Smiling Scots, worried Welsh and lazy Londoners: survey maps regional personality types

Funny Scottish Man

New research by Cambridge scientists analyses the way different personalities cluster across Great Britain

The finding may be no surprise to those outside the M25, but Londoners rank among the least welcoming and most lazy people in the country, according to a survey of personalities in Great Britain.

Though more curious and sociable than most, people living in the capital came across as uncooperative, quarrelsome and irritable compared to the rest of Britain, and scored particularly badly on conscientiousness.

The dim view of London’s residents emerged from a survey by Cambridge scientists that provides a rare snapshot of the country’s psychological landscape. It suggests that different personalities cluster together to create a patchwork of regional characters.

According to the survey, the most friendly and emotionally stable Britons were found in Scotland, while Wales was home to a disproportionate number of shy and neurotic people.

“There’s a widespread belief that people in different parts of the country have different characters and in some ways this research was testing that idea,” Jason Rentfrow, a psychologist at Cambridge University, told the Guardian.

The findings, published in the journal Plos One, go beyond reinforcing, or in some cases, overturning, tired regional stereotypes. Psychological factors can have a significant impact on public health, and understanding the reasons they cluster in geographical areas can help with local policies to improve people’s wellbeing.

A geographical breakdown of ‘agreeableness’ across England, Scotland and Wales
A geographical breakdown of ‘agreeableness’ across England, Scotland and Wales Illustration: Jason Rentfrow

“We know that conscientiousness affects physical health, for example, and part of the reason is that conscientious people are more risk averse, and more likely to get medical help early on when they have symptoms,” said Rentfrow. “On the other hand, less conscientious people are more likely to blow things off and that could affect their prognosis.”

If scientists can tease out why healthy psychological attitudes, such as conscientiousness and emotional stability, are prominent in some regions, they might be able to boost them elsewhere.

“Perhaps in addition to creating new jobs, or providing better healthcare in some of these areas, it is worthwhile considering the psychological dimensions, and trying to improve those too,” Rentfrow said.

The researchers used an online survey to quiz nearly 400,000 people across Britain on five major personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. They then created maps to show how levels of the psychological traits varied across 380 local authority districts in England, Wales and Scotland. The data from Northern Ireland were too sparse to draw any firm conclusions from.

That personality types clustered together was no surprise, Rentfrow said. People with similar psychological traits can congregate in the same areas for various reasons, but the scientists highlight three in their study. The first is that social traditions and customs of a particular area shape people’s lifestyles and influence their attitudes and behaviour. A second reason is that the physical environment affects people’s thoughts and feelings. For example, areas prone to infectious diseases could make people behave more cautiously. A third, and strong, reason is that people choose to live in places that satisify their psychological needs. More agreeable people tend to move around less, and opt instead to stay among the family and friends they grew up with. Whether they stay because they are friendly, or are friendly because they stay, remains an open question.

In the survey, London scored highly on extraverts, along with other parts of southern England, Yorkshire, Manchester and pockets of Scotland. The least extraverted were found in the east midlands, Humberside, the north of England and east Scotland. Extraverts are more likely to move away from home to urban areas to improve their chances of a good education and better jobs.

Neuroticism in Great Britain
If scientists are able to discover why healthy psychological attitudes prevail in certain regions, they may be able to boost them elsewhere Illustration: Jason Rentfrow

The most open people seemed to congregate in cities, from London, Oxford and Cambridge to Brighton, Bristol, Manchester and Glasgow, the survey found. Beyond Scotland, the friendliest places were found in the north, south west and east of England.

Much of Wales and districts in the midlands had high levels of anxious, depressed and temperamental people. The south west, southern England and most of Scotland had more emotionally stable populations, where people came over as more calm and relaxed. These traits might in some way be infectious, Rentfrow said, with emotional feelings spreading and taking hold in communities.

“Part of our thinking is that clustering of emotional stability is related to us catching the emotions of people we spend time with. If you spend time with anxious and depressed people it will affect you,” said Rentfrow. “In Wales and some other areas, it may be that a history of high unemployment, from the loss of mining, for example, has had an impact on people’s perspectives on life.”

The survey revealed further links between different personalities and how people tend to vote in elections. Conscientiousness was more common among conservative voters in the 2005 and 2010 elections, while more neurotic regions more often voted for Labour.

Powered by article was written by Ian Sample, science editor, for The Guardian on Wednesday 25th March 2015 00.01 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010