al di­versity and al­tern­at­ive life­styles are high, and res­id­ents are polit­ic­ally lib­er­al and healthy, both men­tally and phys­ic­ally. This re­gion is rich­er, has more res­id­ents with col­lege de­grees, and is more in­nov­at­ive than oth­er areas. These states cast few­er votes for con­ser­vat­ive pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates and are less re­li­gious com­pared with oth­ers. Here, the study’s au­thors write, people value tol­er­ance, in­di­vidu­al­ism, and hap­pi­ness.

The “Tem­pera­ment­al and Un­in­hib­ited” re­gion. The third and fi­nal group­ing com­prises of mid-At­lantic and North­east states like Maine, Pennsylvania, and New York — the “blue” states. The re­gion is low in ex­tra­ver­sion, very low in agree­able­ness and con­scien­tious­ness, very high in neur­oticism, and mod­er­ately high in open­ness. People here, the re­search­ers say, are “re­served, aloof, im­puls­ive, ir­rit­able, and in­quis­it­ive.” Res­id­ents are polit­ic­ally lib­er­al and less re­li­gious, and are dis­pro­por­tion­ately col­lege-edu­cated in­di­vidu­als, older adults, and wo­men. A good chunk of the “pas­sion­ate” and “com­pet­it­ive” res­id­ents are leav­ing the area, ac­cord­ing to census data, and head­ing south or south­w­est.

So why do re­search­ers care about what people are like across Amer­ica? Be­cause per­son­al­ity traits on their own, rather than the usu­ally cited factors like re­li­gion, ra­cial di­versity, edu­ca­tion, or wealth, could help ex­plain the coun­try’s dif­fer­ing polit­ic­al views. “In left-lean­ing re­gions, it ap­pears that res­id­ents are gen­er­ally open, re­served, and so­cially dis­tant, where­as in right-lean­ing re­gions, res­id­ents ap­pear to be friendly, warm, du­ti­ful, and tra­di­tion­al,” the re­search­ers write. The sep­ar­a­tion of blue states in­to two dis­tinct psy­cho­lo­gic­al re­gions sug­gests that “there are dis­tinct psy­cho­lo­gic­al pro­files dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing East Coast from West Coast lib­er­als.”

Re­gion­al per­son­al­ity traits could also tell re­search­ers a lot about eco­nom­ic prosper­ity and health. States high in open­ness and low in neur­oticism show great­er eco­nom­ic suc­cess and in­nov­a­tion. Nine of the 11 states that com­prise a south­east­ern re­gion dubbed the Stroke Belt for its un­usu­ally high in­cid­ence of strokes are loc­ated in the “friendly and con­ven­tion­al” cluster, which rates low in well-be­ing and healthy be­ha­vi­or. People liv­ing in the “re­laxed and cre­at­ive” re­gion, on the oth­er hand, are in good health.

But as is the case with most per­son­al­ity re­search, it is tough to state with ab­so­lute cer­tainty which came first — people open to ex­per­i­ence or a good eco­nomy, con­ven­tion­al at­ti­tudes or poor health — and what’s hav­ing an ef­fect on what.

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