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Geographical Psychology

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Geographical psychology examines links between location and psychological phenomena, such as how and why personality traits, life satisfaction, and social behavior differ from place to place—or cluster in certain areas. These differences may appear across hemispheres, regions, states, cities, or neighborhoods.

Every location houses psychologically diverse residents. But general differences between populations in distinct places can be informative. If neuroticism or life satisfaction is higher in a certain region, researchers can explore whether geographic aspects of the place, or commonalities among those who choose to live there, might account for the relatively positive or negative trends.

The Link Between Geography and Mental Health

Researchers have long explored the links between geography and mental health, hoping to answer questions such as whether the environment in which we live affects our personalities and influences who we are or who we’re destined to be. Some intriguing research suggests that geography may affect certain aspects of personality: For example, people who live in countries that are exceptionally hot and dry are much less likely to associate the color yellow with happiness than those who live in more temperate regions, where the color of the sun typically signifies positivity and good cheer. There is stronger evidence that the complete set of social, economic, and physical variables that form a community can influence how we feel, what we do, and what we think about our lives. But it may be at least as likely that people simply tend to congregate in environments that best suit their personality; introverts for example, may seek homes in the woods or mountains, while extroverts may move to big cities.

To learn more, see Environment.

Does climate affect personality?

Yes, according to some studies. Research suggests that people who live in regions with more comfortable temperatures—around 72 degrees—tend to rate higher on the personality traits of agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, extraversion, and openness to experience than people from less comfortable regions. Research has not found a definitive reason for the differences, but it’s possible that when local climate enables people to spend more time outside, they may have more social interactions and novel experiences, indirectly influencing their personality.

Does one’s native region influence whether they’re likely to seek psychological help?

In some areas, it does. Research in the United States, for example, has found that people who live in regions that place a higher value on what is sometimes called “honor culture”—primarily in Southern and Mountain West states—are less likely to seek mental health care for themselves or for their children. In surveys, residents of these states place a higher value on self-reliance, toughness, and responding to personal affronts. Some experts trace these values to herder cultures of Europe and elsewhere—in which people primarily lived on their own, and regularly had to protect their livelihood from threats. Such individuals may see mental health care as a sign of weakness or a source of shame—and when they do seek care, it can be hard to find in regions where there is so little demand.

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How Place Connects to Personality

Why might people be more helpful to strangers in smaller cities? Why are those who live in temperate locales apparently more extraverted, on average? Why might different cultural traits emerge in two regions of the same country depending on whether their economies rely on rice or wheat production? It could be that particular environments influence the minds of those who live there. But in their research, Peter Rentfrow and colleagues have suggested that multiple factors lie behind place-trait associations, including local social influences, environmental features such as climate, and population density, as well as what’s known as selective migration—the idea that people with certain traits, such as high openness to experience, may be more inclined to move to places like big cities. A place, then, can shape its people, or people can shape a place.

To learn more, see Cross-Cultural Psychology.

Does feeling that you belong in your community affect your mental health?

Feeling that you belong in your community, and that you are welcome, appear to be significant boosters of mental health. Researchers who examine “place attachment” describe it as a combination of emotion, belief, action, and behavior. In a study in Japan, elderly women who felt attached to their neighborhood were more likely to be alive five years later than women who did not feel the same way. And people who remain in a community long-term appear in research to be much more social than those who move frequently, and to volunteer more regularly.

How are people influenced by their neighbors?

Consciously or not, research suggests, we come to see those who share our neighborhoods as one of our “in-groups,” and we may be influenced by the group’s values and routines or seek out places where people whom we believe are like us live. Some researchers believe they can predict a great deal about one’s personality simply by learning their ZIP code, due to the location’s ecological influences (the way they environment shapes psychological characteristics) and social influences (the way residents affect each other’s thoughts and attitudes as they interact). Selective migration, or one’s interest in living in, or moving to, places that suit their personality, also plays a key role in shaping community personality. For example, people who place a high value on social relationships tend to favor small towns, while people who value novelty and excitement may leave their small town to move to a big city as soon as they are old enough.

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