Personality and place: New insights on person-environment links

February 27, 2015

Psychological traits, such as personality and well-being, are spatially and regionally clustered within cities, states, countries, and the world. Four presentations showcase cutting-edge research that investigates how traits are spatially and geographically clustered, what mechanisms drive the uneven distribution of traits, and the consequences of these spatial patterns. The presentations are part of a symposium featured at the SPSP 16th Annual Convention in Long Beach, California.

Life satisfaction and location

Research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science examines the association between overall well-being and two important behavioral indicators of regional success— migration and population growth.

Subjective well-being reflects an overall evaluation of the quality of a person's life from his or her perspective. Using data from over 2 million U.S. residents, along with population data from 2000 to 2010, lead researcher Richard Lucas has shown that U.S. counties with higher levels of life satisfaction grew at significantly faster rates than counties with low life satisfaction. Analysis shows that the association was not due to regional differences in birth or death rates, but rather due to high levels of domestic migration.

"This suggests that there is something about happier places that people recognize and that attracts people to live there," explains Lucas. "It's not clear from our research why this association exists. It could be that people intentionally move to places that are happier, and the factors that attract people also contribute to happiness, or it may be that places that are growing feel more energetic."

Introverts prefer mountains

In a series of three studies, researchers tested whether there is a link between and an aspect of physical ecology: flat terrain versus mountainous terrain. The study found that only one of the Big Five personality traits predicted terrain preference—extraversion.

Participants perceived wooded/secluded terrain to be calmer, quieter and more peaceful. In contrast, participants in the flat/open condition perceived the terrain to be more sociable, exciting and stimulating. The study found that when people want to socialize with others, they prefer the ocean far more (75%) than mountains (25%). In contrast, when they want to be alone, they choose mountains (52%) as much as the ocean (48%).

Results of the study also showed that introverts tend to live in mountainous regions, while extroverts live in open and flat regions. The researchers caution that there is no evidence mountains make people introverted, but rather, introverts tend to choose mountainous geography because of the secluded environment.

Lead researcher Shige Oishi says that individuals should consider their personalities more closely when choosing a place to live; "Some cities and towns have geography that is more accommodating for some people than for others...if you know you're introverted, then you may be rejuvenated by being in a secluded place, while an extrovert may be rejuvenated more in an open space."

This is the first study to link extraversion and introversion with the preference for mountains vs. ocean/open spaces. The study is under review for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Oishi cautions that there is more research that will be collected to determine the underlying mechanisms of the association, and to see if the results are replicated on a larger scale.

City-dweller or rural resident?

Previous research has shown that an individual's personality is one factor that determines how much someone likes where they live. Globalization and an increasing tend toward domestic migration and mobility—especially among younger individuals—makes the question of where to live an important one.

Researchers examined whether individuals have higher self-esteem in a city where their personality matches a majority of other resident's personalities. Preliminary results have shown a small but significant person-city interaction effect on self-esteem for openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

Lead researcher Wiebke Bleidorn explains: "Individuals low on openness to experiences had significantly lower self-esteem in open cities, like New York City, but relatively higher self-esteem in cities that score relatively lower on openness to experience, for instance, Tuscaloosa, Alabama."

The findings show that the average personality of a city is related to an individual's well-being and self-esteem.

Personality of a space

There is a lot of research focusing on characterizing people, but little research has been done characterizing spaces. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are engaging in a series of studies designed to characterize physical spaces.

An initial study examined the desired ambiance of residential spaces. Participants were asked to specify the ambiances they would like to evoke in rooms of their homes. Their preferences were characterized in terms of six broad psychological dimensions: restoration, kinship, storage, stimulation, intimacy, and productivity.

The second study examined the ambiances of bars and cafes, which fell into four broad groups: unique/artsy; modern/stylish; relaxing/conservative; and loud/energetic. Both studies hint at the psychological functions served by physical spaces in everyday life, providing a foundation for work on the factors that drive people to seek out different kinds of spaces and consequences of succeeding or failing to find a suitable fit.

Explore further: Tired of London? Maybe you're living in the wrong place

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