The Personality of a Nation

An estimation of extraversion by state using personality score data. Darker blue = more extraverted, darker red = less extraverted.

Those people. The others. Them.

In recent years, this has become the fashionable way to address those with ideological views that oppose our own. Instead of looking at those we disagree with as individual people trying to do their best (hopefully), we sort them into dehumanizing categories.

I was one of those people. I went to a liberal university in the Northeast and played the part in assuming anyone with a conservative tilt, or even anyone who disagreed with anything I thought, was bad and wrong. This was an easy strategy, as it allowed me to skirt the responsibility of thinking critically about opposing views and accepting influence from others. Simply, others were just bad people and bad people were not reasonable.

Fortunately, sometime during graduate school I picked up a copy of The Righteous Mind by Dr. Jonathan Haidt. I read his work openly and carefully, and as a result, my entire worldview crumbled. I felt how I always imagined late 19th century Europe to have felt when Nietzsche, the self described ‘philosopher with a hammer’, was kicking out the supports of Western culture with his ideas.

A major thesis of The Righteous Mind was that the moral structure of an individual is made up of mostly fixed (by adulthood) personality traits that are definable and measurable. Haidt found that level of expression of these traits within people had tremendous predictive power in understanding their moral landscape. He went further to postulate that people on both sides of controversial topics are capable of good intentions and reason, even if they had opposing physiologically-driven moral priorities.

As a result of Haidt’s work, I obsessively dove into the personality psychology literature, tested myself on every available psychometric assessment, and have constantly exposed to ideas I disagreed with. In doing so, I’ve learned quite a lot. For example, I still, and likely always will, skew heavily liberal on most topics, but I’ve come to respect, admire, and value many conservative leaders and ideas. Also, after taking countless reputable psychometric tests, I discovered that I sit at around 98/100 in trait openness (strong interest in ideas, abstractions, art, etc.) and 8/100 in trait extraversion (little interest in social gatherings, external stimulation, etc.). This likely explains why I’m writing this exploratory article, purely for fun, from within a tiny, sound-proof phone booth in the corner of my floor’s trendy open-office floor plan.

Haidt’s work is fascinating on an individual level, but I’ve always wanted to the explore personality differences of places. I’ve been fortunate to travel all around the states, and have anecdotally observed strong differences in cultural personality. For example, I’ve felt in the way in NYC, like a welcomed guest in the South, judged for being a weirdo on the East coast, or judged for not being weird enough on the West coast. These are obviously just my own observations, but what if there was some way to quantify these observations on a grand scale?

After much scouring of the internet, I found just the data set I was looking for. A personality test application released aggregate personality scores for cities/towns in the United States. It felt like Christmas.

The dataset contained city-wide standard deviation data for the big 5 personality traits, the current standard in personality psychology theory. I’ll let the infographic below explain the traits, which I found from this source.

Much research has spawned from big 5 analysis. For example, numerous studies indicate traits openness and conscientiousness having an effect on voting preference (openness tends to positively correlate with liberal voting and conscientiousness tends to positively correlate with conservative voting, though a little less so).

To test this theory, I compared the personality scores between the liberal metropolis of NYC and a small town in the typically conservative state of Wyoming.

Comparing big 5 personality scores between New York, NY and Campbell, WY.

Looking at the charts above, the quantified traits really capture the cultural ‘feel’ of each location. For example, the high conscientiousness in Campbell supports the sense of hard work and self reliance that iconifies the American west. The low agreeableness in NYC backs up the fast paced and assertive atmosphere found in the Big Apple and its off-the-charts openness matches its status as one the artistic capitals of the world. However, while these are just assumptions, the chart does support the research on voting. Campbell, WY tends to vote conservative and NYC tends to vote liberal, and the levels of openness and conscientiousness back this up.

As interesting as these comparisons are, I’ve always wanted to create a map of personality traits on the national level. However, before doing just that, I need to make a disclaimer on my visualizations. My excitement in making these maps led me into a few common data visualization pitfalls. First, my data is incomplete. I do not have scores for every county. Second, I am extrapolating a state personality score from the mean scores across all counties within that state. This is prone to error in that mostly conservative states (like New Mexico) can have a very liberal city (like Santa Fe) that skews the averages of the traits (like openness). These maps are super fun, interesting, and thought provoking, but keep in mind they are not fully comprehensive.

An estimation of agreeableness by state using personality score data. Darker blue = more agreeable, darker red = less agreeable.
An estimation of conscientiousness by state using personality score data. Darker blue = more conscientious, darker red = less conscientious.
An estimation of neuroticism by state using personality score data. Darker blue = more negative emotion, darker red = less negative emotion.

Again, these maps are more the product of eagerness and less of statistical rigor, so take them with a grain of salt. However, I hope you find them as interesting as I have and can use them as a low resolution guide for navigating the underlying psychological underpinnings of regional moral values.

You’ll probably notice I did not include trait openness. This is because cities tend to be higher in openness than rural areas, regardless of the state. This pattern skewed the state averages so much that the trait-by-state visualization was not useful. However, I made a new map showing county averages (average of available city/town scores) for openness that proved useful. It’s rather sparse from a lack of data and I have a hunch that the blue areas more or less map to cities, but it’s still an interesting visual.

Trait openness by county. Darker blue = more openness darker red = less openness.

What is even more interesting is how similar the county averages in trait openness compare to the 2016 election results by county. I made the election results map below from this 2016 election data. Notice any similarities to the above openness by county map?

2016 election popular vote results by county. Darker red = higher percentage of the vote was republican and darker blue = higher percentage of the vote was democratic.

While the empirical validity of these maps may not qualify as sound research, extrapolating the effect of personality traits on our values, morals, and actions to a regional level has been an illuminating thought experiment. In the end, humans are immensely complex and for the most part, I’m not convinced we fully understand the underlying principles to our actions. At the very least, personality research can help us understand and empathize with the ‘other’. The more of this we do, the closer we get to closing the cultural divide we face today.

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