Living in the Mountains Could Mean You're More Likely to Have These Personality Traits

The mountainousness of where Americans live could be a good predictor of their personality, according to a study.

A team of researchers found that people living in parts of the United States characterized by higher altitude and elevation compared to the surrounding areas tend to have a particular mix of personality traits that may have roots in the history of settlement across the country.

For a paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the scientists wanted to investigate how the physical features of the United States related to the psychological traits of Americans. An idea known as "frontier settlement theory" suggests that the topography of a landscape is important in the makeup of peoples' personalities across a given region.

To understand more, the researchers examined the results of an online personality test taken by more than 3.3 million Americans and compared them to the topography of areas covered by 37,000 ZIP codes across the country.

The online survey looked at the "Big Five" traits that are the most widely accepted model of personality in academic psychology; extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism.

Each trait—which tend to remain relatively stable throughout a person's lifetime—represents a range. For every participant, the survey produced high-to-low scores for each trait.

The researchers' analysis revealed that people living in mountainous areas of the United States tended to be lower in agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism and conscientiousness but higher in openness to experience when compared to a set of controls.

The researchers say that lower agreeableness indicates that mountain dwellers are less trusting and forgiving—traits that could be beneficial for "territorial, self-focused survival strategies."

Low scores when it comes to extraversion are indicative of the fact that people living in secluded areas need to be able to thrive in isolated settings, the scientists say. Low conscientiousness, on the other hand, may represent a spirit of rebelliousness and an indifference to rules, according to the team.

Lower scores for neuroticism suggest that people living in mountainous areas are emotionally stable and assertive, which may also likely be beneficial for their secluded lifestyles.

Lastly, the team found that mountain dwellers tended to be particularly high in openness to experience. According to the researchers this particular set of personality traits could be linked to the history of human migration in the country.

Teton Range, Wyoming
The Teton Range is shown here in Grand Teton National Park on June 13, 2020 outside Jackson, Wyoming George Frey/Getty Images

"The harsh and remote environment of mountainous frontier regions historically attracted non-conformist settlers strongly motivated by a sense of freedom," Friedrich Götz, lead author of the study from the University of Cambridge, England, said in a statement.

"Such rugged terrain likely favored those who closely guarded their resources and distrusted strangers, as well as those who engaged in risky explorations to secure food and territory.

"These traits may have distilled over time into an individualism characterized by toughness and self-reliance that lies at the heart of the American frontier ethos," Götz said.

"When we look at personality across the whole United States, we find that mountainous residents are more likely to have psychological characteristics indicative of this frontier mentality."

The researchers highlighted the fact that mountain dwellers were particularly high in openness to experience, which Götz said was a strong predictor of people moving away from their homes.

"A willingness to move your life in pursuit of goals such as economic affluence and personal freedom drove many original North American frontier settlers," he said. "Taken together, this psychological fingerprint for mountainous areas may be an echo of the personality types that sought new lives in unknown territories."

The researchers also found significant differences between mountain dwellers in the former "Wild West"—in the Rockies, for example—and those in eastern ranges like the Appalachians. They observed that those in the east tend to be more agreeable and outgoing than people living in western mountain ranges.

According to the study, this suggests that while the direct effects of the physical environment are important in shaping personality traits, the sociocultural influence of growing up where frontier values are prevalent may have more influence on psychological traits in the west of the country.

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