Does Oregon (or any state) have a personality?


I love it when my geographic geekiness is simultaneously stimulated and satiated!  Most recently it happened when I read “A Theory of the Emergence, Persistence, and Expression of Geographic Variation in Psychological Characteristics” by Peter J. Rentfrow (University of Cambridge), Samuel D. Gosling (University of Texas at Austin) and Jeff Potter (Atof Inc. of Cambridge MA) in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Takes me back to grad student days at the University of Oregon, where I learned about “environmental determinism” that had once ruled geographic thought.  

See, for example, this description from page 45 of the 1866 textbook Monteith’s Physical and Intermediate Geography:

In the tropical regions, the inhabitants subsist, to a great extent, upon the spontaneous yield of the soil; this, together with the enervating influence of the oppressive heat, causes them to lack energy, industry and patriotism.

In the frozen regions, the inhabitants are dwarfed both in physical stature and mental powers; this is owing to the severity of the climate, with the absence of natural productions and of inducements to labor.

Both of these regions lack that diversity of climate and of other conditions, which is necessary to the promotion of individual and national prosperity.

Uh, can you spell r-a-c-i-s-m? Environmental determinism had long been discredited when I studied geography, so the examples we saw were presented as exotic anachronisms.  The rejection suppressed any consideration of the effect of environment on culture and behavior, so it was interesting to find it has gained new attention, albeit in a VERY different form.

So back to the article.  You can read the article yourself here.  Warning:  it is very academically researchy with citations and jargon everywhere, so I’ve provided a very condensed summary below, with special emphasis on how my home state Oregon did.


New attention is being paid to geographic personality traits, largely because adoption of the Five Factor Model as a “robust and widely accepted framework for conceptualizing the structure of personality.”  The five factors include:  Extraversion [E], Agreeableness [A], Conscientiousness [C], Neuroticism [N] and Openness [O].  According to the authors, “scores of studies indicate that these basic personality dimensions are rooted in biology and are relatively stable throughout life.”

Most of the research has examined these five factors at the national level, but more recently researchers are looking at geographic variation within countries.  For example, a series of studies found that in the U.S., Southerners “place considerably more importance on personal reputation and respect than Northerners do and that this difference leads to higher rates of aggression and homicide in the South.” 

How does geographic variation in personality come about and persist?  Selective migration (people move to places that are a good fit with their personalities), social influence (common personality traits and features of the social environment can mutually reinforce each other), and environmental influence (factors ranging from crowding to climate [e.g. seasonal affective disorder], etc.)

The report includes a graphic of how it all works:











So the authors of the study went about examining if the FFM would apply to states within the U.S. by conducting a survey and correlating with census data. (Read the article for a lot more on methodology and all the associated researchy words.) They also considered what each factor would look like within a state:

  • Extraversion [E] is related to community involvement, preferences for social and entrepreneurial professions and physical health and longevity.
  • Agreeableness [A] relates to community involvement, religious participation, longevity and reduced crime rates.
  • Conscientiousness [C] is associated with religious involvement, health-promoting behavior, and low crime rates.
  • Neuroticism [N]  is linked to criminal behavior, poor coping and morbidity.
  • Openness [O] is expressed by liberal values, creative and intellectual professions, artistic and investigative occupations.

So how does Oregon stack up (based on 10,211 survey responses)?  

Oregon is:

  • among the least extroverted states (44th out of 51; North Dakota is most extroverted, Maryland least)
  • pretty darned agreeable (18th of 51; North Dakota is also most agreeable! Alaska is least agreeable)
  • not so conscientious (31st; New Mexico is most conscientious, Alaska is least conscientious too!)
  • not at all neurotic (48th! West Virginia is most neurotic, Utah is least!)
  • and VERY open-minded (3rd among 51! only Washington DC (#1???) and New York are more so, while agreeable and extroverted North Dakota is least open minded.)

In other words, we are warm and friendly but not as likely to attend club meetings or church or hang out in bars, less dutiful and disciplined, very unlikely to exhibit unsocial behavior, have good coping skills and are psychologically healthy, have very tolerant views and open minds.  That sounds like a place I feel at home in!

The article includes some cool maps as well, including this one depicting “agreeableness” by state:














For our neighbors to the north, Washington is:

  • even less extroverted (48th out of 50!)
  • not quite as agreeable (22nd)
  • somewhat more conscientious (25th)
  • nearly as unneurotic as we are (46th)
  • and almost as open-minded (5th)

And I couldn’t help but notice how off the chart Alaska is, almost the lowest in each and every category:

  • 49th in extraversion
  • dead last in agreeableness
  • dead last in conscientiousness
  • almost last in neuroticism
  • almost last in open-mindedness.

So now we know what Alaska is not, wonder what it IS?  Who wants to weigh in?  Anyone from Wasilla maybe?

So how does this sound?  Do you agree?  Want a report on your state?


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