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Scientists have measured the ‘Wild West’ mentality (Spoiler: it’s strong in Utah)

‘This psychological fingerprint ... may be an echo of the personality types that sought new lives in unknown territories’

Roman McCabe (cq) sits on a fence surrounding the Ft. Duchesne rodeo grounds before competing in the saddle bronc competition in the Ft. Duchesne rodeo Sunday July 2, 2006. The McCabe’s traveled from Tuba City, AZ on the Navajo Nation to participate in the rodeo. Roman ended up winning the event. Keith Johnson/Deseret Morning News
Roman McCabe sits on a fence surrounding the Fort Duchesne, Uintah County, rodeo grounds before competing in the saddle bronc competition in the Fort Duchesne rodeo on July 2, 2006. New research has shown U.S. residents living in the Mountain West display distinct personality traits consistent with “frontier settlement theory.”
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — If you ever thought Utahns act a lot different than your coastal friends, it turns out you weren’t wrong.

New research from an international group of scientists has revealed how landscape impacts psychology in America. And for U.S. residents living in the Mountain West and Appalachia, there’s a distinct personality makeup consistent with “frontier settlement theory.” Some of those “Wild West” traits are endearing. Others are, well, perhaps less so. (More on that shortly.)

Friedrich Götz, of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, led the study, working with colleagues from the Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences (Austria), the University of Texas, the University of Melbourne (Australia) and Götz’s Cambridge supervisor Dr. Jason Rentfrow. The findings were recently published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

The researchers evaluated connections between the results of an online personality test completed by more than 3 million Americans, and the topography of more than 37,000 ZIP codes. The personality test used the “Big Five” personality model, which is standard in social psychology, the University of Cambridge reported. This test gives high-to-low scores for five key personality traits.

Respondents who lived in mountainous regions displayed lower levels of “agreeableness,” “extroversion” and “conscientiousness” — traits that may have suited early settlers of inhospitable terrain, who had to employ “territorial, self-focused survival strategies.”

“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,” Götz noted.

But don’t worry, Utahns: Götz doesn’t think you’re just a bunch of unfriendly loners. Mountain-living respondents also showed lower levels of “neuroticism.” And in fact, a higher “openness to experience” was their most pronounced personality trait — this trait was 10 times stronger among residents of the old western frontier than those who lived in the eastern ranges.

“Taken together, this psychological fingerprint for mountainous areas may be an echo of the personality types that sought new lives in unknown territories,” Götz said in the published study.

Of course, it isn’t just topography that shapes “Wild West” attitudes. It’s also about how culture gets passed down. The researchers noted the “sociocultural influence” of growing up in places where frontier values and identities remain strong. People who were raised in these environments, but eventually moved away, remained generally less extraverted, conscientious and agreeable than those who weren’t raised there.

On an individual level, these personality differences are “small but robust,” the scientists noted. But “small effects can make a big difference at scale,” Götz explained. “An increase of one standard deviation in mountainousness is associated with a change of around 1% in personality. Over hundreds of thousands of people, such an increase would translate into highly consequential political, economic, social and health outcomes.”

So yes, there is such a thing as a rocky personality — and its impact could be as big as the Rocky Mountains themselves.