A Map of Geographical Psychology
Particular traits cluster in particular locales. Psychologists want to know why.
Posted Jul 01, 2018
In 2016, researchers Peter Rentfrow and Markus Jokela published an article that described a new subfield of psychological science called "geographical psychology." In my opinion, their interesting article has received less attention than it deserves.
Geographical psychology examines "the spatial distribution of psychological phenomena and their relations to features of the macro environment" (Rentfrow & Jokela, 2016, p. 393). The basic idea is that some psychological characteristics and outcomes are found more frequently in certain locales and less frequently in other locales. Geographical psychologists like Rentfrow and Jokela want to know why.
Here are just three examples of psychological phenomena that cluster geographically.
- For many years in a row, the state of Montana has had the highest suicide rate in the United States.
- Compared to people who live in large cities, the residents of small cities and towns are more likely to help strangers.
- Violent crime is more common in the American South than in Northern states.
Personality traits have also been found to cluster geographically.
- Higher levels of neuroticism are found on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Levels of neuroticism generally decline as one moves westward.
- Higher levels of openness (to experience) are typically found in cosmopolitan cities that are ethnically diverse.
The list goes on.
- People who live near green spaces report higher levels of well-being and lower levels of stress.
- People in countries that have demanding climates and limited natural resources are especially likely to hold collectivistic values.
According to Rentfrow and Jokela, the uneven geographical distribution of personality traits, values, and attitudes can be explained, in part, by three mechanisms.
- Social Influence. People who live in different countries, different regions, or even different neighborhoods usually follow different customs and norms. These customs and norms affect attitudes and behaviors. In Montana, for example, local norms encourage owning a gun and being emotionally reserved, two factors which appear to be partly responsible for the high suicide rate among Montanans.
- Ecological Factors. Features like climate, the prevalence of disease, and urban crowding can affect the psychological processes of individuals. For example, studies have found that people in countries with a long history of pathogen prevalence tend to be more cautious and less willing to take risks than people in other countries.
- Selective Migration. People who choose to migrate to a new region or country are often psychologically different from their counterparts who choose to stay behind. Studies have found, for example, that immigrants tend to be more intelligent, more open, and more extraverted, whereas people who don't emigrate tend to be slightly more agreeable.
In their article, Rentfrow and Jokela discuss some of the implications of geographical clustering of psychological characteristics. Regions with higher levels of neuroticism tend to have more health problems and lower life expectancies. Individuals tend to move to areas where they can live and work with like-minded comrades, so certain cities and neighborhoods become clearly-defined political enclaves.
To be sure, where you live is not determinative when it comes to psychological traits and related outcomes. Earlier studies by Jokela, for example, have found that one's physical health doesn't change much when someone moves from a wealthier neighborhood to a poorer neighborhood or vice-versa. Moreover, psychological atlases can be misleading. Nevertheless, geographical psychology offers a new approach to identifying and explaining systematic patterns of psychological phenomena.
Rentfrow, P. J., & Jokela, M. (2016). Geographical psychology: The spatial organization of psychological phenomena. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(6), 393-398.