A Theory of the Emergence, Persistence, and Expression of Geographic Variation in Psychological Characteristics

Perspect Psychol Sci. 2008 Sep;3(5):339-69. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00084.x.


Volumes of research show that people in different geographic regions differ psychologically. Most of that work converges on the conclusion that there are geographic differences in personality and values, but little attention has been paid to developing an integrative account of how those differences emerge, persist, and become expressed at the geographic level. Drawing from research in psychology and other social sciences, we present a theoretical account of the mechanisms through which geographic variation in psychological characteristics emerge and persist within regions, and we propose a model for conceptualizing the processes through which such characteristics become expressed in geographic social indicators. The proposed processes were examined in the context of theory and research on personality traits. Hypotheses derived from the model were tested using personality data from over half a million U.S. residents. Results provided preliminary support for the model, revealing clear patterns of regional variation across the U.S. and strong relationships between state-level personality and geographic indicators of crime, social capital, religiosity, political values, employment, and health. Overall, this work highlights the potential insights generated by including macrolevel perspectives within psychology and suggests new routes to bridging theory and research across several disciplines in the social sciences.