Geographical Attractors: How Personality and Place Affect Personal Flourishing

A lot of us romanticize travel, and I was no exception. Four years ago, I quit my job, filled a small pack with all I needed, and set off in pursuit of this vague thing called “world travel.”

One thinker that inspired the trip was the Roman philosopher Seneca. In his letter On Travel as a Cure for Discontent, Seneca cautions his friend Lucilius against using travel to escape from his problems:

“Socrates made the same remark to one who complained; he said: ‘Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.’ What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.”

I know it’s ironic that a letter about not traveling inspired me to travel, but here is how I saw it: If, as Seneca says, the wise man can be content no matter where he goes, then it follows (I thought) that travel should have no effect on my well-being.

It took me two years and many long bouts of loneliness to realize I was deluding myself. Despite my romantic ideal of independent self-reliance, place did affect my well-being. A lot.

Some destinations (Thailand and Japan come to mind) were wonderful. I stayed as long as my visas allowed. Other countries were not — one rainy February night in Taiwan nearly brought me to tears. I changed my flights so I could get out sooner.

Call me a weak man, but it turns out there’s much research to support this. Place, environment and culture all have a tremendous impact on our well-being.

And, even more interestingly, the effect a place has on you depends on your personality.

A Roll of the Dice?

Personalities differ, and these personalities interact with the world in different ways. The match between personality and place can do a lot to help or hurt your quality of life.

Here’s Harvard psychologist Brian Little in his book Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being:

“The situations and settings of our everyday lives play an important role in the quality of our lives. The better the ‘fit’ between a person’s biogenic traits and the characteristics of the environment, the better the consequences for well–being.”

By “biogenic traits”, Little refers to the genetic, inherited parts of our personalities. This might frighten some people, but it’s clear that ~40–50% of our personality is inherited. This plays a big role in who you are and where you go in life.

Interestingly, you can already detect signs of introversion-extraversion in babies:

“…features of personality can be detected in the neonatal ward. If you make a loud noise near the newborns, what will they do? Some will orient toward the noise, and others will turn away. Those who are attracted to the noise end up being extraverts later in development; those who turn away are more likely to end up being introverts.”

Of course, introversion-extraversion is just one part of personality, and but let’s use it to understand how place and personality intersect.

Place x Personality

As we saw with the babies above, introverts are more sensitive to stimulus from the environment. These differences affect how we react to and see the world:

“…extraverts are highly sensitive to reward cues and reward opportunities. When they look out at their environments they see the positive possibilities around them. Reward cues do not motivate introverts as much; indeed, particularly if they are also neurotic, introverts are hypersensitive to punishment cues. Extraverts and introverts can see virtually identical events and construe them in radically different ways.

Some people think talking about biological traits is depressing and self-limiting, but I think it’s freeing.

At my high school, it felt like a moral failing if you didn’t show up at the local Muvico theater on Friday nights. I preferred to stay at home, but I convinced myself there was something wrong with me for not enjoying the same things extraverted kids did.

Now, I realize it’s okay. Screw parties and movies — I’m staying at home to read books on, well, personality psychology.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Since your traits affect how you see, feel and react to the environment, it’s not a big leap to recognize that your personality type may affect how you react to your culture as well.

I live in Japan now, and it’s more introvert-friendly than other countries. I don’t have to deal with awkward conversations with grocery store cashiers, and nobody talks to me on the train.

Other countries — including the US — are rougher for introverts. In fact, this is the key theme of Susan Cain’s influential book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Commenting on Cain, Little writes:

“As Cain describes in compelling detail, many classrooms are designed for group activities that work, as we have seen, to the disadvantage of introverts. Many of the professional schools in business administration and related fields place a premium on the extraverted interaction style: fast, intense, and, well, noisy.”

This isn’t to say that everything about Japan is introvert-friendly. Thirty minutes on a commuter train leaves me too tired & useless to do anything for the rest of the day:

A Short, Short Tour of Personality

So far, we’ve only been looking at introversion-extraversion. However, there are actually five biogenic traits that psychologists talk about.

When you gather a lot of data related to personality, you find that people consistently vary on five different scales. Psychologists call this the five-factor model. (Note: This is well-researched stuff, with over 250,000 hits on Google Scholar)

Here’s psychologist Daniel Nettle in book that introduces personality psychology:

“The five-factor model has emerged from a welter of research over the last few decades and looks to be the most comprehensive, reliable and useful framework for discussing human personality that we have ever had. The idea of the model is that there are five major dimensions along which all human characters vary. Thus, any individual can be given five scores that will tell us a great deal about the ways they are liable to behave through their lives.”

The five traits are easy to remember if you use the acronym CANOE (for extra memory oomph, think of a CANOE in the OCEAN, both acronyms work):

  • Conscientiousness — Organized, dependable, self-disciplined
  • Agreeableness — More compassionate and cooperative than suspicious and confrontational
  • Neuroticism — High levels of anxiety, worry, fear, etc. and you respond highly to negative stressors
  • Openness to experience — Exactly what it says — you’re open to trying new things.
  • Extraversion — The polar opposite of what I am

If you want more detailed definitions, Wikipedia has a nice page on the Big Five personality traits.

For our purposes, here’s what you need to know:

  • Traits are heritable. Twin studies show us that ~50% of the variation in your Big Five traits is due to genetics, and the rest comes from the environment (which is a lot of things that we don’t understand well).
  • Your traits stay (pretty) stable over time. If you test people 10+ years later, they’ll score in a similar way — as similar, in fact, as if you’d tested them 10 minutes later. There are also some predictable changes that happen as you get older.

Now, let’s get to the meat of this essay. It turns out that it’s not just people that have different personalities — places have personalities too.

The Geography of Personality

When you look at the distribution of personality traits on a map, some interesting patterns emerge.

Here are some maps of the US, which come from research by Rentfrow and Gosling at the University of Texas:

Notice how there are clusters of people with different traits. New York has deep red clusters of people high in ‘openness to experience’ and ‘neuroticism’.

Here’s Little:

“With respect to openness to experience, the disposition to be exploratory, curious, and creative, the Northeast dominates, particularly so New York City, where there is a disproportionately large number of people in the creative and artistic professions. This is consistent with what we know about the demography of creativity. New York attracts an extraordinary diversity of individuals who selectively migrate to where there is ample room to pursue audacious projects and other talented individuals who might support those pursuits. Did North Dakota score at the extreme on openness as well? Yes, indeed — dead last!”

The large number of creatives & artists in New York may also explain why the city has so many neurotic people, who tend to be emotionally unstable, anxious and impulsive.

(The above diagram comes from Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City?, which might be worth reading if you want to know more about this stuff.)

Why Cluster?

Since we’re confident traits stay stable over time, it’s not that likely that cities are transforming people’s personalities.

If so, how do we explain the clusters? Well, it’s possible — and this is fascinating to think about — that people are moving to places that fit their personalities:

“The significance of this work for the study of personality is that it highlights some of the sources of potential malaise in our daily lives as well as the joys of living in places that resonate with us. I expect that we will find strong pressures to migrate elsewhere on individuals who are living in cities that are discordant with their own personality. It is unlikely that someone transplanted to New York City who is affable, closed-minded, and devoid of any trace of neuroticism is likely to fare well in the Big Apple. Far better, perhaps, that he flies off to Fargo.”

Alternatively, you can think of places as “geographical attractors” that pull people with certain personality profiles towards them. This isn’t that surprising — different professions exert a “pull” on different personalities; why not geography too?

Migration doesn’t explain everything, but it certainly seems relevant in my case. I love it here in Japan and have no plans to leave.

Death by Environment

So what happens to us when we are constantly in an environment that doesn’t match our personality? Well, it seems the chronic stress of acting “unlike yourself” can take a big toll on the body:

“[An] agreeable woman who is required by her law firm to suppress her pleasantness and act aggressively may experience signs of autonomic arousal — such as increased heart rate, sweating, muscle tension, and a stronger startle response. If the culture of the law firm is that you simply do not talk about such matters, that it would be unprofessional to vent, the costs will be particularly taxing.”

Regularly “not being yourself” may be akin to running weekly hyper-marathons — where the collective stress to your joints risks leaving you arthritic and hobbled in old age.

Personality R&R

It’s a fantasy to think we can all move away to the city or culture best fit for our personalities. Life, circumstances and responsibilities always get in the way. Plus, you may have good reasons to stay where you are — friends, family, personal projects, and career come to mind.

Luckily, Little shares a way to deal with environmental stress. A heavy introvert, Little would find himself fatigued by long lectures at the Royal Military College in Quebec. To help restore himself, he did the following:

“…instead of lunching with the officers, I could take a walk by the Richelieu River that ran alongside the lecture theater. My pretext was a keen interest in the variety of craft that sailed along the Richelieu, but, of course, my main motivation was more strategic. I needed to lower my arousal level.”

Little calls these places and activities where we can go to “be ourselves” restorative niches.

For an extravert, parties and other social events may be the restorative niche of choice. A diligent, high-conscientiousness type may enjoy cleaning out his hard drive. Others may enjoy soothing music. And so on.

Like Little, one of my favorite restorative niches are long walks in the mountains near my house. You know, I think I’ll go take one now. Thanks for reading