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Do Mountains Make Us Less Hedonistic?

The landscapes we live near can influence our values.

Key points

  • People who live near mountains tend to eschew hedonism more readily than those who live in flatter areas.
  • Living near mountains is associated with greater conservation values, such as security, tradition, and conformity.
  • Living in densely populated areas is associated with higher self-enhancement values (think: hedonism, achievement, and power).
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

What do you see out of your window? Another person's apartment? A backyard? A brick wall? Trees?

Step outside and take in your surroundings. What do you see now? What do you feel? What ideas come into your head?

The topography of where we live can affect our thoughts, feelings, and behavior—something both city dwellers and folks residing closer to hills, trees, lakes, or beaches can likely agree on. Piggybacking on research suggesting that our proximity to nature can enhance our mood and overall wellbeing while being deprived of nature bodes poorly for mental health a team of Austrian, Canadian, and British researchers recently investigated how our surrounding environment—namely: how mountainous (or not) that environment is—influences our values.

The Study

Stieger’s team compared the personal values of over 32,000 United States residents (over half of whom were female and the majority of whom were white) to satellite-culled topographical information. Data on participants' values came from their responses to the Twenty-Item Values Inventory, which asks participants to rate how similar or dissimilar they are to a series of hypothetical other people via prompts like “Getting ahead in life is important to this person." Topographical information came from calculating the standard deviation in elevation above sea level within a 20- to 50-mile radius from each participants’ zip code.

From Stieger et al., 2021
10 Basic Human Values (Schwartz, 1992)
Source: From Stieger et al., 2021

Stieger's team was most interested in the ten basic values originally categorized in 1992 by psychologist Shalom H. Schwartz: Hedonism, Achievement, Power, Security, Conformity, Tradition, Benevolence, Universalism, Self-Direction, and Stimulation. Each is ordered into four higher-order dimensions (Conservation, Self-Enhancement, Openness to Change, and Self-Transcendence) that fall under the two dimensions of Social Focus and Personal Focus. All are arranged in a circular structure with conflicting values positioned father from each other and compatible values positioned closer.

Since the weather is known to influence everything from consumer spending to our daily moods Stieger et al. also factored in participants' regional climate conditions. Population density was considered too.

The Findings

Stieger et al. found that the more mountainous a terrain was, the more likely those who lived near it were to endorse conservation values, like security, tradition, and conformity, as well as the self-enhancement value of achievement. The higher the altitude of a participant's surroundings, the less likely they were to gravitate towards hedonism and the more likely they were to embrace traditionalism.

When it came to population density and climate's influence Steiger's team found that living in more densely populated areas predicted higher self-enhancement values like hedonism, achievement, and power and lower conservation values. Participants who lived in colder climates were more likely to score low on self-enhancement and conservation values and score higher on self-transcendence values (like universalism and benevolence).

Age and gender also had an influence: Older participants scored lower in self-enhancement and higher in conservation values. Men had higher self-enhancement and conservation values scores while women averaged lower in these categories.

Explaining their results, the researchers found the negative relationship with hedonism “straightforward.” “Mountainous areas tend to be secluded and inhospitable, making them ill-suited for the pursuit of worldly pleasures and sensuous gratification,” they write in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Makes sense: Few opportunities to engage in more pleasurable activities could breed a desensitization to wanting them.

Photo by julie aagaard from Pexels
Source: Photo by julie aagaard from Pexels

Stieger et. al pointed out, however, that the link between mountainousness and conservation values may seem counterintuitive. They point towards Voluntary Settlement Theory, which posits that during the United States’ initial settlement by Europeans, so-called frontier environments (think: the Rocky Mountains) tended to attract “primarily self-reliant, freedom-seeking nonconformists” whose “ethos of independence…continues to characterize the inhabitants of these areas today.”

Some Head Scratchers...And Explanations

Stieger et al. point to a 2020 study that seems to hit this discrepancy home. It found that openness to experience (one of The Big Five Personality Traits, which also include agreeableness, conscientiousness, introversion/extraversion, and neuroticism) was higher among people who lived nearer to mountains than among those who did not. Openness to experience, Stieger et al. write, has been shown to correlate negatively with conservation values, meaning the more open to new experiences a person is the less likely they are to espouse conservation values.

So how could an environment typically thought to foster more personally focused, self-enhancement values also breed more socially focused conservation values? Stieger's team explain that while certain personality traits tend to correlate with certain values—e.g., studies suggest more agreeable people tend to value benevolence while more open people tend to value self-direction—"even the strongest correlations between traits and values leave sufficient unexplained variance to manifest in differential relations with third variables, such as mountainousness." (Translation: Just because a trait is typically strongly associated with a particular value does not mean that this association cannot be influenced by a third factor, like the hilliness of whatever terrain you live near.)

Plus, Stieger et al. add, "while personality traits and personal values are similar, they are not the same. Values are evaluative, mutually exclusive (i.e., following a diametrical organization, wherein endorsement of certain values implies rejection of others), enduring goals that reflect what a person finds important as a member of society. Meanwhile, traits are descriptive, nonmutually exclusive (i.e., following an orthogonal organization, wherein stronger expression of certain traits does not affect others), enduring dispositions that reflect what a person is like as an individual." TL;DR: it is quite possible for people with the same personality traits to hold different values and personality traits alone do not generate or precisely predict specific values.

In keeping with Conway et al.'s Dual-Pressure Model of Ecological Stress, which theorizes that "the same ecological stressor, might simultaneously produce opposing pressures that push people in two difference directions," Stieger and his team go on to say that in fact living near mountains could occasion both more open personalities (since "mountainous areas might require individuals with independent agency and preparedness to confront unknown challenges and thus favor an open personality") while simultaneously fostering the prioritization of safety, self-discipline, stability, and protection of the status quo—hallmarks of conservation—in order to master difficult ecological conditions.

"This conclusion aligns with research showing that experiences of environmental threats and uncertainty (1) prompt individuals to be skeptical of strangers and more territorial about their group domains (Sng et al., 2018), (2) lead to increased endorsement of socially and politically conservative positions (Malka et al., 2014; Oishi et al., 2017), and (3) are conducive to the creation of vertical governmental restriction—laws that impose hierarchies and protect specific groups (Conway et al., 2017, 2020)," Stieger et al. write. "Thus, having an open personality (i.e., autonomy and the readiness to confront novel challenges when faced with threats) and conservative values (i.e., support- ing a social order governed by norms of security, self-discipline and respect for customs to minimize threats) might be most adaptive for thriving in the mountains."

What about the effects of climate on values? Recall that participants living in colder climates were more likely to embrace values like benevolence and universalism. Stieger et al. didn't comment much on this finding, but other research offers clues to why this correlation cropped up.

Hotter weather can inspire more aggression (thus making the phrase “it got heated” a bit more real). So cooler temperatures might occasion cooler heads, amplifying the appeal of benevolence and concern for the welfare of others. But consider also Social Thermoregulation Theory, which forecasts that lower temperatures prompt people to seek “social warmth” for survival (because hypothermia can kill you). Being closer with (and more cooperative with, so that you can garner the closeness of) other humans literally increases bodily warmth. Plus feeling connected to others has been shown to activate brain regions involved in perceiving physical warmth (thereby reducing how cold people feel) while social rejection and isolation have been found to induce sensations of coldness.

As for the gender differences between men and women in conservation and self enhancement values, research by the originator of the Schwartz Values Theory finds that many cultures encourage men to strive more for power and achievement, leading them to score higher in these values compared to women. Sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen, estradiol...) could also be playing in inclinations towards such values. A 2018 experiment, for instance, found that injecting men with extra testosterone increased how appealing items that increased their social status seemed. This could be interpreted as evidence that testosterone may enhance the appeal of, well, self-enhancement.

Photo by Lisa from Pexels
Source: Photo by Lisa from Pexels

The Takeaway

Where you live, what your surroundings are, and which terrains you traverse on the regular (plus the climate you're steeped in and the gender or sex you call your own) may influence what you consider to be important and which values govern your actions. Take a moment to catalog the values you consider most sacred and consider how your surroundings may have influenced their development.