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Postcode Personality

March 9, 2015

There's a saying that there are three things that matter in real estate: "location, location, location." This was funny the first time I heard it, simply because some direct expressions of fact are funny when worded in certain ways. Some stand-up comedians make a good living by creating such phrases. A similar construction is found in the movie, "Fight Club," in which the first two rules of the club are the same rule, "You do not talk about fight club."[1]

Some linguistic sleuthing by author and journalist, William Safire, pinpoints an early occurrence of the location saying to the Chicago Tribune, in a 1926 classified ad.[2] The wording of the ad suggests that this was a common saying, at least in Chicago, at that time.

In any case, it's common knowledge that people desire to live in certain areas, and when they move there, they find that their neighbors are very similar to themselves. After my wife and I moved to our present house, I found that three of the other ten houses on our short street were occupied by people working at my own corporate campus.

A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examines the geographical distribution of life satisfaction and personality traits in the London metropolitan area. It further examines the geographical distribution of the correlation between personality traits and life satisfaction. The research was done by an international team of scientists from the University of Helsinki (Helsinki, Finland), the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, United Kingdom), Tilburg University (Tilburg, The Netherlands), the University of California (Davis, California), and the University of Texas (Austin, Texas).[4-5]

The study hypothesis, as the paper states, is a person–environment hypothesis in which a match between a person's personality and the characteristics of his/her neighborhood is important for life satisfaction.[4] The database was the set of 56,019 people in 216 London postal districts who participated in the BBC Big Personality Test that ran from 2009-2011.[5-6]

The data analysis showed significant geographical clustering in satisfaction levels and certain personality traits. It was found that people in central, urban areas, were "most open," and, to a lesser degree, the most extroverted. These levels decreased towards the suburbs. The urban areas, aside from their higher population density and higher housing prices, had higher ethnic and religious diversity, tolerance for alternative lifestyles and ideas, but a higher crime rate.[5] I wrote about computer modeling of the summer, 2011, riots in London in a previous article (Modeling Crime, March 13, 2013).

Figure caption

Study images, Openness to New Experience (red=most open, blue=least open) and Life Satisfaction (red=most satisfied, blue=least satisfied), via the University of Cambridge.[5)]

Western Central London was found to be the least agreeable area that had, also, the highest crime rate, the highest housing prices, and the greatest number of pedestrians. As in other studies, it was found that emotionally stable and/or extroverted people had the greatest life satisfaction no matter where they lived. Life satisfaction was high in the affluent regions of London.[5]

Figure caption

Study images, Agreeableness (red=most agreeable, blue=least agreeable) and Extroversion (red=most extroverted, blue=least extroverted), via the University of Cambridge.[5)]

So, how do people cope in an environment that affords less life satisfaction? In those areas, people who were most agreeable and conscientious were better off, suggesting that personality is an important determinant for life satisfaction.[5] Some key findings,[4-5]
• A person's best place to live depends on the match between his/her dispositions and the characteristics of the neighborhood.

• The strength of the correlation between life satisfaction and personality traits depend on neighborhood characteristics; e.g., a greater openness to experience was more positively associated with life satisfaction in postal districts with greater ethnic diversity.

• In postal districts with a lower level of life satisfaction, greater agreeableness and conscientiousness in individuals were more strongly correlated with life satisfaction.

• The association between emotional stability and extroversion was not modified by neighborhood characteristics.

• Individuals with different personalties derive life satisfaction from different aspects of their environment.[4]

Figure caption

Study images, Emotional Stability (red=most stable, blue=least stable) and Conscientiousness (red=most conscientious, blue=least conscientious), via the University of Cambridge.[5)]

Says Markus Jokela, an author of this study from University of Helsinki, Finland,
"It's very common for people to talk about where is the best place to live, but most research has tended to look at factors such as income and low crime rates, and only on a very broad geographical scale, failing to consider individual differences in personality... As a result, studies imply that all people would be equally happy in the same places. It's a one-size-fits-all conclusion that, as we show, is misleading because one's level of happiness is dependent on whether their environment is suited to their personality."[5]

This study was funded by the Kone Foundation and the Academy of Finland.[5]


  1. Fight Club: The 8 Rules, YouTube Video, Oct 1, 2011.
  2. William Safire, "On Language - Location, Location, Location," New York Times Magazine, June 26, 2009.
  3. As a speechwriter for US Vice President, Spiro Agnew, Safire created the memorable phrase, "nattering nabobs of negativism." Agnew, who was a polarizing figure in American politics at the time, was forced to resign his office on October 10, 1973, after pleading nolo contendere (no contest) to criminal charges of tax evasion, a plea deal that prevented a greater charge of accepting bribes while governor of Maryland.
  4. Markus Jokela, Wiebke Bleidorn, Michael E. Lamb, Samuel D. Gosling, and Peter J. Rentfrow, "Geographically varying associations between personality and life satisfaction in the London metropolitan area," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., vol. 112, no. 3 (January 12, 2015), pp. 725-730, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1415800112.
  5. Tired of London? Maybe it's time to change postal districts, University of Cambridge Press Release, January 12, 2015.
  6. The Big Personality Test, BBC Lab UK Web Site.

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