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Science

10. September 2020

Mountain Dwellers Are Different: International Study Investigates Link Between Terrain and People’s Personalities

Findings from an analysis of three million data sets looking into the relationship between mountainous surroundings and personality have now been published in Nature Human Behaviour. The study was initiated by Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences in Krems and the University of Cambridge.

 

Krems, 9 September 2020 – People who live in mountainous areas are less agreeable, more introverted and less conscientious – but at the same time they are more emotionally stable and open to new experiences. Although very minor, the effect of these factors was constant. This was the result of an international study of over three million data sets from the USA. The data enabled researchers to make connections between personality traits and the terrain in the area in which people live. The sociocultural environment in mountain regions was identified as a key influence. Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences implemented the study in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, as well as researchers from the USA and Australia. The findings were published in Nature Human Behaviour.

 

Life is different in the mountains, and so are the people who live there, which is reflected in slight differences in important personality traits. This was the focus of a study of 3,387,014 data sets from the USA conducted by researchers from Austria, the UK, the United States and Australia. The team included Prof. Stefan Stieger from the Department of Psychology and Psychodynamics at Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences in Krems (KL Krems), a recognised expert in the statistical analysis of large data sets.

 

Frontier experience

Mountains are frontier regions which are often settled later than other areas. Initial settlement of such regions involves confronting huge challenges, and overcoming them demands a particular personality. “In our study, we asked whether people living there today still have traces of this pioneer personality – and if so, why?” said Prof. Stieger, explaining the background to the study, which has now been published in Nature Human Behaviour. “Is it the mountains themselves or the specific sociocultural circumstances that shape each individual?”

 

The answers to both questions were astonishingly clear-cut. People in mountain regions in the USA are less agreeable, tend to be more introverted and are less conscientious than those living in lower-lying areas; however, the former are also more emotionally stable and more willing to embrace new experiences. The differences are very small, but also constant. “We even identified a continuous shift in personality traits in line with how mountainous the terrain was,” Prof. Stieger commented. Further analysis also revealed that the influence of society and the sociocultural environment on all of these characteristics is stronger than that of the physical presence of the mountains. Higher levels of emotional stability and greater openness to new experiences appear largely to be influenced by sociocultural factors – in other words, local traditions and social norms play a bigger role than the direct influence of topography.

 

Mountains of data

The study was based on over three million data sets from the University of California and the University of Texas. These contained details of the personalities of US inhabitants, who provided the data and gave permission for them to be used. The respondents came from a total of 37,227 different locations, which were linked to topographical data on the mountainousness of the surrounding area by means of their ZIP codes.

 

The use of the US data opened the way for a new approach which enables the influence of the physical mountain terrain to be separated from that of the sociocultural setting. As Prof. Stieger pointed out: “There has been long and detailed discussion of the question of whether life in the mountains and its unique challenges engenders certain personality traits, or whether it attracts people with specific characteristics who then create settlements and form communities. Our data will make an important contribution to clarifying this question.” It should be noted that high mountain ranges can be found both in the eastern and western United States. However, due to the country’s specific and late (modern) history of settlement, only the west – as a rugged, untamed frontier region – attracted people with particular personalities. If the mountains shaped people’s personalities, there would be no difference in this influence between the mountainous regions in the east and west – but differences would occur if the sociocultural environment was the decisive factor. And this is precisely what the study showed. “In terms of emotional stability, we found that it is reduced by the purely physical presence of the mountains, but the sociocultural effect on this parameter is so great that it far outweighs the ‘mountain effect’, so people living in mountain regions are generally more emotionally stable,” Prof. Stieger added.

 

The study highlights the broader significance of geographically-oriented psychology and social studies in clarifying the complex interplay between people and the environments in which they live. It is an excellent example of the type of research conducted at KL Krems, which always focuses on expanding knowledge for the good of society as a whole.

 

Original publication: Physical topography is associated with human personality. F. M. Götz, S. Stieger, S. D. Gosling , J. Potter & P. J. Rentfrow DOI: 10.1038/s41562-020-0930-x. Direct Link:  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-0930-x

 

About Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences

Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences (KL) is a pioneer for innovation in medical and health sciences education and research, and a catalyst for groundbreaking work which will benefit society at large. Research at KL focuses on niche fields in bridge disciplines such as molecular oncology and hematology, biomedical engineering, psychology and psychodynamics, as well as topics including water quality and related health issues. Study programmes include health sciences, human medicine, psychology, psychotherapy and counselling and have full European recognition. A network of university hospitals in St. Pölten, Krems, and Tulln provides students with quality-assured, research-led education; it. It enables them to do internationally- recognized top-class clinical and translational research that is recognised worldwide. Karl Landsteiner University received accreditation by the Agency for Quality Assurance and Accreditation Austria (AQ Austria) in 2013.

 

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