Divided We Stand: Making Sense of Three Psychological Regions of the United States

Andreas Hofer
6 min readJul 31, 2022


In my research regarding the evolutionary origins of personality, I have come across the work of Peter J. Rentfrow again and again. “ Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social, and Health Correlates “ is a 2013 article of his and his collaborators regarding the differences within the United (or Not-So-United) States:

Results from cluster analyses of 5 independent samples totaling over 1.5 million individuals identified 3 robust psychological profiles: Friendly & Conventional, Relaxed & Creative, and Temperamental & Uninhibited. The psychological profiles were found to cluster geographically and displayed unique patterns of associations with key geographical indicators.

The Big Five personality inventory was used to derive these three clusters. Cluster 1 is highly correlated with conscientiousness and agreeableness, Cluster 2 with openness and Cluster 3 with neuroticism and as we can see from the maps above with extraversion. In the study, it was correlated slightly negatively with extraversion, however, which is really strange for a cluster called temperamental and disinhibited as extraversion, as extraverts generally are more temperamental and less inhibited than introverts. The three different psychological profiles are associated with a number of other correlations. Cluster 1 is likely to vote conservative, belong to an Evangelical Christian group, have low social tolerance and have low violent crime rates. They basically correspond to what Michele Gelfand calls “tight”. Clusters 2 and 3, on the other hand, are more likely to vote democrat, more tolerant of social diversity and be more innovative, what Gelfand calls “loose”.

Three years prior to the 2016 elections, this research could have predicted Trumpland (red) and Clintonland (blue) in the upcoming elections. Trumpland is made up mostly of Cluster 1 and Clintonland correlates with Cluster 2. Cluster 3 is pretty mixed, which may be an indication that Cluster 3 isn’t very homogeneous after all.

The presence of such clusters can in principle be explained by two different kinds of patterns

a) evolutionary
b) migratory

In the case of the United States, we know that evolutionary partners play a neglectable role as most of the people involved in the study are offspring of migrants. So, what we are looking for are migratory patterns that would explain the distribution. Selective migration is the concept that people choose to move to places that are compatible with their personalities and needs. For example, a person high on the agreeable scale would likely want to live near family and friends, and would choose to settle or remain in such an area. In contrast, someone high on openness would prefer to settle in a place that is recognized as diverse and innovative such as California.

For Cluster 1, they assume that family values are important in choosing where to live:

For people with Friendly & Conventional psychological profiles, settling near family and friends helps them to preserve and maintain intimate social relationships that can bring fulfillment and support throughout life.

This would certainly explain why Cluster 1 tends to flock together, however it hardly explains the geographic distribution. Why should they settle in the Midwest and South?

Cluster 3, high in neuroticism, may not have migrated a lot and therefore represent a lot of the genome of the original settlers (New England), according to the authors. This makes a lot of sense as neurotic people are more anxious and would not venture out into the Wild West. However, that would not explain the presence of Cluster 3 in Texas. Perhaps another indication that Cluster 3 There isn’t that much similarity between Texans and New England Yankees.

Cluster 2 shows an extremely interesting pattern:

To explore the possibility that frontier settlement might have contributed to the emergence of this psychological region, we examined the association between the Relaxed & Creative profile and the year in which states were founded as an index of frontier settlement and obtained some support for this hypothesis. This finding suggests that the Relaxed & Creative psychological profile is more common in frontier regions.

Nobody will be surprised to learn that the high openness profile will flock to places with universities and places with a high level of innovation, like Silicon Valley and Seattle. However, what frontier regions suggest in the first place is that Cluster 3 simply moves away from civilization. When Cluster 3 migrated, for the most part there simply was nothing out there in terms of material culture, least of all a Silicon Valley. Exploring new places is in accordance with openness, but living in the wilderness, far away from civilization sounds extremely odd. What kind of people are they, being both interested in the latest innovation in tech and apparently wanting to be left alone? In order to make sense of these patterns, let’s compare them to other clusters found by researchers.

The migratory patterns we can see so far are:

Cluster 3: original immigrants who didn’t migrate further (high neuroticism)
Cluster 1: immigrants who migrated further, but tend to stay near their families and communities of origin (high agreeableness, low openness)

Cluster 2: migrates to the frontiers, where initially there is nothing but wilderness (high openness, low neuroticism)

The British think tank Cultural Dynamic has found three different groups regarding their basic values rather than personality in Britain: pioneers, prospectors and settlers:

Cluster 2 obviously corresponds to the pioneer group. Think of them as the Henry David Thoreaus, living at Walden Pond, both yearning for a different (authentic to them) way of life and interested in new ideas.

Cluster 3 may superficially appear like the settler group, however reading their defining traits it quickly becomes clear that the settler group really corresponds to Cluster 1. Cluster 3 may be somewhat correlated with the prospector group, who tend to be swing voters.

DeYoung has found two metatraits in the Big Five inventory: stability (agreeableness, conscientiousness, negative neuroticism) and plasticity (extraversion and openness). I have argued that these metratraits can be seen as evolutionary adaptations to sedentism (stability) and nomadism (plasticity), with nomads being split into herders (extraversion) and foragers (openness).

Using Shalom Schwartz’s universal values and HEXACO values, I have plotted our evolutionary heritage onto a “map”:

Cluster 1 is associated with evolutionary farmer types. This also explains the geographic distribution of Cluster 1 in the US areas (past and present) most closely associated with farming: the South and Midwest.

Cluster 2, forager types would have headed west mostly for finding freedom, autonomy and nature rather than gold. The level of high openness lead secondarily to highly prestigious universities (e.g. Stanford), innovation (Silicon Valley) and became a magnet for people high in openness in general (e.g. hippies).

Cluster 3, the most inhomogeneous one, can be associated with herding in Texas. San Antonio is the place where the American cowboy culture is said to have originated. It is certainly a culture that deserves the label Temperamental & Uninhibited.

For more on the forager-farmer framework check out my book: The Forager-Farmer Framework: A new perspective on personality, society and culture

Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on July 31, 2022.