Nataly Karol/Shutterstock
Source: Nataly Karol/Shutterstock

Many of us are very fussy about our spaces. I find that I need one kind of place to read (quiet, small, enclosed and private) and another to write (slightly more open, a little bit of a buzz in the background). When searching for new ideas, I prefer to walk in wide-open spaces like beaches or fields. When trying to solve a difficult problem, give me a winding path through deep forest.  Though my professional interests might make me more attuned than most to these preferences, I know that they are not unique to me. When I think about what I need from a space and how it’s related to my current activities, I usually think in terms of a complicated mix between my moods, my places, and my personality. I lean somewhat towards the introvert end of the personality spectrum, for example, so I expect that this personality trait plays a role in my preferences. 

Did a succession of exposures to different kinds of environments help shape my personality? How did my early days in the city of London, my teenage years in the wide boulevards and sprawling ranch houses of suburban Toronto, and the long succession of dingy rentals necessary during my long, impoverished apprenticeship as an academic influence the development of my personality? Although we’re nowhere near any answers to this question, some recent research shakes loose  tantalizing suggestions of linkages between personality and place.

A recently published study by Shigehiro Oishi and colleagues at the University of Virginia showed a striking relationship between geography and personality. In a series of five studies, Oishi’s group built the case that introverts are happier in mountainous settings than they are on beaches. In laboratory studies, more introverted student participants reported that they preferred scenes of mountains to scenes of beaches. In a wider-ranging experiment looking at the personality structure of residents on a state-by-state basis, the researchers found that residents of mountainous states like Washington, Idaho, and Montana showed higher tendencies to introversion than states with flatter terrain like Iowa, Ohio, and Michigan. 

This fascinating finding suggests that the kind of terrain in which we live, and the affordances it provides for social interaction or solitude can influence how we feel, but it leaves open an important causal question: Do environments that are conducive to quiet reflection actually change the personalities of their residents, or do more introspective types gravitate to such environments because they feed deep needs for the kinds of situations that are most adaptive for those individuals? 

The researchers tried to address this question in a final experiment in which they took individuals to two different types of settings—a secluded, wooded setting or a flat, open area—and engaged them in small group discussions. If the setting influenced variables related to introversion-extraversion, then one would predict that the wooded setting would change the nature of the group conversation. To measure this, the researchers simply recorded the number of times each participant in the group spoke during the conversation. Following the conversation, participants completed a questionnaire that was meant to probe their immediate self-perceptions of introversion or extraversion. 

The final study showed little evidence for a causal effect of environment either on the talkativeness of participants or their self-perceptions. Although the results of the experiment were largely negative, the authors point out that this study was of small scope. Additionally, it might not be reasonable to suppose that a brief, single exposure to a particular type of setting would have a significant effect on the measurement of personality variables, which are presumably built over a lifetime of experiences and events, not to mention the genetic heritage that we also know influences personality.

Another recently published study by Markus Jokela at the University of Helsinki and a group of international collaborators from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States was based on online surveys completed by residents of the city of London. In this study, a large group of life satisfaction and personality variables was measured to determine their relationship with different postal districts in the city. In this study, a much finer grain of geographic analysis was possible, and the sample size was very large—56,019 residents of Greater London. As in the Oishi study, there were some striking relationships between city locations and personality variables, but only some of these variables seemed to be influenced by the physical properties of the locations—for example, density, percentage of green space, and percentage of non-domestic buildings. 

Colin Ellard
Source: Colin Ellard

The detailed findings of this paper are much more complicated than that of the Oishi study, but the thumbnail sketch is similar: Where we live can affect our levels of life satisfaction in ways that are somewhat predictable based on aspects of our personality. Like the Oishi experiments, there is no basis for the claim that our surroundings can actually change our personality, but there are strong indications that the mix of individual variables with the physical variables of our surroundings can influence how we feel, what we do, and what we think about our lives.

Winston Churchill famously proclaimed that “we shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” The science to support Churchill’s prescient claim is only now beginning to gain steam, but the work of unraveling the relationships between urban form, personality, and individual behavior has important implications for all of us. Whether or not our built surroundings can affect core personality variables is still an open question. Regardless of the answer, we already know that we can only have psychologically sustainable buildings and cities when we know what kinds of designs are most likely to produce happiness, fulfillment, and life satisfaction.

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About the Author

Colin Ellard, Ph.D.

Colin Ellard, Ph.D., is the director of the Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and the author of You Are Here.

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