People living in mountain regions have distinct psychological traits, Wild West mentality lingers: Study

The harsh and remote environment of mountainous frontier regions historically attracted nonconformist European settlers strongly motivated by a sense of freedom


                            People living in mountain regions have distinct psychological traits, Wild West mentality lingers: Study
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People who choose to settle in mountainous regions display certain psychological traits that set them apart from the rest, according to a new study. The finding adds weight to the theory that some personalities prefer taking the road less traveled.

Some Europeans settled in the unexplored mountainous terrains of the West, such as the Rockies. “The harsh and remote environment of mountainous frontier regions historically attracted nonconformist settlers strongly motivated by a sense of freedom,” researcher Friedrich Götz from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, said. Götz and his colleagues found that the current residents of these regions rank high on traits such as an openness to experience, toughness, independence, self-reliance and the like. These traits are indicative of the Wild West mentality, Götz explained.

People from different regions show differences in personalities. And this pattern stood out in many countries — from the US to Japan, he told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW). These differences are related to factors such as political, economic, social and health outcomes, Götz added. The team wanted to investigate the origins and mechanisms underlying these differences. "One long-standing hypothesis has been that the physical environment, also known as an ecological influence, is one of the factors that shape who we are. Our current study is to our knowledge the first to show how such objective characteristics of our physical environments relate to our personality," Götz explained.

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What did the study find?

The researchers studied 3.3 million Americans in their study. They took an online personality test to assess five fundamental personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. The results were then matched with their zip codes.

Their analysis found that residents of mountainous regions ranked low on agreeableness, suggesting they are less trusting and forgiving. These traits benefit territorial, self-focused survival strategies. They also were less extroverted, indicating self-reliance. It was the same for conscientiousness and neuroticism. The former signals a rebellious attitude and the latter, emotional stability. All of these traits allow people to prosper in remote regions. These residents showed high levels of openness to new experiences. "A willingness to move your life in pursuit of goals such as economic affluence and personal freedom drove many original North American frontier settlers," Götz said. “Taken together, this psychological fingerprint for mountainous areas may be an echo of the personality types that sought new lives in unknown territories.”

Götz and his colleagues also looked at personality differences between people from the Wild West, such as the Rockies and Eastern ranges such as the Appalachians. Though they showed similar traits, those in the East were more agreeable and outgoing. When the Europeans settled in the West, the frontier spirit emerged and became ingrained in the social fabric (and subsequently handed down). "The Appalachians are not typically regarded as part of the American frontier (Wild West). Hence, in the Eastern mountains, we would not expect to find the socio-cultural frontier heritage that is present in the Rockies," he explained.

As for the limitations, the researchers said their study did not assess if personality changes when people move to, or away from mountainous areas. "This is just the start of our work on ecological influences," Götz noted. "In the future, my colleagues and I seek to also look at other forms of terrain from deserts and swamplands to woods and urban environments," he said, adding they hope to examine their links with personality and other psychological characteristics.

The study is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

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