The Three Kinds of People Who Live in the United States

According to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychological traits really do vary by region.
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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.

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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Marina Koren is a correspondent at National Journal

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