You Are Where You Live

Map out your destiny through the study of geopsychology
Scientists in the emerging field believe there’s a link between location and personality. Photo: Drew Dau

By Dimitri Ehrlich

In the age-old battle of nature versus nurture, a new field of inquiry has raised some startling questions. Geopsychology, the study of how certain personality traits seem to be more common in various parts of the world, suggests that where we live may directly correlate with our disposition. 

Or course, correlation isn’t the same thing as causation, and it’s hard to say whether for example, a higher percentage of well-mannered people want to live in Savannah, Georgia, or it’s the impact of living in Savannah that makes you more likely to say “thank you, ma’am,” after being offered a cool glass of sweet tea.

Geopsychology researchers are exploring the varied ways a person’s surroundings might influence behavior, emotions and thought processes, and are beginning to map the way locale affects mental health, attitudes and behavior.

Without having even heard the term “geopsychology,” one might already be familiar with some stereotypes: the brash, neurotic New York banker, the laid-back Southern California surfer, or the stoic and saturnine fisherman from Maine. 

But even if research shows that there is some statistical truth to these cliches, the question remains: Has the environment in which these types of people live triggered some sort of epigenetic shift that caused their personality traits? And if so, how?

In 1981, psychologist Lew Goldberg coined the term “Big Five,” identifying what he saw as five core personality factors: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. 

A 2021 study found that in the U.S., Southerners are indeed more agreeable, while Northeasterners are more neurotic—but as you might expect, the usual stereotypes don’t always hold up.

Dominique Samuels, a clinical psychologist based in San Francisco who works as an executive coach with clients around the world, says she believes that there might very well be something to geopsychology. “I have found there to be some truth to the idea that you can expect certain personality traits to be more common in specific parts of the world,” she says. “However, it’s an open question as to how much the environment itself accounts for these personality groupings versus how much culture and social norms may impact individual traits and characteristics.” 

If there is truth to geopsychology, one question is how climate change might alter the equation. “We may begin to see modifications in population characteristics based on shifts in resource diversity and other related impacts of global warming,” says Samuels. Could a warming biosphere turn more of us into a nation of hotheads? Geopsychology just might hold the answer.