Is the Rust Belt’s Personality Getting In The Way Of Its Revitalization?

Map showing clusters of personality traits by state.  Source: Rentfrow et al, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

The Atlantic Cities wrote this week about a pretty interesting story about a study highlighting differences in personality traits by region throughout the country.

From the Atlantic Cities piece by Richard Florida:

“We all have our handy stereotypes for regional personalities, of course. Stolid Midwesterners, indolent but mercurial Southerners, and nervous, fast-talking New Yorkers make repeat appearances in pop culture. But can we identify the actual psychology, the deep personality traits that define regional distinctiveness?

Those questions are at the center of a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social and Health Correlates” is a collaboration among a team of leading social psychologists including Peter J. Renfrow (whose research I have long admired and with whom I’ve collaborated), Michal Kosinski, and David J. Stillwell of the University of Cambridge; Markus Jokela of the University of Helsinki; Samuel D. Gosling of the University of Texas at Austin; and Jeff Potter.”

Social psychologists may think this research is interesting on its own merits, and I suppose it is, if it hasn’t been quantified in any way before.  But Mr. Florida is right that most people have handy stereotypes for people in different regions, and the study seems to confirm our opinions.  Generally, the Midwest and South are “Friendly and Conventional”: extroverted yet emotionally stable, agreeable and conscientious, but not especially open to new experiences.  The Northeast is “Tempermental and Uninhibited”: highly neurotic with low levels of extroversion (this was a surprise to me), low levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness (I guess people in the Northeast are the “honey badgers” of America), but they do display higher levels of openness.  Those on the West Coast are “Relaxed and Creative”: oriented toward creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, with lower levels of extroversion and neuroticism.

A lot of people like to use data like this within a political context.  However, the study’s authors also point out its implications for economic development, suggesting that their study and recent research has found that personality traits with high levels of openness and low levels of neuroticism are linked to economic innovation and prosperity.

The low levels of openness is what struck me as it relates to the Midwest in general and the Rust Belt in particular, and can be viewed as an obstacle for its revitalization.  The Rust Belt needs the contributions of outsiders to reach its full economic potential, but if we’re not open to them, support them and give them the room to grow, the Rust Belt’s economic ceiling becomes a lot lower.

One thought though: the South shares many of the same personality traits as the Midwest, yet it was able to substantially grow its metros over the last 60 years or so.  Is there a lesson there for the Rust Belt?  Possibly — you could argue that Southern metros were able to grow because they had very low labor costs and land costs relative to other U.S. regions, and that was a key factor in attracting new businesses.  Increasingly Rust Belt metros are becoming low labor and land cost areas, relative to the coasts (and even to parts of the South), and that could become a factor in their rebirth.

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