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Physical topography is associated with human personality

Abstract

Regional differences in personality are associated with a range of consequential outcomes. But which factors are responsible for these differences? Frontier settlement theory suggests that physical topography is a crucial factor shaping the psychological landscape of regions. Hence, we investigated whether topography is associated with regional variation in personality across the United States (n = 3,387,014). Consistent with frontier settlement theory, results from multilevel modelling revealed that mountainous areas were lower on agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism and conscientiousness but higher on openness to experience. Conditional random forest algorithms confirmed mountainousness as a meaningful predictor of personality when tested against a conservative set of controls. East–west comparisons highlighted potential differences between ecological (driven by physical features) and sociocultural (driven by social norms) effects of mountainous terrain.

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Fig. 1: Illustration of mountainousness measure.
Fig. 2: Topographical map of the United States based on mountainousness measure.
Fig. 3: Variable importance value plots.
Fig. 4: Effects of mountainousness on personality.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request. The personality data from the Gosling–Potter Internet Personality Project are propriety data and may not currently be shared publicly. To enquire about access to these proprietary data, please contact S.D.G. (samg@austin.utexas.edu). The mountainousness measure (based on standard deviation in elevation across a 20-/50-mile radius from one’s ZIP code of living) was developed by the research team, extracting topographical information from satellite images and geocoordinates. As such, a dataset containing the three mountainousness measures for the United States, as well as corresponding code, are available on our project page on the OSF (https://osf.io/y2mdw/). The sociodemographic ZIP code-level data are freely available from the United States Census Bureau and can be publicly accessed (https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs).

Code availability

The analysis scripts are available as R code and SPSS syntax files on our OSF project page (https://osf.io/y2mdw/).

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Acknowledgements

The present research was supported by doctoral scholarships of the Economic and Social Research Council and the Cambridge Trust to F.M.G. We thank S. Volsa (Karl-Landsteiner University of Health Sciences, Austria) for assistance with visualization of our mountainousness measure, and A. Gvirtz (University of Cambridge, UK) for aesthetic and moral support. We also thank A. Nehrlich (University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany) for kindly allowing us to run some of the more computationally heavy analyses remotely. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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F.M.G. and S.S. conceived the core research idea and designed the study. S.D.G. and J.P. collected and preprocessed the data from the Gosling–Potter Internet Personality Project. S.S. developed the mountainousness measure and collected the corresponding topographical information. F.M.G. analysed the data. F.M.G., S.D.G. and P.J.R. wrote the manuscript. S.S. contributed to interpretation of the results and provided critical revisions. All authors approved the final version of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Friedrich M. Götz or Peter J. Rentfrow.

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Götz, F.M., Stieger, S., Gosling, S.D. et al. Physical topography is associated with human personality. Nat Hum Behav 4, 1135–1144 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0930-x

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