A new paper finds that people who live in mountain regions of the U.S. maintain more of that sensibility even in the modern era. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, a Harvard academic, presented his thesis on the US frontier in 1893, describing the "coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness" it had forged in the American character.
Remnants of the pioneer personality persist in U.S. populations of once inhospitable mountainous territory, according to anonymous results of an online personality test completed by over 3.3 million Americans correlated with the "topography" of 37,227 US postal -codes. Living at both a higher altitude and an elevation relative to the surrounding region - indicating "hilliness" - is associated with a distinct blend of personality traits that fits with "frontier settlement theory". Just like highlanders in western Scotland feel distinctly more independent than residents of Glasgow.
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"The harsh and remote environment of mountainous frontier regions historically attracted nonconformist settlers strongly motivated by a sense of freedom," said researcher Friedrich Götz, from Cambridge's Department of Psychology. "Such rugged terrain likely favored those who closely guarded their resources and distrusted strangers, as well as those who engaged in risky explorations to secure food and territory. These traits may have distilled over time into an individualism characterized by toughness and self-reliance that lies at the heart of the American frontier ethos."
The research used the "Big Five" personality model, standard in social psychology, with simple online tests providing high-to-low scores for five fundamental personality traits of millions of Americans. The mix of characteristics uncovered by study's authors consists of low levels of "agreeableness", suggesting mountainous residents are less trusting and forgiving - traits that benefit "territorial, self-focused survival strategies".
Low levels of "extraversion" reflect the introverted self-reliance required to thrive in secluded areas, and a low level of "conscientiousness" lends itself to rebelliousness and indifference to rules, say the researchers. "Neuroticism" is also lower, suggesting an emotional stability and assertiveness suited to frontier living. Meanwhile, "openness to experience" is much higher, and the most pronounced personality trait in mountain dwellers.
Just like early pioneers, who often left their homes in Europe and then traveled dangerous terrain in pursuit of goals such as economic affluence - or at least a fair chances they couldn't get in their home countries - and personal freedom.
The researchers wanted to distinguish between the direct effects of physical environment and the "sociocultural influence" of growing up where frontier values and identities still hold sway. To do this, they looked at whether mountainous personality patterns applied to people born and raised in these regions that had since moved away.
The findings suggest some "initial enculturation" say researchers, as those who left their early mountain home are still consistently less agreeable, conscientious and extravert, although no such effects were observed for neuroticism and openness.
The scientists also divided the country at the edge of St. Louis - "gateway to the West" - to see if there is a personality difference between those in mountains that made up the historic frontier, such as the Rockies, and eastern ranges e.g. the Appalachians.
While mountains continue to be a "meaningful predictor" of personality type on both sides of this divide, key differences emerged. Those in the east are more agreeable and outgoing, while western ranges are a closer fit for frontier settlement theory.
In fact, the mountainous effect on high levels of "openness to experience" is ten times as strong in residents of the old western frontier as in those of the eastern ranges.
The findings suggest that, while ecological effects are important, it is the lingering sociocultural effects - the stories, attitudes and education - in the former "Wild West" that are most powerful in shaping mountainous personality, according to scientists.
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