Friday, September 26, 2008
The United States of Mind - WSJ.com
The United States of Mind - WSJ.com: "Certain regional stereotypes have long since become cliches: The stressed-out New Yorker. The laid-back Californian.
But the conscientious Floridian? The neurotic Kentuckian?
You bet -- at least, according to new research on the geography of personality. Based on more than 600,000 questionnaires and published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, the study maps regional clusters of personality traits, then overlays state-by-state data on crime, health and economic development in search of correlations."
View an interactive map of states' personality profiles, with details on each state's rankings in all five categories.
Even after controlling for variables such as race, income and education levels, a state's dominant personality turns out to be strongly linked to certain outcomes. Amiable states, like Minnesota, tend to be lower in crime. Dutiful states -- an eclectic bunch that includes New Mexico, North Carolina and Utah -- produce a disproportionate share of mathematicians. States that rank high in openness to new ideas are quite creative, as measured by per-capita patent production. But they're also high-crime and a bit aloof. Apparently, Californians don't much like socializing, the research suggests.
As for high-anxiety states, that group includes not just Type A New York and New Jersey, but also states stressed by poverty, such as West Virginia and Mississippi. As a group, these neurotic states tend to have higher rates of heart disease and lower life expectancy.
Lead researcher Peter Jason Rentfrow, lecturer at the University of Cambridge in England, said he was startled to find such correlations. "That just blew me away," he said.
Psychologists unaffiliated with the study say it's intriguing but limited. There's no way to unravel the chicken-and-egg question: Do states tend to nurture specific personalities because of their histories, cultures, even climates? Or do Americans, seeking kindred spirits, migrate to the states where they feel at home? Maybe both forces are at work -- but in what balance?
Another issue: The personality maps may reinforce stereotypes and tempt us to draw overly simplistic conclusions, said Toni Schmader, a psychologist at the University of Arizona. Knowing Arizona ranks low in neuroticism, Ms. Schmader said, she might conclude that sunny weather makes for sunny dispositions. But if the data had turned out the other way, the sun could just as easily be blamed for high neuroticism -- for driving Arizonans stir crazy by keeping them cooped up in air conditioning.
"We tend to reject information that doesn't agree with our stereotypes," Ms. Schmader said.
Cross-cultural psychology was all the rage in the 1930s and 1940s, driven by a craze among anthropologists for comparing child-rearing practices in modern and pre-industrial societies. But the discipline fell out of favor, partly because of concerns that the comparisons were driven more by value judgments than standardized assessments.
In the past decade, the field has been reinvigorated by the development of a 44-question personality test that evaluates five traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. Some psychologists disagree with this matrix; others would add traits such as honesty. But the assessment, called the Big Five Inventory, has been widely used in scientific research.
Mr. Rentfrow came to the field full of questions gleaned from a life spent hop-scotching across America. Why were his neighbors in Texas so relaxed, so courteous, so obsessed with sports? Why did New Yorkers seem so tense and inward-focused, often brusque to the point of rudeness?
Eager to dig deeper, Mr. Rentfrow turned to a huge collection of psychological tests administered online from 1999 to 2005.
The assessments were linked to each respondent's current residence, so there was no way to tell if a New Yorker was a New Yorker born and bred, or had just moved from Kansas. But that suited Mr. Rentfrow's purposes. He wasn't trying to gauge how life in New York had shaped any one individual. His goal was a psychological snapshot of the state, and for that he needed to include even recent migrants -- who may, after all, have been drawn to New York because the big-city bustle suited their personality.
Mr. Rentfrow said his sample was proportionate to the U.S. population by state and race. Though it underrepresented the extremes of poor and rich, that shouldn't skew the results, he said.
While the findings broadly uphold regional stereotypes, there are more than a few surprises. The flinty pragmatists of New England? They're not as dutiful as they may seem, ranking at the bottom of the "conscientious" scale. High scores for openness to new ideas strongly correlates to liberal social values and Democratic voting habits. But three of the top ten "open" states -- Nevada, Colorado and Virginia -- traditionally vote Republican in presidential politics. (All three are prime battlegrounds this election.)
And what of the unexpected finding that North Dakota is the most outgoing state in the union? Yes, North Dakota, the same state memorialized years ago in the movie "Fargo" as a frozen wasteland of taciturn souls. Turns out you can be a laconic extrovert, at least in the world of psychology. The trait is defined in part by strong social networks and tight community bonds, which are characteristic of small towns across the Great Plains. (Though not, apparently, small towns in New England, which ranks quite low on the extraversion scale.)
The findings pleased Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, who said it was nice to have scientific proof that his state is super-friendly. "That's the Nebraska I know," he said.
But Las Vegas Mayor Oscar B. Goodman can't understand how Nevada got ranked so low in agreeableness. "We're probably the most agreeable folks in the world, because we have to treat visitors with a great deal of kindness ... to get a big tip," he said.
In Florida, meanwhile, tourism official Dia Kuykendall groped to explain her state's high "conscientious" ranking. She was having trouble reconciling that with, say, the party scene on Miami Beach. "Conscientious of how they look?" she wondered.
The research did give Ms. Kuykendall an idea for a new Florida tourism pitch: "Come visit us, we're not neurotic!"
Social scientists suggest other applications for the research as well. In the Northeast "stress belt," health officials might consider programs to help folks relax. In the Midwest, a dutiful state like Kansas might look to woo more innovative personalities, perhaps by nurturing an artists' enclave or encouraging young chefs to start restaurants, said Richard Florida, an economic development analyst who has written extensively on geography and psychology.
"Most cities are still trapped in the idea that they can recruit a call center or build a big stadium" to spur revitalization, Mr. Florida said. "This is a big wake-up call for policy makers."
It's also a wake-up call for proud residents of the great state of wherever -- some of whom aren't fond of the findings. Mr. Rentfrow said he's had to help some of them feel better. Yes, North Dakota and Wyoming rank quite low in openness to new ideas. But why label them narrow-minded and insular? Say, instead, he suggests, that they value tradition. New York may be neurotic, but he offers another way to put it: "It's a state in touch with its feelings."
Or take a cue from Ted Ownby, who studies Southern culture at the University of Mississippi. His state came up highly neurotic -- and he suspects his neighbors would be proud.
"Here in the home of William Faulkner," Mr. Ownby said, "we take intense, almost perverse neuroticism as a sign of emotional depth."
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