For a country that features the word United so prominently in its name, the U.S. is a pretty fractious place. We splinter along fault lines of income, education, religion, race, hyphenated origin, age and politics. Then too there’s temperament. We’re coarse or courtly, traditionalist or rebel, amped up or laid-back. And it’s no secret that a lot of that seems to be determined by — or at least associated with — where we live.
Now a multinational team of researchers led by psychologist and American expat Jason Rentfrow of the University of Cambridge in the U.K. has sought to draw the regional lines more clearly, literally mapping the American mood, with state-by-state ratings of personality and temperament.
According to the study, the winners (or losers, depending on how you view these things) were in some cases surprising and in some not at all. The top scorers on extroversion were the ebullient folks of Wisconsin (picture the fans at a Packers game — even a losing Packers game). The lowest score went to the temperamentally snowbound folks of Vermont. Utah is the most agreeable place in the country and Washington, D.C., is the least (gridlock, anyone?).
For conscientiousness, South Carolina takes the finishing-their-homework-on-time prize, while the independent-minded Yanks of Maine — who prefer to do things their own way and in their own time, thank you very much — come in last. West Virginia is the dark-horse winner as the country’s most neurotic state (maybe it was the divorce from Virginia in 1863). The least neurotic? Utah wins again. Washington, D.C., takes the prize for the most open place — even if their low agreeableness score means they have no idea what to do with all of the ideas they tolerate. North Dakotans, meantime, prefer things predictable and familiar, finishing last on openness.
The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was an exhaustive one, spanning 13 years and including nearly 1.6 million survey respondents from the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia. (Alaska and Hawaii were excluded because not enough people responded to the researchers’ questionnaires.) The subjects, recruited via websites and other means of advertising throughout the academic community as well as through less rarefied platforms like Facebook, were asked to take one of three different personality surveys, though the most relevant one was what’s known as the Big Five Inventory. (Take the full test here.) As its name implies, the survey measures personality along five different spectra, with the Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism labels forming a handy acronym: OCEAN.
Each of those categories is defined by more-specific personality descriptors, such as curiosity and a preference for novelty (openness); self-discipline and dependability (conscientiousness); sociability and gregariousness (extroversion); compassion and cooperativeness (agreeableness); and anxiety and anger (neuroticism). The inventory gets at the precise mix of those qualities in any one person by asking subjects to respond on a 1-to-5 scale, from strongly disagree to strongly agree, with 44 statements including, “I see myself as someone who can be tense,” or “can be reserved,” or “has an active imagination,” or “is talkative.” There turned out to be a whole lot of Americans willing to sit still for that kind of in-depth prying, from a low of 3,166 in Wyoming (a huge sample group for a small state) to a high of 177,085 in California.
When the returns were tallied, the country broke down into three macro regions: New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, which the researchers termed “temperamental and uninhibited”; the South and Midwest, which were labeled “friendly and conventional”; and the West Coast, Rocky Mountains and Sun Belt, described as “relaxed and creative.” How they earned these labels was evident from the regions’ Big Five scores, with the temperamental and uninhibited states, for example, blowing the doors off the rest of the country on the neuroticism scale and the relaxed and creative ones similarly leading on openness.
There is no shortage of historical and geographical explanations for why the regions break down the way they do, but migration is the biggest piece of the puzzle. Pioneers who moved West were, by definition, people with open, curious, flexible temperaments, traits that become part of the settled regions’ DNA and were passed down through the generations. The researchers found a creative way to confirm this theory, comparing the date the 48 surveyed states became part of the union with their relaxed and creative profile. The result: the later a state joined, the higher its score turned out to be. That very openness and wanderlust stays with the native-born residents of these regions, often impelling them to keep right on moving.
“People who score high on these measures also have a high likelihood of migrating and settling into cosmopolitan areas,” says Rentfrow. Regions that score lower on openness and higher on the friendly and conventional scale, by contrast, have the lowest rates of emigration. “If you’re traditional and friendly and value family life, what’s the point of moving away?” Rentfrow asks.
An American by birth but a resident of the U.K., Rentfrow has an innate familiarity with America’s regional differences, but also a certain distance from the white-hot way they’ve grown worse of late. For all the fretting we do over such factionalism, he’s not sure things are as bad as they seem.
“Political values may exaggerate the temperamental differences and a sense of tribalism may emerge,” he concedes, “but these things all come from a mix of common personality types. The Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic may be very different from the Rockies and the West, for example, but openness is a big part of both personality profiles.”
That simple idea might be the best message we can take from the study. We’re less a nation of warring tribes and angry camps than we are a loud, boisterous, messy mix of geography, social history and the unpredictable X factors of human personality, all trying to make a go of things under the same national flag. In other words, we’re exactly what the Founding Fathers intended us to be.