Waves crash against cliffs south of Big Sur, California. AP Photo/Anja Schlein

New research shows introverts do, in fact, prefer the mountains.

The idea that your personality can be revealed through a few seemingly arbitrary choices has been around since Freudian days. Purplish grey or vibrant tangerine? Sandy cabana or hermit’s cabin? In the Internet age, it’s the premise that launched a thousand, narcissistic quizzes.

Turns out, when it comes to geography, your preferences do connect with how extraverted or introverted you are, according to new work in the Journal of Research in Personality. In a series of studies, University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi and colleagues Thomas Talhelm and Minha Lee found that extraverts prefer the beach to the mountains, while introverts prefer the opposite.

Oishi developed his original hypothesis based on earlier theories of “person-environment fit,” the idea that people actively select certain surroundings to fulfill their individual values and desires. Studies have shown that extraverts seek out opportunities for socializing and attention, whereas introverts look for quiet, more solitary situations. Prior research has looked at how the needs of extraverts and introverts play out in office settings, recreational activities, and even entire nations. But, the authors say, there’s been little exploration into the role our personalities play in determining the geographical settings we love most.

”We argue that beaches are typically noisier, with more people to watch, talk to, and hang out with than mountains,” they write. “In contrast, mountains offer many secluded places, which facilitate isolation.”

Extraverts should be happiest in an open area, then, Oishi hypothesized, whereas introverts should thrive in secluded spots.

Who’s up for a beach day?

Oishi and his team asked 921 undergraduates to rate their personality, using a standard questionnaire. The students were then asked whether they prefer the ocean or mountains. Comparing the results, the researchers found that introversion was linked to a preference for mountains, while extraversion was linked to the beach. Mountain-lovers and ocean-lovers had no other significant personality differences, nor did age, gender, or socioeconomic status factor into their preferences—although African-Americans were found to prefer the beach more than other groups.

These findings were confirmed by a visual test. Oishi and his colleagues showed a smaller group of participants six pairs of pictures of oceans and beaches (one such pair is shown to the left), asking where they’d prefer to visit, cost and time investment being equal. These participants also took the standard personality questionnaire. Controlling again for age, race, gender, and socioeconomic status, extraversion was found to be a significant predictor of ocean preference. Race didn’t factor into these findings, although this time, respondents of a higher socioeconomic status chose the beach more often.

No thanks—I’m taking a solo camping trip

Why did people pick the refuges they did? Do mountains speak to introverts’ need for solitude, or do introverts just really love rocks?

The researchers asked another sample of students where they’d go for fun, social opportunities versus quiet solitude, between the beach and the mountains. Most respondents said they’d go to the beach if they wanted play-time with friends. Most also said that the mountains were best for alone time, affirming the researchers’ assumptions about how people perceive these geographical spaces.

But does the mountain make the introvert, or does the introvert seek the mountain? Research shows that people with similar personality, values, and politics cluster in particular regions, partly out of choice. But enclosed, secluded settings could also make people more introverted, while open, spacious settings encourage extroversion.

First, to see whether extroverts and introverts cluster geographically, Oishi and his team sought to find out whether residents of more mountainous states become introverted as a result of their surroundings. The researchers compared answers from a nationwide, multi-year personality survey of hundreds of thousands of respondents, with the relative mountainous-ness of each U.S. state.

Controlling for population, they found a strong correlation between elevation and introversion on a state level: the more mountainous a state, the more introverted its population tended to be.

Then, to see whether geography actually brings out certain personality traits, the researchers had another group of students take the personality survey. They placed participants in either one of two spots on the UVA campus: a quiet, wooded hill, or a flat, open lawn. Based on how participants engaged in conversations with the researchers before and after placement, the researchers watched to see if the the quiet hill made people more quiet and introverted, and if the flat, open area made them more talkative and social.

While neither environment made participants more extroverted or introverted than they already were, extraverts were found to be happier in the open area, while introverts were happier in the secluded spot.

To be sure, there were limitations to these studies. The researchers were never really able to determine whether personality shaped geography preference or the other way around. The last test in particular had a small sample size, and results produced from a leafy spot on a college campus can’t really be generalized to say, the Grand Canyon. There’s also much more to explore about how living near mountains or the beach affects long-term happiness for different people. Other landscapes—deserts, rivers, suburbs, high-rises—might play into our personalities, too.  

Still, the study is a powerful reminder of how the landscapes around us match the landscapes within us.

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