They say that birds of a feather flock together – so how does your personality fit with the people living nearby? Do you sometimes wish you lived among people who were just a bit more adventurous? Or would you prefer to live in a quieter, more reserved city?
These were the kinds of questions that Wiebke Bleidorn, at the University of California, Davis hoped to answer with her latest research project. Using a vast online survey of more than 500,000 participants, she has profiled 860 cities across the United States of America.
The survey measured the so-called “Big Five” personality traits (emotional stability, extraversion, openness to new experiences, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) using well-established questionnaires developed by other psychologists.
Of the 860 cities profiled, just 70 were more emotionally unstable than New York
Sure enough, certain patterns emerged in their responses, recently published in Psychological Science journal. True to the neurotic stereotype, New Yorkers tended to be slightly less emotionally stable than people in San Francisco, say; indeed, of the 860 cities measured, just 70 cities had lower scores than New York, with North Hollywood in Los Angeles, Canton in Ohio and Mount Prospect in Illinois appearing in the bottom 10. In stark contrast, the citizens of Jackson in Madison County, Tennessee, appear to be remarkably well-adjusted, scoring highly on conscientiousness, agreeableness and emotional stability.
The most extrovert city, meanwhile, was Whitewater in Wisconsin, known for its university and the “witches’ triangle” of graveyards that have inspired some chilling ghost stories. Clearly, the threat of the supernatural hasn’t stopped the locals from enjoying themselves.
Bleidorn emphasises that the differences are relatively humble – “the variation between cities is way smaller than the variation between individuals”. What’s more, she points out that small cities were more likely to appear at the extremes, perhaps because differences start to even out the more people you study, so we should perhaps take rankings with a pinch of salt.
The threat of disease makes people less extrovert
But even if some of the details are up for discussion, the general pattern seems to hold; different cities really do attract certain kinds of people. One reason is selective migration. “People may move to a city because they feel that it suits their personality best,” Bleidorn says. Less visible factors may also play a role: the threat of disease makes people less extrovert (because the more social people are, the easier it is for germs to spread); perhaps, if some areas tend to have slightly higher rates of illness it may be subtly influencing the way people feel and act.
Bleidorn was particularly interested in the way the city’s personality affects the citizens’ happiness and self-esteem. Do you feel more confident if you live in a city whose average profile matches your own character? Again, the effect was modest, but real: living among like-minded people really does make you feel better about yourself.
So where would be your ideal city? Take a look at the map below for some examples of the cities scoring highest and lowest on each trait – and let us know if you agree or disagree.
David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on twitter. Olivia Howitt is BBC Future’s picture editor. She is @oliviahowitt on Twitter.
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