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Divided We Stand

The standard way of dividing up the country is based on economic indicators, voting patterns, cultural stereotypes, or geographical and physical features, but a 2013 study suggests that clustering regions by psychological traits may be more useful to understanding why we are so divided.

This study was conducted well before the seismic results of the 2016 National election, but it may still shed some light on the Republican electorate and provides a more complicated understanding of contemporary conservatism.

Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social, and Health Correlates suggests that “psychological forces might be the mediating or causal factors responsible for regional variations.”

Author Peter J. Rentfrow along with five co-authors, explored the results of standardized personality tests given to 1.6 million people in the United States from 1999 to 2010. They used cluster analysis to identify 3 robust psychological profiles:

  1. Friendly & Conventional
  2. Relaxed & Creative
  3. Temperamental & Uninhibited.

Friendly and Conventional Region

The midwest and much of the south are Friendly and Conventional:

“This region “reflects Middle America, or “Red” states. Not only is this region in the geographical center of the country, the psychological profile and all the social indicators betray a region that is marked by conservative social values.

The Friendly & Conventional region… is “less affluent, has fewer highly educated residents, and is less innovative compared with states in the other regions. States in this region also appeared to have higher levels of social capital and less social tolerance compared with states in other regions. Moreover, Friendly & Conventional states were more politically conservative and Protestant compared with other regions.

For people with Friendly & Conventional psychological profiles, settling near family and friends helps them to preserve and maintain intimate social relationships that can bring fulfillment and support throughout life. This notion is consistent with the comparatively high rates of social capital observed in this region, as well as the positive associations with political conservatism and rates of Protestantism. If residents of this region are indeed placing a particular importance on traditional family values, it might help explain why the economic indicators are comparatively low in this part of the country because people might be choosing to stay near family and friends and thus forgoing educational and career opportunities that require relocating.”

The region is defined by moderately high levels of Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness, moderately low Neuroticism, and very low Openness. This configuration of traits portrays the sort of person who is sociable, considerate, dutiful, and traditional.”

Relaxed & Creative Region

The western third of the United States is the primary Relaxed & Creative Region; the mid and upper Atlantic states are secondary.

“The Relaxed & Creative region is “culturally and ethnically more diverse than states in other regions. It also appears… wealthier, has more highly educated residents, and is more innovative than other regions… levels of social capital are comparatively low, residents are socially tolerant and accepting, and levels of residential mobility are comparatively high in this region. States in this region cast fewer ballots for conservative presidential candidates… compared with states in other regions.

There are disproportionate numbers of non-White residents in this region, in addition to people who are wealthy, educated, and economically innovative. Social capital is comparatively low here, but tolerance for cultural diversity and alternative lifestyles is high. This is an area where significant numbers of people are choosing to settle, as indicated by the positive association with residential mobility. It is also a place where residents are politically liberal, as well as psychologically and physically healthy.

The psychological profile of this region is marked by low Extraversion and Agreeableness, very low Neuroticism, and very high Openness. In general, the qualities of this region depict a place where open-mindedness, tolerance, individualism, and happiness are valued.”

Temperamental and Uninhibited Region

The Temperamental & Uninhibited region comprises states predominantly in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. This region is made up of the quintessential Blue states (with the exception of Texas.)


“Residents of this region were more affluent than residents of other states…. residents of this region also appear to be politically liberal, as evidenced by the negative association with votes for Republican presidential candidates. There also appear to be smaller proportions of Protestants in this region.

Residents of this region also appear to be politically liberal and not mainline Protestants. Overall, it appears that this psychological region is a place where residents are passionate, competitive, and liberal.

The psychological profile of the region is defined by low Extraversion, very low Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, very high Neuroticism, and moderately high Openness. This particular configuration of traits depicts the type of person who is reserved, aloof, impulsive, irritable, and inquisitive.

The psychological profile common in this region reflects the characteristics of residents who have chosen not to move to another region.”

“The psychological regions resemble, to some degree political regions: (91%) primary states located in the individualistic political region (where government’s sole function is to maintain a healthy economy) are located in the Temperamental & Uninhibited region, and (70%) primary states in the traditional political region (where government’s sole function is to maintain the status quo) are located in the Friendly & Conventional region.”

  • “In left-leaning regions, it appears that residents are generally open, reserved, and socially distant.”
  • “In right-leaning regions, residents appear to be friendly, warm, dutiful, and traditional.”
  • “It is also noteworthy that so-called Blue states were divided into two separate psychological regions, suggesting there are distinct psychological profiles differentiating East Coast from West Coast liberals.”

2016 Presidential Election by State

Note: Large chunks of the study (indented or in “) were abstracted and re-ordered in this blog post to improve quick readability by making it less academic. Apologies to the original authors for errors in over-generalization or interpretation. Be sure to consult the full study as written for more accuracy and detail. Obviously, at the level of State data, much local diversity is obscured, particularly between rural and urban areas. Clearly the U.S. political landscape has changed remarkably since the first decade of this century, but the study raises the perspective that one’s political world-view probably has much to do with personality as is also suggested by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book (also 2013) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divide by Politics and Religion. See also Moral Reframing for Conservative/Liberal Conversations.

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