We’ve all seen those maps of the United States, the colors streaking or clumping or blotting, highlighting our divisions. Not just red versus blue, the most famous example, but also maps showing that the U.S. contains multitudes when it comes to everything from weather (duh) to substance abuse to income inequality to infant mortality.
We have pretty good explanations for meteorological differences, but all that other stuff—the messy, human, endlessly complicated stuff? That’s where social scientists come in. A very high percentage of their job fundamentally comes down to understanding these distinctions.
Jason Rentfrow, a University of Cambridge psychologist, thinks his discipline sometimes gets short shrift in explaining these disparities. That’s part of the reason he and his colleagues decided to try to break the country into regions based not on purchasing power, level of religiosity, or other familiar characteristics, but on psychological profiles.
Do people in a given region have certain psychological characteristics because the prevailing culture influences them, or do they choose to live in places where they know they’ll find similarly oriented people?
The result of this project, a paper called “Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social, and Health Correlates” (PDF), is an important step in integrating psychology into the study of disparities in the U.S.—even if it isn’t quite detailed enough to fully capture the country’s heterogeneity.
Rentfrow’s interest in this subject was sparked by research into why certain types of companies are clustered in certain parts of the U.S. Some of the research, he says, suggested that companies sought out places where residents had a certain degree of “openness,” leading to a positive climate for innovation.
“It made me wonder the extent to which these differences—at least in economic growth—could in some way, shape, or form, be related to the psychological characteristics of people,” Rentfrow says. And the more he looked into the subject, the more he realized this might be a useful way to approach other questions about regional differences as well.
So Rentfrow and his colleagues went to the numbers, pulling the results of five different data samples and extracting state-level characteristics with regard to the respected-within-the-field psychological characteristics of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.
They came away with three distinct psychological regions:
Friendly & Conventional: “In many respects, the Friendly & Conventional region reflects Middle America, or ‘Red’ states,” write the researchers, and the F&C region, which includes basically the entire Midwest, “comprises predominantly White residents with comparatively low levels of education, wealth, economic innovation, and social tolerance.” These folks tend to be “politically conservative, religious, and civically engaged.”
Relaxed & Creative: “The Relaxed & Creative region comprises predominantly states along the West Coast, Rocky Mountains, and Sunbelt.” An educated, disproportionately non-Caucasian part of the country, R&C’s “psychological profile is marked by low Extraversion and Agreeableness, very low Neuroticism, and very high Openness.” It’s a region “where open-mindedness, tolerance, individualism, and happiness are valued”—so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s experiencing positive net migration.
Temperamental & Uninhibited: This is the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast—“quintessentially Blue states.” The region is characterized by “low Extraversion, very low Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, very high Neuroticism, and moderately high Openness. ... There are disproportionate numbers of older adults and women in this region, in addition to affluent and college-educated individuals.”
Researchers should look to these sorts of descriptions when they’re trying to explain why states have certain strengths and weaknesses, Rentfrow believes. For example, as he and his colleagues write, “if there were disproportionate numbers of people in a region with a particular combination of traits, such as low Neuroticism and high Openness, the health of that region would reflect the fact that there are large numbers of residents who do not typically overreact to difficult events and who use effective coping methods.”
The big methodological problem here, as is so often the case, is the potential for confounding variables and causality errors. On the latter: Do people in a given region have certain psychological characteristics because the prevailing culture influences them, or do they choose to live in places where they know they’ll find similarly oriented people—that is, they were always tightly wound, and moved to New York not just for the great bagels, but also to be around other people with a propensity for paroxysm?
“With the data we have we can’t sort that out,” Rentfrow says. He thinks “it’s a bit of both.” (The levels of internal migration in the United States are much higher than in other developed countries [PDF], pointing to the possibility that it’s economically easier or more socially acceptable to move to a place that seems a better fit than it is in, say, Europe).
As for the question of how this work should be applied, Rentfrow says it could be used to help spur economic development, but noted that the project is still in early stages.
“Let’s suppose that we have good evidence to suggest that the reason why certain regions are doing well economically—perhaps they have a lot of innovation and whatnot—and we have good reason to think that it’s because people with these entrepreneurial characteristics are migrating to these areas,” Rentfrow says. “Then it’s a matter of trying to figure out what could do to attract people to these other areas that may have the key ingredients, or how can we embed some of these key ingredients or attractions to bring some of these people over to these other areas.”
The challenge of applying this particular study is that the results aren’t quite coarse enough. “The real limitation to this work is that we relied on the state level of analysis,” Rentfrow says. State-level data was a better fit for this study, he says, both because it tied more neatly into past research—“It was sort of a legacy from our previous work”—and because there’s more and richer information readily available at that level.
Since only three stable, statistically robust psychological regions emerged, Rentfrow and his colleagues are restricted to explaining a country of 320 million people in a somewhat limited way. And some detail is lost as a result. “The culture of Texas is very varied,” Rentfrow says, using the state as an example because he has spent a lot of time there. And yet on each of the three maps presented in the paper (one for each category), Texas is, like every other state, monolithic—just one color. This despite the obvious differences between Austin and Dallas, between El Paso and Houston.
“If we were to do something similar, say, based on county-level data or major metropolitan areas, I suspect we would get a more nuanced map, more nuanced clusters,” Rentfrow says. And that is indeed the next step: to build better, more detailed maps that can take into account, say, the differences between rural Western Massachusetts and I-95-megalopolis metropolitan Boston, or between red Bakersfield and blue San Francisco.
And after that, Rentfrow has global ambitions. “To be able to create a really nice, granular map of personalities around the world would be cool,” he says. For now, though, it’s small steps: understanding why, in the U.S., two hours on the highway can often take you from one culture to another.