Personality Regions: The Friendly Midwest, the Left Coast and the Wicked (Possibly Irish) Witch of the Northeast

March 18, 2014

I find the geographic distribution of personality traits to be a very interesting topic. It can give us insights on so many things, like human evolution, culture, politics etc. As I blogged about before here, psychologist Peter Rentfrow has noted that America is split in two halves that score high and low in neuroticism. And German psychologist Martin Obschonka has identified a personality profile that is more common in the region called the Mountain States or Interior West that correlates with entrepreneurial activity. Last year, Rentfrow  dug deeper into this with an interesting study which didn’t get as much attention as it deserved, so here is a little something to correct that mistake. The study combines large samples of Big Five test data (a total sample size of almost 1.6 million) and use so-called cluster analysis to identify psychological regions within America. To get a bird’s eye view of his findings, let’s start by showing some maps of the regions in question,

cluster 1

The “friendly and conventional” (FC) region in the middle and southern part of the country is characterized as being more extraverted, agreeable and conscientious, a little more emotionally stable (low neuroticism), but also much less open to experience than the national average.

cluster 2

The “relaxed and creative” (RC) region in the western part of the country is characterized above all by being very open to experience and emotionally stable, but also introverted and slightly less agreeable than the average.

cluster 3

And finally, the third region, “temperamental and uninhibited” (TU), located in the northeastern part of the country, from Maine down to West Virginia, is characterized as very emotionally unstable and low in conscientiousness while being moderately introverted and open to experience. I wonder if that’s how they describe themselves on dating sites : )

I think most people can recognize that these differences exist to some degree. I’ve never been to America myself, but a friend of mine was there on a business trip and he noted how friendly and pleasant the Midwesterners were. But when he mentioned that he was heading to California they shook their heads and one of them said, “you won’t like it, it’s all Mickey Mouse.” But how much of this can be validated by society level measures?

The PESH – Political, Economic, Social and Health – Correlates

Rentfrow & Co used a variety of so-called PESH variables, and some general demographic variables. They then calculated correlations between them and state prototypicality, that is to say the measure of how well a state fits the personality profile of its region. And here is what they came up with,

PESH Friendly & Conventional Relaxed & Creative Temperamental & Uninhibited
Women -0.22 -0.16 0.39*
Non-Whites -0.26t 0.52* -0.10
Median Age -0.18 -0.17 0.44*
Votes Republican 0.50* -0.35* -0.42*
Mainline Protestant 0.43* -0.49* -0.24*
Wealth -0.42* 0.35* 0.28*
Human Capital -0.50* 0.47* 0.26t
Innovation -0.42* 0.45* 0.22
Social Capital 0.34* -0.37* -0.14
Social Tolerance -0.38* 0.54* 0.08
Violent Crime -0.17 0.24t 0.01
Residential Mobility 0.12 0.27t -0.38*
Well-being -0.23* 0.47* -0.06
Health Behavior -0.46* 0.56* 0.15

The correlations marked with a * are at the 5 percent level and those marked “t” is at ten percent. As you can see the PESH variables in many ways show what we would expect from the personality profile of the regions. As the maps suggest, these regions are also fairly concentric – the geographical center is also the most prototypical part of the region and then states become gradually less so the further out from the center they are located. And given that the PESH correlations are based on prototypicality we would expect these variables to follow the same pattern. But we would expect wrong…

Things Fall Apart; the Center Cannot Hold

For instance, the FC region has the strongest positive correlation to political conservatism. This region has a core consisting of six states: Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and Wisconsin. Rentfrow measured political conservatism as the tendency to vote Republican, by using a combination of percentages of votes for George W Bush in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. Now, I’m no statistician but if this measure correlates 0.50* to how typical a state is of the FC region I would think the most typical states would be the most Republican and then gradually less so in a concentric fashion. But looking at the results (in the link above) for 2008 we find that Obama actually won three core states – Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. And the rest of the core states were not nearly as big victories for McCain as they were in the more remote and less typical states in the South.

It’s also worth mentioning that voting results are most likely affected by the personal style and charisma of the candidates as well as specific issues that may be important in one election and region but not the other. Gallup measure of political conservatism (and liberalism) more directly by simply asking people. In the core states 36.2-42.9 percent identify as politically conservative, which is slightly above the national average of 36.9. And again the southern states that fit the profile less well score much higher, with an interval of 41.8-47.9 percent. So again, we find the same reversed pattern where the PESH variable is the strongest in the states that are less typical of the region.

Same thing with religiousness, which was measured with mainline Protestant affiliation, a rather narrow measure the source of which I haven’t been able to retrieve. But since Gallup also tracks Protestant affiliation it should make a fairly good substitute. Again, it turns out we have a weak center and a strong periphery: the six core states have an average of 55.5 percent Protestants while the southern states average at 75.2 percent. No overlap between the core and peripheral states.

Further, the economic wealth measure is a composite which I can’t reconstruct because they don’t explain how it’s defined, but it’s based on things like GRP, median household income per capita, poverty rates etc.  With a correlation between this wealth measure and state prototypicality of -0.42* the implication is that the FC region is poor. I didn’t find median household per capita but I looked at the similar measure per capita income for the same year (2007).  While the six core states were slightly below the national average we again find that the southern states are way lower, again with no overlap between the richest southern state and the poorest core state. Or we can look at poverty rates, here from 2008 which is around the same time Rentfrows data are from,

Poverty by State

As you can see, it’s the same thing again: the core states have fairly little poverty but the less typical southern states have plenty. Yet again, there is no overlap.

A Flyover Bias?

Whether intentional or not, I find this highly misleading. I’m not sure what makes Rentfrow do this but I have a suspicion it may be a liberal bias against the “flyover states.” This bias can be seen when comedian/pundit Bill Maher recently interviewed actor Bruce Dern and dismissed Nebraska as old and poor. As I’ve shown in a previous post, Nebraska is not at all poor – unlike California which has the highest poverty rate in the country – and its median age, according to US Census 2010, is 36.2 years, one year higher than that of California but still below the national average. Since some 95 percent of personality and social psychologists are liberal and plenty admit to a rather hostile bias against conservatives, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise.

The Real FC Region: The Friendly Midwest

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. If we restrict this region to only the most typical states, the core, then we have something that looks homogeneous and concentric in terms of both personality, geography and society level correlates. They are east Midwesterners, they are indeed friendly and conventional, but in contrast to what the study suggested, they don’t stand out in any conspicuous way. They are moderately conservative and religious, they earn slightly less money than the average but they also have slightly less poverty and crime. And that’s pretty much what you’d expect from friendly and conventional people.

The RC Region: Creative and Relaxed, But Also Violent and Poor

It’s also easy to spot a similar but positive bias for the RC region. For instance, the correlation with violent crime is only slightly elevated at 0.24 at the ten percent level. But if we look at murder rates, we again see how peripheral and less typical states, like Idaho and Utah with really low murder rates, help keeping the region looking relatively peaceful. But of the most typical core states, California, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona, only Oregon is below average.

The correlation to wealth at 0.35* looks good and in line with what you might associate with a modern and open-minded region. As I mentioned above, the measure of wealth is complex and not explained in the article so again I looked at per capita income for 2007 (the year his index is based on) from the US Census. The core states are in the range 33K-41.6K dollars with an average of 37.5K, slightly below the national average of 38.6K, (although slightly above the FC core of 36K). The peripheral states have smaller incomes. I’ve already shown the poverty map above and that doesn’t help either. Somehow Rentfrow manages to make this region look wealthy but it seems to be an artifact of his calculations and perhaps wishful thinking.

The Real RC Region: The Left Coast

Again, this is not to say that the Relaxed & Creative region doesn’t exist, but like the FC region, it would become more homogeneous and meaningful if limited to a smaller area, in this case the coastal states. This is not just a matter of bias, but also how these calculations are made. I’m no statistician but Utah, although in the periphery is clearly marked on the map above as part of this region even though it is slightly above average in extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness while slightly lower in openness. It seems to fit this region by virtue of low neuroticism alone. And half the country is low in neuroticism. Have a look for yourselves at the eight main states of this region, traits listed in the order extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness,

Oregon          30.9, 59.1, 45.8, 39.5, 58.8

Washington   30.6, 55.8, 45.0, 36.9, 56.6

California       51.4, 49.0, 43.2, 39.1, 65.0

Arizona          50.6, 46.6, 58.4, 38.1, 54.7

Nevada          46.4, 31.8, 55.8, 44.0, 61.3

New Mexico    32.4, 45.4, 58.5, 51.6, 62.0

Idaho             40.7, 52.9, 44.5, 44.2, 44.7

Utah               55.8, 69.4, 54.5, 30.4, 47.7

As you can see, Oregon and Washington are virtually identical, while California fits fairly well, even though the state is now just above average in extraversion, possibly due to migration. This would make a region of low to average extraversion, average to high agreeableness, low conscientiousness, low neuroticism and high openness. There may of course exist other personality regions with interesting correlates too, but right now I’m going with what Rentfrow generated. If we map the modified FC and RC regions along with the original TU region on a map of social and economic conservatism and liberalism created by statistician Andrew Gelman we see how these states stick together pretty good,


The Wicked Witch of the Northeast

When I saw how well this region fits into Gelman’s map I had a suspicion that Rentfrow got it right. But let’s check some correlates anyway. The biggest correlations are those of higher  median age and a larger female population. This is fairly easy to check since this region is practically identical to what the US Census Bureau defines as the Northeast Region. The personality version of the region has a core area consisting of Pennsylvania and Delaware in the south and every state further north up to Maine. Peripheral and less typical states are Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia and the more remotely located state of Texas. According to the Census 2010, their Northeast Region has the highest median age (39.2 years) and the lowest sex ratio (94.5 men per 100 women). The average of the core states is 95.0 and for the peripheral states it is 96.1, so that looks nice and concentric. In case you wonder about the populous states of New York and Texas, I haven’t weighted anything but their averages are 93.8 and 98.4 so that would confirm the pattern even more. As for median age, it’s a similar picture with a core average of exactly 40 years while and a peripheral average of 37.9 years.

Finally, the last big correlate, political view, again I use Gallup’s record on how many identify as politically conservative rather than the presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 for the reasons I stated above. In the core states there is an average of 31.3 percent who think of themselves as politically conservative, well below the national average of 36.8, and equally important, below the average of 38.0 for the peripheral states.

Still, these correlates are pretty neutral. Violent crime is less flattering so maybe the zero correlation to this personality region is kept low by some tricky calculations as in the RC region? A quick look at the murder stats show that the core states have 3.9 murders per 100K people as compared to the periphery which has 4.7, identical to the national average. That’s the reverse of what we’d expect but it’s only one metric that varies over time so all in all, this region looks like it makes some sense. And there is no suspicion of bias.

All in All, a Brave Effort

While I’ve been whining a lot about the liberal bias in this study, I still think this is a bold step in the right direction. After all, all behavioral traits are highly heritable so research about these regions and their behavioral correlates can only be described as human biodiversity research. And we don’t see too much of that, unless it’s unintentional. It would have been nice if Rentfrow had shown how racial/ethnic groups differ since most of the samples had that information. Such differences could explain, at least to some degree, why we have these regions. When you see the high levels of neuroticism in the Northeast, it’s hard not to think of the Irish who are plenty in that region. It would also have been great if they had measured dark traits too – I mean, this is America we are talking about : )

But I’ll get back to the issue on how these regions came to be in a later post. Right now I just wanted to introduce them – and of course to show what they really look like : )


The Split Personality of America

April 29, 2013

Some Americans think of their country as “the home of the brave” but on closer inspection that is only half true. And to be more precise, it’s the western half. Look at this map of Neuroticism based on data compiled by psychologist Peter Rentfrow,

personality map neuroticism
Neuroticism by state. The darker, the more neurotic.

Unlike the maps of the other Big Five personality factors, this one shows a very distinct pattern. It splits the nation into two halves – a fearful East and a bold West. The border seems to go along the Mississippi river. The 20 states scoring highest on Neuroticism are all bordering to the river or east of it. Of the 20 states that score the lowest on this trait, 16 are in the western region – including all of the bottom 10. Why Mississippi? I think we can find a clue if we look at an older map,


This is what America looked like in 1790. As you can see the western border of America went along the river that today appears to separate Americans scoring high or low on Neuroticism. But why should this be? Most likely because up until around 1800 almost all immigrants came, at least partly, to avoid religious persecution.

This is what I referred to in my previous post, the review of Susan Cain’s book on introverts, as an explanation for how the early America had a Culture of Character, although I guessed that the early settlers would be introverts rather than neurotics. These traits are of course similar and Cain admits that her view on Introversion incorporates what others view as Neuroticism.

At any rate, the second wave of immigrants were not so much fleeing Europe to avoid persecution. The were lured by the land- and goldrushes and other hopes of fortune and glory. They were the frontiersmen and women who ventured out in the hostile and uncivilized terrorities of what is sometimes called the Wild West. They were, in other words, not high on Neuroticism. Most likely, this latter wave of immigrants were also Sensation Seekers although this trait or anything similar to it is not covered by the Big Five model that Rentfrow uses.

While lot’s of people have moved around within America since the early days, the pattern shown in the first map does suggest that these two breeds of Americans – stick people and carrot people – still exist today and that they to a large extent live where their ancestors first settled. This serves as an interesting example of how it can be that one people differs from another and how even within a nation you can find a cultural and behavioral variety that has a genetic basis.

In the future we will probably see even more patterns like this one emerging as more or less intentional communities arise when people to a larger extent can choose their own environments. And who knows, as people become more aware of the genetic basis of their newfound tribes, this trend may even split our species. Let’s call the first bunch to branch off Homo Mississippiens.

All About Your Pop Culture Personality

April 8, 2013


Loves Morrissey.

Mexican Emos, probably at a Morrissey concert.

Entertainment: An Uncharted Territory

There are plenty of silly tests and quizzes that will tell you what kind of person you are based on your pop culture preferences. But is there any real research on this? Surprisingly little, according to psychologist Peter Rentfrow and collegues who went through some of the major scientific journals on personality from 1932 to 2008 and found that only 0.6 percent of the articles had any words referring to entertainment in their subject headings.

And yet entertainment is everywhere. Americans spend over 9 hours per day watching TV, films, read books or magazines, or listen to music. TV is the major medium accounting for 5.5 of those hours. They spend almost as much money on entertainment as they spend on health care – and no country spends more on health care than America. Most likely, other Westerners are similar in this regard.

The Study

So given how important entertainment is in our culture and the lack of research on the connections to personality, Rentfrow & Co made a study to examine people’s preferences for different entertainment genres and how these preferences relate to personality as well as other demographic factors like age, gender, race, intelligence and education.

They used three samples of participants: 1946 university students (the so-called convenience sample), a community sample of 736 residents of Eugene-Springfield, Oregon, and an internet sample of 545.  They then constructed a 108 item questionnaire called the Entertainment-Preference Measure (EPM) in which they rated the 108 genres or combination of genres and mediums (for instance Romance Books is one item and Romance Film another). They also had participants do an intelligence test and a measure of the Big Five personality factors .

Emerging Factors: The Big Five of Entertainment?

Next, they did their statistical mojo in which correlations between all the 108 genres were compared to see if they clustered into any separate factors, which they did. The major divide was found between what the researchers, surprisingly politically incorrect called Highbrow and Lowbrow. Furthermore Highbrow turned out to consist of two separate factors, named Aesthetic and Cerebral where as Lowbrow was made up of three factors called Communal, Dark and Thrilling for a total of five factors – two fancy and three folksy. To get a general idea of what these factors look like here are some of the major items in each of them,

  • Aesthetic – classical music, arts and humanities TV shows, art books, opera music, foreign film, classic films, folk music, world music, philosophy books
  • Cerebral – business books, news and current events TV shows and books, educational TV shows, reference books, computer books, documentary films, science TV shows
  • Communal – romance films, romance books, daytime talk shows, made-for- TV movies, soap operas, reality shows, pop music
  • Dark – horror movies, heavy metal music, rap and hip hop, alternative music, erotic movies, erotic literature, cult movies
  • Thrilling – action movies, thriller and espionage books, spy shows, science fiction TV shows, films and books, suspense movies, war movies

The Correlates

If we sum up all the major correlations between the above factors and the demographic and personality data, we get some interesting, and sometimes surprising, portraits of different types of people.

The correlations for the Aesthetic preference are fairly predictable. This taste correlated slightly with the female gender, a little stronger with intelligence and education. It was unrelated to race. On the Big Five it correlated strongest with Openness, slightly less with Agreeableness and slightly (inversed) with Conscientiousness.  Looks very much like the typical liberal.

The Cerebral preference was slightly correlated to with the male gender, age and education. It was unrelated to race, and surprisingly, it was also unrelated to intelligence. This may partly be explained by the personality profile; this type was slightly correlated with Extraversion, inversely to Neuroticism (that is emotionally stable), and to Openness. The combination of Conscientiousness and lack of Neuroticism most likely make them very organized and efficient, thus compensating for their average intelligence. This type may correspond to the ISTJ of the MBTI personality measure, a type which has been found to achieve academic success with relatively little intelligence. Closest stereotype would be a nerd although this is also a slightly conservative profile.

The Communal preference was correlated most strongly to the female gender (although these factors emerged independent of gender so there is a male bunch with this taste too). It was clearly correlated with low intelligence and low education. It was slightly correlated with African American ethnicity/race. This crowd is extraverted, agreeable, slightly conscientious and low on Openness. This type of person is very common, which explains why there is always a reality show, a talk show or a soap opera on when you turn on the TV.

The Dark preference was most strongly linked to a young age and to the male gender. There was a slight correlation to Hispanic ethnicity as well as intelligence and education. It is linked to Extraversion, but this was almost entirely due to the facets Provocativeness and Self-Disclosure. Further, they were low on Agreeableness and Conscientiousness and high on Openness.

Finally, the Thrilling preference was most clearly linked to the male gender. It was unrelated to race and there was a slight correlation to low education but there was very little data on intelligence for this type. In terms of personality they were unrelated to all the Big Five factors except for Openness were the younger university sample showed a slight positive correlation and the older community sample showed a slight negative correlation. This is consistent with the trait known as Sensation Seeking which is largely outside the Big Five.

What to Make of It All

There are some obvious limitations to this study. The samples are mainly White middle class. The community sample was 98 percent White – why pick a a town like Eugene-Springfield which has so little diversity? It seems psychologists, who to 95 percent identify as liberals, avoid people who aren’t White middle class like themselves. There is also the question of to what extent minority students are representative of their respective groups. There is a possibility that they are white-washed or perhaps genuinely more similar to Whites than to their own groups.

Still, the racial connections to cultural preferences and personality that were found make sense to me. According to Nielsen, Black people watch more of the light stuff featured in the Communal factor. The Hispanic link to the Dark factor accords with for instance the Mexican Emos, although I don’t know exactly how common they are. I get the general feeling that a lot of latin culture is dark, bizarre and sexual in line with this finding.

More robust was the finding that the highbrow Cerebral factor wasn’t related to intelligence, but the lowbrow Dark factor was. The fact that Cerebral and Aesthetic were correlated (making up the Highbrow factor) suggests that personality may be more important than intelligence in deciding cultural preferences.

Personally, my preferences were a little bit in most of these factors, although I fit the liberal Aesthetic factor best, even though I’m more of a social conservative. They even share my taste for Bluegrass, a genre that originated among White low-IQ people in the Appalachians. Awkward…


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