Industrial Revolution left a damaging psychological 'imprint' on today's populations

December 10, 2017, University of Cambridge
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

People living in the former industrial heartlands of England and Wales are more disposed to negative emotions such as anxiety and depressive moods, more impulsive and more likely to struggle with planning and self-motivation, according to a new study of almost 400,000 personality tests.

The findings show that, generations after the white heat of Industrial Revolution and decades on from the decline of deep coal mining, the populations of where coal-based industries dominated in the 19th century retain a "psychological adversity".

Researchers suggest this is the inherited product of selective migrations during mass industrialisation compounded by the social effects of severe work and living conditions.

They argue that the damaging cognitive legacy of coal is "reinforced and amplified" by the more obvious economic consequences of high unemployment we see today. The study also found significantly lower in these areas.

The UK findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, are supported by a North American "robustness check", with less detailed data from US demographics suggesting the same patterns of post-industrial personality traits.

"Regional patterns of personality and well-being may have their roots in major societal changes underway decades or centuries earlier, and the Industrial Revolution is arguably one of the most influential and formative epochs in modern history," says co-author Dr Jason Rentfrow, from the University of Cambridge's Department of Psychology.

"Those who live in a post-industrial landscape still do so in the shadow of coal, internally as well as externally. This study is one of the first to show that the Industrial Revolution has a hidden psychological heritage, one that is imprinted on today's psychological make-up of the regions of England and Wales."

An international team of psychologists, including researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, University of Texas, University of Cambridge and the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University, used data collected from 381,916 people across England and Wales during 2009-2011 as part of the BBC Lab's online Big Personality Test.

The team analysed test scores by looking at the "big five" personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. The results were further dissected by characteristics such as altruism, self-discipline and anxiety.

The data was also broken down by region and county, and compared with several other large-scale datasets including coalfield maps and a male occupation census of the early 19th century (collated through parish baptism records, where the father listed his job).

The team controlled for an extensive range of other possible influences - from competing economic factors in the and earlier, through to modern considerations of education, wealth and even climate.

However, they still found significant personality differences for those currently occupying areas where large numbers of men had been employed in coal-based industries from 1813 to 1820 - as the Industrial Revolution was peaking.

Neuroticism was, on average, 33% higher in these areas compared with the rest of the country. In the 'big five' model of personality, this translates as increased emotional instability, prone to feelings of worry or anger, as well as higher risk of common mental disorders such as depression and substance abuse.

In fact, in the further "sub-facet" analyses, these post-industrial areas scored 31% higher for tendencies toward both anxiety and depression.

Areas that ranked highest for neuroticism include Blaenau Gwent and Ceredigion in South Wales, and Hartlepool in England.

Conscientiousness was, on average, 26% lower in former industrial areas. In the 'big five' model, this manifests as more disorderly and less goal-oriented behaviours - difficulty with planning and saving money. The underlying sub-facet of 'order' itself was 35% lower in these areas.

The lowest three areas for conscientiousness were all in Wales (Merthyr Tydfil, Ceredigion and Gwynedd), with English areas including Nottingham and Leicester.

An assessment of life satisfaction was included in the BBC Lab questionnaire, which was an average of 29% lower in former industrial centres.

While researchers say there will be many factors behind the correlation between personality traits and historic industrialisation, they offer two likely ones: migration and socialisation (learned behaviour).

The people migrating into industrial areas were often doing so to find employment in the hope of escaping poverty and distressing situations of rural depression - those experiencing high levels of 'psychological adversity'.

However, people that left these areas, often later on, were likely those with higher degrees of optimism and psychological resilience, say researchers.

This "selective influx and outflow" may have concentrated so-called 'negative' in industrial areas - traits that can be passed down generations through combinations of experience and genetics.

Migratory effects would have been exacerbated by the 'socialisation' of repetitive, dangerous and exhausting labour from childhood - reducing well-being and elevating stress - combined with harsh conditions of overcrowding and atrocious sanitation during the age of steam.

The study's authors argue their findings have important implications for today's policymakers looking at public health interventions.

"The decline of coal in areas dependent on such industries has caused persistent economic hardship - most prominently high unemployment. This is only likely to have contributed to the baseline of psychological adversity the Industrial Revolution imprinted on some populations," says co-author Michael Stuetzer from Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, Germany.

"These regional levels may have a long history, reaching back to the foundations of our industrial world, so it seems safe to assume they will continue to shape the well-being, health, and economic trajectories of these regions."

The team note that, while they focused on the negative psychological imprint of coal, future research could examine possible long-term positive effects in these regions born of the same adversity - such as the solidarity and civic engagement witnessed in the labour movement.

Explore further: Combinations of certain personality traits may guard against depression and anxiety

More information: Martin Obschonka et al, In the Shadow of Coal: How Large-Scale Industries Contributed to Present-Day Regional Differences in Personality and Well-Being., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2017). DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000175

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25 comments

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Shootist
2.8 / 5 (9) Dec 10, 2017
Industrial Revolution left a damaging psychological 'imprint' on today's populations


along with a thriving middle and lower class who completely ignored diamat. The Progressives are the ones with the scars.
EWH
5 / 5 (2) Dec 10, 2017
Those are big numbers, but they haven't established that it was the coming of industry rather than the loss of industry that lead to these differences. Indeed, such big gaps in what are largely stable and heritable psychological traits such as conscientiousness indicates a mostly genetic cause which must partially precede the Industrial Revolution, since the people there on the Welsh-Midlands border have largely been settled there for thousands of years. The idea that /both/ the population influx at the beginning of the IR /and/ the efflux in the post-industrial area concentrated the low-conscientiousness / high neuroticism personality types is not just speculative but contradictory. I believe most of the effect is recent, due to the more hopeful people leaving, but concentrating characteristic local psychological traits that had long been there. /Source: 3 nights (1986) in a W. Midlands casino-campground; industrial archaeologist Arthur Raistrick's _Quakers in Science and Industry_
tblakely1357
2.7 / 5 (7) Dec 10, 2017
Eeeeevil capitalism. If only there was an alternative economic system to eeeeevil capitalism..... lol, what a load of bs.
Da Schneib
3.5 / 5 (8) Dec 10, 2017
Dunning-Kruger syndrome is the condition in which the stupid are incapable of understanding what makes smart people smart.

Lot of it around here, @Shootie. Hint: most smarts are progressives, at least the way you define "progressive." It must really burn you.
ksmith610
2.4 / 5 (11) Dec 10, 2017
And here in the disunited states, we call them "republiKKKlans"; they don't really have any of the same characteristics nor the same causality, and are quite a lot dumber than the average population (way on the left side of the bell curve despite being so far right they admire Hitler and Mao) and the thing they do best is hate things that don't look or smell like them. They shit in corners and eat McDonalds three times a day and vote for filth like Drumpf and congresspeople who hate them, abuse them and laugh at them for voting they way they do. But those voters are so damned stupid and full of inchoate hate, they haven't a clue. Welcome to AmeriKKKa.
Da Schneib
4.5 / 5 (8) Dec 10, 2017
Anybody who thinks that attacking people who are different from them will make things better is a stupid. Doesn't matter a damn to me whether they were born that way or weren't educated enough to figure out it's wrong and counter-productive. Either way is a flat fail.

Simple as that.
Stevepidge
1.6 / 5 (7) Dec 10, 2017
Dunning-Kruger syndrome is the condition in which the stupid are incapable of understanding what makes smart people smart.

Lot of it around here, @Shootie. Hint: most smarts are progressives, at least the way you define "progressive." It must really burn you.


Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell a beta male dum dum.
Stevepidge
1.6 / 5 (7) Dec 10, 2017
And here in the disunited states, we call them "republiKKKlans"; they don't really have any of the same characteristics nor the same causality, and are quite a lot dumber than the average population (way on the left side of the bell curve despite being so far right they admire Hitler and Mao) and the thing they do best is hate things that don't look or smell like them. They shit in corners and eat McDonalds three times a day and vote for filth like Drumpf and congresspeople who hate them, abuse them and laugh at them for voting they way they do. But those voters are so damned stupid and full of inchoate hate, they haven't a clue. Welcome to AmeriKKKa.


OOOO So inclusive, so progressive. Hail the Nu-male!!
Da Schneib
4.2 / 5 (5) Dec 10, 2017
@Pigeonsteve, why I have you on ignore.

Where you have no intellectual argument you resort to the emotional fail. Which is most arguments you make. You are a stupid.
DocSavage
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 10, 2017
It never ceases to amaze me what kind of utter drivel gets passed off as "research" by psychologists.
Thorium Boy
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 11, 2017
Go back to 1650 and enjoy the brutish toil and die at 35. Luddite morons.
Da Schneib
4.5 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2017
@Doc you shouldn't confuse psychologists with sociologists.
aksdad
2.6 / 5 (5) Dec 11, 2017
It's weird how people self-select based on their desire for better opportunity. Whodathunkit? People who wanted something better for themselves could tell that the community they were in wasn't the best place and they left. But blame it on coal or the Industrial Revolution or capitalism or whatever the cause de jour is in liberal academia. Here's a thought. Try the same study in other places where there is a culture of poverty and despair, say inner-city America, and see if you can still blame it on coal or the Industrial Revolution.
MR166
1.8 / 5 (5) Dec 11, 2017
The progressive need to blame fossil fuels for all the evils in the world is utterly amazing. I cannot name one development that has done more to lift mankind out of poverty and starvation than fossil fuels and the industrial revolution. People left the farms to work in the mines and factories to escape starvation. The bottom line in a progressive's mind is that there is no good industry except for government controlled industry.
MR166
2 / 5 (4) Dec 11, 2017
"The team note that, while they focused on the negative psychological imprint of coal, future research could examine possible long-term positive effects in these regions born of the same adversity - such as the solidarity and civic engagement witnessed in the labour movement."

Good God that statement is not is not too Marxist is it!
MR166
1 / 5 (3) Dec 11, 2017
Sorry Steve I gave your last post a 1 by mistake.
MR166
2 / 5 (4) Dec 11, 2017
Researchers aren't even trying to hide their biases any more. It seems perfectly acceptable to come to a conclusion and then present only the data that supports it.
DocSavage
3 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2017
Few of either ilk should be confused with scientists.
Dug
1 / 5 (2) Dec 12, 2017
Somewhere in the middle of the industrial "mechanical" revolutions (I&II) and the birth of the digital (AI) revolution, the responsibility for producing too many purposeless human laborers (overpopulation) - has been ignored. We can continue to assign blame - while planetary finite critical resources are further depleted by human overpopulation and we can inevitably collapse like all other species that exceed their resources. Or, we can use our bigger brains (that we are so proud of) and start working toward a sustainable population before depleted critical resources do the work for us.
MR166
1 / 5 (2) Dec 12, 2017
The most interesting fact regarding overpopulation is that poverty and overpopulation go hand in hand. It seems that as nations become richer they produce fewer children. Japan is a prime example of this. Many western nations have birth rates that do not equal replacement levels. In that industrialization and automation raise the standard of living for all, AI might help reduce birth rates.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (1) Dec 12, 2017
@Doc, a fair number of people who think about these things would say that pursuing a subject using the scientific method doesn't make it a scientific subject.

Having dealt with animal behaviorists who denied the contents of sequences of pictures I have taken, never mind behavior witnessed by multiple independent observers, I can't say that I find the wherewithal to argue with you much.

By and large I'd add philosophers to your bucket.
unrealone1
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 12, 2017
More like White sugar White flour causing the problems
MR166
3 / 5 (2) Dec 12, 2017
Real 1 you could be on to something there. High glycemic index carbs are at the root of a lot of problems.
SamB
not rated yet Dec 13, 2017
@Pigeonsteve, why I have you on ignore.

Where you have no intellectual argument you resort to the emotional fail. Which is most arguments you make. You are a stupid.


Sounds like you are the one who should be on 'ignore'!
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Dec 13, 2017
More like White sugar White flour causing the problems

Both of them being refinements developed during the Industrial revolution...:-)

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