North Dakota the most outgoing state, according to study of “the geography of personality”

I’m coming a bit late to this one — it’s been heavily blogged in the last day or two — but it’s so lovely I can’t pass it up. A team of scientists have produced a map of the “geography of personality” in the US: What sorts of people cluster in what states.

Specifically, it used a standard personality test that rates people based on the “big five” personality traits — extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. The results? Highly conscientious states were a really mixed bag, including New Mexico, North Carolina, Utah and Florida. Super neurotic states included not only the obvious culprits — New York and New Jersey — but also Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas (the latter three possibly, the scientists surmise, because of the extremes of poverty found there).

As a story in the Wall Street Journal reports:

While the findings broadly uphold regional stereotypes, there are more than a few surprises. The flinty pragmatists of New England? They’re not as dutiful as they may seem, ranking at the bottom of the “conscientious” scale. High scores for openness to new ideas strongly correlates to liberal social values and Democratic voting habits. But three of the top ten “open” states — Nevada, Colorado and Virginia — traditionally vote Republican in presidential politics. (All three are prime battlegrounds this election.)

And what of the unexpected finding that North Dakota is the most outgoing state in the union? Yes, North Dakota, the same state memorialized years ago in the movie “Fargo” as a frozen wasteland of taciturn souls. Turns out you can be a laconic extrovert, at least in the world of psychology. The trait is defined in part by strong social networks and tight community bonds, which are characteristic of small towns across the Great Plains. (Though not, apparently, small towns in New England, which ranks quite low on the extraversion scale.)

The Journal put together a very cool interactive map that shows the results for each major personality type. The academic study itself — “A Theory of the Emergence, Persistence, and Expression of Geographic Variation in Psychological Characteristics” — is online behind a paywall here.

Obviously, there are a zillion cavaets here, including the fact that a lot of psychologists think personality tests are a bunch of hooey (though the “big five” test has gained more respect in recent years). What’s more, even if you grant the force of the test results, no one — not even the authors — can figure out whether the state “personality” emerges because of environmental factors or simply because people who are already pretty neurotic tend to move to New York.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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