Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


You Don't Know America

us-map

(Photo: Enigmangels/Shutterstock)

Which of the U.S.’s 3 Distinct Psychological Regions Best Suits You?

• February 05, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: Enigmangels/Shutterstock)

An analysis of state-level data confirms some things you already know—basically everyone in the Midwest is friendly and conventional—but also suggests ways to use our psychological characteristics to spur economic development.

We’ve all seen those maps of the United States, the colors streaking or clumping or blotting, highlighting our divisions. Not just red versus blue, the most famous example, but also maps showing that the U.S. contains multitudes when it comes to everything from weather (duh) to substance abuse to income inequality to infant mortality.

We have pretty good explanations for meteorological differences, but all that other stuff—the messy, human, endlessly complicated stuff? That’s where social scientists come in. A very high percentage of their job fundamentally comes down to understanding these distinctions.

Jason Rentfrow, a University of Cambridge psychologist, thinks his discipline sometimes gets short shrift in explaining these disparities. That’s part of the reason he and his colleagues decided to try to break the country into regions based not on purchasing power, level of religiosity, or other familiar characteristics, but on psychological profiles.

Do people in a given region have certain psychological characteristics because the prevailing culture influences them, or do they choose to live in places where they know they’ll find similarly oriented people?

The result of this project, a paper called “Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social, and Health Correlates” (PDF), is an important step in integrating psychology into the study of disparities in the U.S.—even if it isn’t quite detailed enough to fully capture the country’s heterogeneity.

Rentfrow’s interest in this subject was sparked by research into why certain types of companies are clustered in certain parts of the U.S. Some of the research, he says, suggested that companies sought out places where residents had a certain degree of “openness,” leading to a positive climate for innovation.

“It made me wonder the extent to which these differences—at least in economic growth—could in some way, shape, or form, be related to the psychological characteristics of people,” Rentfrow says. And the more he looked into the subject, the more he realized this might be a useful way to approach other questions about regional differences as well.

So Rentfrow and his colleagues went to the numbers, pulling the results of five different data samples and extracting state-level characteristics with regard to the respected-within-the-field psychological characteristics of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.

They came away with three distinct psychological regions:

Friendly & Conventional: “In many respects, the Friendly & Conventional region reflects Middle America, or ‘Red’ states,” write the researchers, and the F&C region, which includes basically the entire Midwest, “comprises predominantly White residents with comparatively low levels of education, wealth, economic innovation, and social tolerance.” These folks tend to be “politically conservative, religious, and civically engaged.”

Relaxed & Creative: “The Relaxed & Creative region comprises predominantly states along the West Coast, Rocky Mountains, and Sunbelt.” An educated, disproportionately non-Caucasian part of the country, R&C’s “psychological profile is marked by low Extraversion and Agreeableness, very low Neuroticism, and very high Openness.” It’s a region “where open-mindedness, tolerance, individualism, and happiness are valued”—so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s experiencing positive net migration.

Temperamental & Uninhibited: This is the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast—“quintessentially Blue states.” The region is characterized by “low Extraversion, very low Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, very high Neuroticism, and moderately high Openness. … There are disproportionate numbers of older adults and women in this region, in addition to affluent and college-educated individuals.”

Researchers should look to these sorts of descriptions when they’re trying to explain why states have certain strengths and weaknesses, Rentfrow believes. For example, as he and his colleagues write, “if there were disproportionate numbers of people in a region with a particular combination of traits, such as low Neuroticism and high Openness, the health of that region would reflect the fact that there are large numbers of residents who do not typically overreact to difficult events and who use effective coping methods.”

The big methodological problem here, as is so often the case, is the potential for confounding variables and causality errors. On the latter: Do people in a given region have certain psychological characteristics because the prevailing culture influences them, or do they choose to live in places where they know they’ll find similarly oriented people—that is, they were always tightly wound, and moved to New York not just for the great bagels, but also to be around other people with a propensity for paroxysm?

“With the data we have we can’t sort that out,” Rentfrow says. He thinks “it’s a bit of both.” (The levels of internal migration in the United States are much higher than in other developed countries [PDF], pointing to the possibility that it’s economically easier or more socially acceptable to move to a place that seems a better fit than it is in, say, Europe).

As for the question of how this work should be applied, Rentfrow says it could be used to help spur economic development, but noted that the project is still in early stages.

“Let’s suppose that we have good evidence to suggest that the reason why certain regions are doing well economically—perhaps they have a lot of innovation and whatnot—and we have good reason to think that it’s because people with these entrepreneurial characteristics are migrating to these areas,” Rentfrow says. “Then it’s a matter of trying to figure out what could do to attract people to these other areas that may have the key ingredients, or how can we embed some of these key ingredients or attractions to bring some of these people over to these other areas.”

The challenge of applying this particular study is that the results aren’t quite coarse enough. “The real limitation to this work is that we relied on the state level of analysis,” Rentfrow says. State-level data was a better fit for this study, he says, both because it tied more neatly into past research—“It was sort of a legacy from our previous work”—and because there’s more and richer information readily available at that level.

Since only three stable, statistically robust psychological regions emerged, Rentfrow and his colleagues are restricted to explaining a country of 320 million people in a somewhat limited way. And some detail is lost as a result. “The culture of Texas is very varied,” Rentfrow says, using the state as an example because he has spent a lot of time there. And yet on each of the three maps presented in the paper (one for each category), Texas is, like every other state, monolithic—just one color. This despite the obvious differences between Austin and Dallas, between El Paso and Houston.

“If we were to do something similar, say, based on county-level data or major metropolitan areas, I suspect we would get a more nuanced map, more nuanced clusters,” Rentfrow says. And that is indeed the next step: to build better, more detailed maps that can take into account, say, the differences between rural Western Massachusetts and I-95-megalopolis metropolitan Boston, or between red Bakersfield and blue San Francisco.

And after that, Rentfrow has global ambitions. “To be able to create a really nice, granular map of personalities around the world would be cool,” he says. For now, though, it’s small steps: understanding why, in the U.S., two hours on the highway can often take you from one culture to another.

Jesse Singal

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.