The United States of Mind

Sep 18, 2016 by

[This post was originally published in November 2012]

When I moved from upstate New York to California some five years ago, the culture shock was almost as significant as when I had moved from Russia to Israel, then to Canada, then to the UK, then to Norway, and then to the United States. This time the language, the currency, and the shape of power outlets were the same, but people appeared quite different in how they handled themselves, socialized with others, or approached life’s problems. Neurotic New Yorkers versus Laid-Back Californians? Perhaps. Though in some ways, my former neighbors in Ithaca, New York seemed more laid-back and less neurotic than my new neighbors in Mountain View, California. Where upstate New Yorkers appeared more friendly and more willing to resolve issues by relying on the common sense, Californians seemed more concerned with rules and appearances. But are these just my personal impressions of the specific people that I had met by chance, or is there such a thing as a psychological portrait of a state? According to some sociological studies, such regional stereotypes are not mere clichés, but have empirical support.

One such study was conducted by Peter Jason Rentfrow of the University of Cambridge (England), in collaboration with colleagues from Austin, Texas and Cambridge, Massachusetts. The study, based on more than 600,000 questionnaires and published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science in 2008, maps regional clusters of personality traits and searches for correlations with data on crime, health, and economic development. The personality assessment test consists of 44 questions and evaluates the so-called “Big Five personality traits”: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. The extraversion dimension (E) characterizes how people energize themselves: extraverts tend to be energized when around other people, whereas introverts gain energy through reflection and solitude. Where extraverts are described as “outgoing”, “talkative”, “assertive”, and “gregarious”, introverts are typically more solitary and reserved. Agreeableness (A) manifests itself in behaviors that are perceived as kind, sympathetic, cooperative, warm, and considerate; the two ends of the its continuum are “friendly/compassionate” versus “cold/unkind”. Conscientiousness (C) includes such elements as self-discipline, carefulness, thoroughness, self-organization, deliberation, and need for achievement.* People who score high on this trait are characterized as being efficient, organized, neat, and systematic, or even as “workaholics” and “perfectionists”; those who score low can be described as “easy-going” or “careless”. Neuroticism (N) manifests itself through anxiety, moodiness, worry, envy, and jealousy; individuals who score high on neuroticism are often self-conscious and shy. Finally, openness (O) to experience involves such characteristics as active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, and intellectual curiosity. According to Rentfrow’s team, although “each state shows substantial variation on all of the FFM [Five Factor Model] variables” (p. 350), there are significant state-level differences in personality profiles. For example:

“North Dakota ranks highest on E and A, in the middle on C, near the bottom on N, and lowest on O, suggesting that North Dakotans are more sociable and affable and less anxious and imaginative than are people in other states. In contrast, New York ranks in the middle on E, near the bottom on A and C, and at the top on N and O, indicating that New Yorkers are less warm and dutiful yet more high-strung and creative than are people in the rest of the country.” (p. 350)


Their study also shows that “the personality dimensions are not randomly distributed, but geographically clustered” (p. 350). For example, extroversion appears to be highest in the Great Plains, Midwest, and Southeastern states and lowest in the Northwest and most of the Mid-Atlantic and East Coast states. Both New York and California rank fairly low on the extraversion score (32nd and 38th place, respectively). The most extraverted state is North Dakota and the most introverted one is Maryland.


Agreeableness is highest in the Midwest, South Central, and Southeastern states and lowest in the Northeast. New Yorkers rank much lower on this trait than Californians (47th vs. 28th place). As with extraversion, North Dakota again tops the charts, whereas Alaskans come out as having the coldest personalities.




Conscientiousness is highest in the Southwest, Midwest, and Southeast and lowest in the Mid-Atlantic and New England. In contradiction to the stereotypes, Californians are more “workaholics” and “perfectionists” (27th place) than the “easy-going” New Yorkers (42nd). According to the study, the most conscientious state in the nation is New Mexico and the least conscientious one is again Alaska.



In line with expectations, neuroticism is highest in the Northeast and Southeast and lowest in the Midwest and West Coast. New York has the third highest score on this trait, while California ranks relatively low (37th). Curiously, the list of high-anxiety states includes not just New York and New Jersey, but also states stressed by poverty, such as West Virginia, which scores highest on this trait, and Mississippi, which ranks 4th. The least neurotic state turns out to be Utah.


The statewide distribution of openness to experience is also in line with the earlier studies and tends to be high in New England and in the Mid-Atlantic and West Coast states and low in the Great Plains, Midwest, and South Central states. Both New York and California rank high (2nd and 6th, respectively). District of Columbia tops the chart on this trait, while North Dakotans are at the bottom of the list.

While these findings tend to support some cultural stereotypes, there are numerous surprises as well. For instance, New Englanders, often viewed as “flinty pragmatists”, come out as less dutiful than they may seem, ranking at the bottom of the “conscientious” scale. Those who remember the movie “Fargo”, which depicted North Dakota “as a frozen wasteland of taciturn souls”, would be surprised that this state is rated as the most outgoing in the nation. As Wall Street Journal’s Stephanie Simon puts it, “turns out you can be a laconic extrovert, at least in the world of psychology”. And who would have thought of Floridians as conscientious (8th) or of Kentuckians as neurotic (7th)?

Perhaps even more revealing than the snapshots of states’ psychological profiles are the correlations between each state’s dominant personality type and certain social indicators such as crime rates, levels of social involvement, religiosity, political opinion, occupational prevalence, health behavior, and mortality. “Agreeable states”, such as Minnesota (which ranks 2nd), tend to have low crime rates and high life expectancy. In contrast, life expectancy is lower in “neurotic states”, which are characterized by lower levels of health-promoting behaviors such as exercising at home, and unsurprisingly, also by higher incidence of deaths from heart disease and cancer. “Dutiful states” have a larger proportions of computer scientists and mathematicians, while states ranking low on conscientiousness produce more artists and entertainers. States that rank high in openness to new ideas are quite creative, as measured by per-capita patent production. They also have a high proportion of residents in both artistic and investigative professions. But such states are also known for high levels of crime and low level of social involvement (as measured by such activities as “going to a bar or tavern” and “spending a lot of time visiting friends”). Social involvement is predictably high both in states that rank high on the extraversion and it those with elevated agreeableness rankings, but in a different manner. Residents of extraverted states spend more time going to club meetings or bars, but “their socializing is apparently somewhat indiscriminate and is not restricted to close friends” (p. 355). In contrast, residents of agreeable states are more involved in “activities that promote tight social relations, including spending time with friends and entertaining at home” (p. 356).


Each state’s psychological profile also correlates with the views of its residents on religion and politics. While religiosity is linked with both agreeableness and conscientiousness on state level, it appears that agreeableness is a better predictor of church attendance, while conscientiousness correlates stronger with the importance that individuals place on religion in their value systems. Conversely, residents of states that rank high on openness to experience “place considerably less importance on religion and attend church less often than do those in low-O states” (p. 360), which seems to reflect the degree to which individuals uphold or reject conventional value systems. But high ranking on the openness scale goes hand in hand with liberal value indicators: people in such states tend to “have more progressive and tolerant views about sundry social issues” (p. 360), such as legalization of marijuana, abortion, and gay marriage. These views are typically put into practice in high openness states: for example, nine of the top ten “open” states have either legal medical marijuana (e.g. Washington and Vermont), have decriminalized marijuana possession (e.g. New York and Massachusetts), or both (e.g. Oregon, California, Nevada, and Colorado).


Similarly, legal recognition of gay marriage correlates strongly with the state’s ranking on the openness scale: nine out of top ten “open” states, as well as District of Columbia, have some sort of legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Three of the states governments—New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont—allow same-sex marriage.** California, Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington have had legal unions for same-sex couples that offer varying subsets of the rights and responsibilities of marriage. In 2012 elections, citizens of Maryland and Washington voted in favor of approving the respective state laws passed earlier the same year legalizing same-sex marriages. The only state among the top ten “open” ones that bans same-sex marriages and other kinds of same-sex unions is Virginia.


High scores for openness to new ideas correlates not only with liberal social values but also with Democratic voting habits. However, three of the top ten “open” states—Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia—have voted Republican in most recent presidential races.*** While they all went for Obama in the 2008 election (the same year that Rentfrow’s study was conducted), all three states voted Republican in 2000 and 2004, and two of them—Colorado and Virginia—also voted Republican in 1996. In this year’s elections, Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia were hotly contested, but ultimately all three voted for Obama again.

Some social scientists suggest taking the findings of this research further than predicting voting patterns and into the realm of socio-economic development. Perhaps, they argue, it would be beneficial for health officials in the Northeast “stress belt” to consider programs to help folks relax, while dutiful states “might look to woo more innovative personalities, perhaps by nurturing an artists’ enclave or encouraging young chefs to start restaurants”. But before policy makers may far-reaching decisions, it might be worth considering some of the problems with such research, to which we shall turn in the next post.



*According to some psychologists, deliberation is also part of the introversion package.

**The only state that currently offers same-sex marriages and which ranks low on the openness scale is Iowa (43rd).

***District of Columbia ranks highest on the openness scale, hence the list of the top ten states includes Virginia, which ranked 11th.




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