How Americans' Personalities Are Shaped By Their Natural Surroundings

Grand Teton National Park in Northwest Wyoming, an iconic destination in American mountaineering. Jason Welch/Shutterstock

There’s an old cliché in the United States that people who live in the mountains are cut from a different cloth. So the theory goes, “hill people” live in harsher and more rugged surroundings compared to lowlanders, which helps to foster a uniquely nonconformist personality that prizes toughness, self-reliance, and individual freedom. According to a new study, this idea might not be far wrong.

New research has looked at how the mountainous landscape shapes the psychology and personality types of people living across the US. Reported in the journal Nature Human Behaviour this week, psychologists led by the University of Cambridge in the UK found that people who reside in mountainous US regions, such as the Rocky Mountains in the west and the Appalachian Mountains in the east, tend to have personality traits more closely associated with the "frontier settlement theory," which says the first people from Europe who settled in the US during the colonial era were tough, individualistic, and non-conformists.

According to the researchers, this “Wild West mentality” can still be found in populations that live in mountain regions of the US. 

“The harsh and remote environment of mountainous frontier regions historically attracted nonconformist settlers strongly motivated by a sense of freedom. 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,” lead author Friedrich Götz, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, said in a statement.

“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,” added Götz.

“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 team reached these conclusions by sifting through the results of online personality tests completed by over 3.3 million Americans and how each person lined up with the standard social psychology “Big Five” personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. This was then paired with information on over 37,000 postal codes and the geographical location of populations. 

The found that mountainous residents tend to score lower on "agreeableness," suggesting they are less trusting and forgiving. They also had lower levels of "extraversion," reflecting the introverted self-reliance required to thrive in secluded areas, and a low level of "conscientiousness,” which tends to lend itself to people being rebellious. "Neuroticism" was also level, indicating a personality that is laid back and more emotionally stable. One trait the mountain folk did score highly on, however, was “openness to experience,” indicating curiosity and a propensity to revere freedom over control. 

In the researchers' words, mountain-dwellers have personalities that favor “territorial, self-focused survival strategies”.  

“Taken together, this psychological fingerprint for mountainous areas may be an echo of the personality types that sought new lives in unknown territories,” said Götz. 

However, there were some divisions across the width of the US. For example, people in the Eastern Range were generally more agreeable and outgoing, while those in the Western Range had much higher levels of “openness to experience.” 

But the question remains: do mountainous regions inherently foster these kinds of personalities? Or are these types of people simply attracted to live in this wild environment?

Based on the personalities of people living in other mountainous locations, such as Switzerland and Hokkaido in Japan, the researchers argue that mountainous communities are not universally freedom-loving non-conformists with a relaxed personality. Instead, they argue that socio-cultural factors, like the local culture, education, and in some areas' history, tales of the former "Wild West," are the main driving force behind the shaping of mountainous personalities. However, they hasten to add complex psychological phenomena are influenced by many hundreds of factors, not simply a strong sense of local identity and a few campfire tales.

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