Wednesday, September 24, 2008

United States of Mind: a study that supports and undermines stereotypes, some of them rural

There may be evidence to back up some state stereotypes. Psychologists have released a study based on more than 600,000 online surveys collected from 1999 to 2005 that correlate traits in states: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness to new ideas.

Is the Californian really laid back and the New Yorker uptight? Some common stereotypes rang true, with New York ranking high in anxiety and California high in openness. But some outocmes were surprising, such as North Dakota's lead in extraversion and agreeableness. (Remember the movie "Fargo"?)

"A state's dominant personality turns out to be strongly linked to certain outcomes," Stephanie Simon writes for the Wall Street Journal. "Amiable states, like Minnesota, tend to be lower in crime. Dutiful states -- an eclectic bunch that includes New Mexico, North Carolina and Utah -- produce a disproportionate share of mathematicians."

The study identified what could be called a "neurosis belt" that connected the seemingly disparate Northeast with more rural, poorer states like Kentucky, Arkansas and Mississippi. The latter "tend to have higher rates of heart disease and lower life expectancy," Simon says, in an effort to explain the phenomenon.

Experts emphasize the limitations of the study and warn people not to draw overly simplistic conclusions about an area. The questionnaires were based on current residence, not native status, and lead researcher Peter Jason Renfrow, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge in England, admits there is an underrepresentation of rich and poor. Some of the rankings are revealing in their own right, though. Extraversion "is defined in part by stong social networks and tight community bonds, which are characteristic of small towns across the Great Plains," Simon writes.

The usefulness of the study is debatable, but Simon suggests possible benefits. "In the Northeast 'stress belt,' health officials might consider programs to help folks relax," she writes. "In the Midwest, a dutiful state like Kansas might look to woo more innovative personalities, perhaps by nurturing an artists' enclave or encouraging young chefs to start restaurants." The study, despite its naysayers, may be a way for states to identify which traits they do and do not like about themselves and change. "It's also a wake-up call for proud residents of the great state of wherever -- some of whom aren't fond of the findings," adds Simon.

Whatever the study's usefulness, it at least sparked some interesting commentary. In Mississippi, ranked fourth in neuroticism, Ted Ownby, who studies Southern culture at the University of Mississippi, has found a way to be proud of the label. "Here in the home of William Faulkner," he told Simon, "we take intense, almost perverse neuroticism as a sign of emotional depth." Read the whole article here.

No comments: