A few years ago, Jason Rentfrow, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, dug into a question that has captivated him for decades: Do different places have different personalities? Do people in Los Angeles, for instance, have measurably different temperaments than the residents of Augusta, Georgia? If so, what does that mean for both places? Rentfrow decided to test these questions on a phenomenon that has captivated all of America lately: The rise of Donald Trump.
Together with his co-authors, Rentfrow analyzed a set of surveys that had been conducted between 2003 and 2015 in 2,082 U.S. counties—about two-thirds of all the counties in the country. The surveys asked three million people 44 questions about their habits and dispositions. Rentfrow and his co-authors focused on neuroticism, one of the “big five” traits that psychologists often use to measure personality, which is a tendency to feel depressed or anxious, and to respond more severely to stress. The study authors compared each county’s level of neuroticism to whether those counties later voted for President Trump in the 2016 election, and whether they had historically voted for Republicans.
It turned out that neuroticism was, indeed, correlated with support for Trump. This was true even when controlling for each population’s racial makeup, education level, income, and political attitudes. In fact, neuroticism was strongly linked to the margin by which Trump outperformed 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The trait alone appeared to have a link to Trump support. The same pattern held with Brexit votes, the study also found: The more neuroticism in a given area of the U.K., the more likely people were to support the country leaving the European Union.
Based on this correlation, Rentfrow and his co-authors speculate that neuroticism was a force that attracted people to populist candidates and ideas. The more people in a certain region tend to worry, the authors posit, the more politicians can tap into those worries and drum up support for their populist messages. Trump, for instance, stoked voters’ fears about immigrants, terrorists, and other interlopers. Neuroticism particularly seemed to drive a shift toward Trump support in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio, the authors write—states that were thought to be crucial to Trump’s 2016 victory.
This study and the other work by Rentfrow and many of his colleagues have added some scientific basis to the common inkling that people in different parts of the U.S. act differently. There are already many stereotypes: New Yorkers are always in a hurry; Californians are extremely chill; Minnesotans are unusually nice. While these sorts of characteristics don’t apply to every person in an area, Rentfrow and his cohort quantified some of the personality differences that do exist between states. The effort could, ultimately, help Americans understand themselves a little better.
Rentfrow acknowledges that his approach can be controversial. People rarely like to hear generalizations about their hometowns, especially if the generalization is that it’s an unusually neurotic place. And of course, many factors influence voting behaviors aside from personality. “Psychology is about trying to understand the inner workings of people’s minds,” he told me. “Here I was trying to make these broad generalizations, not just about individuals, but about people based on where they lived.”
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Rentfrow had a breakthrough in 2013, when he and others published a study that suggests the U.S. has three “psychological regions.” The first, in the Midwest and parts of the Southeast, is “friendly and conventional.” It has high levels of extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness—three more of the “big five” personality traits. “The characteristics of this psychological region suggest a place where traditional values, family, and the status quo are important,” the authors write. (The southern United States also tend to be more courageous, according to his research.)
In a second region that consists of the West Coast, the Rocky Mountains, and the Southwest, meanwhile, Americans tend to be “relaxed and creative,” the authors write. People in these areas are very open—another big personality measure, marked by a tendency toward curiosity, variety, and imagination—but rank comparatively low on most all other traits. “In general, the qualities of this region depict a place where open-mindedness, tolerance, individualism, and happiness are valued,” the authors note.
Finally, there’s the “temperamental and uninhibited” region, which consists of the Northeast and, to some extent, Texas. These states have higher neuroticism than the others, and are moderately high on openness. “This particular configuration of traits depicts the type of person who is reserved, aloof, impulsive, irritable, and inquisitive,” he writes. To which we on the East Coast say, You talkin’ to me?