Do US Communities Have Distinct Personality Types?

We are aware that geographical sorting based on ideological lines is on the rise in the US, but do regions and states differ in personality as well? And, if so, do those who “fit” in with these community “types” also experience certain benefits? A new study suggests this may be the case.

Professor Kevin Lanning of Florida Atlantic University and colleagues used data from the Synthetic Aperture Personality Assessment to investigate the impact that person-community fit – an important concept in personality, social, and geographical psychology – has on education, health, and well-being.

During their work, the team tried to assess “fit” using a traditional method known as “response surface analysis”, a technique used to test whether/to what extent combinations of two predictive variables relate to an outcome variable, and “profile similarities”, a method that quantifies the similarity between two sets of ratings on multiple variables. 

For example, a profile similarity-focused study might try to see whether children have a similar emotional profile to their parents, or whether a romantic couple experience fluctuations when they go about their daily business.

However, Lanning and colleagues had to approach things differently for this study. This is because, in each of these approaches, scores for individuals are typically compared with community averages. This leads to interpretive challenges in this context because there are greater variables among individuals than there is among a community.

To address this, the team adopted a novel approach that reconceptualized person-community fit, based on the idea that communities, as with people, can be made up of multiple environmental niches. In this instance, they illustrated this conceptual change with simple typology where they assigned people to specific “types” based on their most extreme score across the Big Five personality traits. These include openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

So for this study, someone categorized as “extraverted” would be someone whose average response across the extraversion items is more distinct and extreme than those of the other traits. Equally, “stable” types were people whose most extreme average responses were lower in neuroticism. The researchers used this information to figure out the percentage of people within the community who fitted into each type.

The results were fascinating. With these new typologies, the team found that the percentage of open-minded people in Manhattan is roughly twice that of Detroit. In contrast, people in Detroit were twice as likely as Manhattanites to be classified as conscientious (which captures individual differences in the degree of organization, persistence, and motivation in goal-directed behaviour).

In Palm Beach and Broward counties, the proportions of open people and conscientious people were roughly the same, but among counties with more than 5,000 respondents, Bexar County, San Antonio had the highest proportion of agreeable people. In contrast, Manhattan may have had the highest proportion of openness, but it also had the lowest levels of people who were agreeable and conscientious.

“It’s important to note that when comparing different counties, small counties are inevitably more likely to show up at the extremes. In addition, our sample is unlikely to be representative of most counties. For both of these reasons, comparisons between individual counties should be made with caution,” Lanning said in a statement.

Not surprisingly, Lanning and colleagues found evidence that people who exhibited personality types that fitted into the community “type” seemed to experience higher levels of happiness and well-being. They were also more likely to engage in healthy behaviours and attain higher levels of schooling relative to their parents.

“Just as the ethnic character of a community can be described by proportions of different ethnic groups, the psychological character of a community may, perhaps, best be understood by a set of proportions of psychological types,” Lanning added. “To the extent that communities are diverse, people can ‘fit’ in multiple ways. One way to capture this idea is by describing both persons and communities in terms of types.”

The study is published in Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology.

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