In the Shadow of Coal: How Large-Scale Industries Contributed to Present-Day Regional Differences in Personality and Well-Being

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Abstract

Recent research has identified regional variation of personality traits within countries but we know little about the underlying drivers of this variation. We propose that the Industrial Revolution, as a key era in the history of industrialized nations, has led to a persistent clustering of well-being outcomes and personality traits associated with psychological adversity via processes of selective migration and socialization. Analyzing data from England and Wales, we examine relationships between the historical employment share in large-scale coal-based industries (coal mining and steam-powered manufacturing industries that used this coal as fuel for their steam engines) and today’s regional variation in personality and well-being. Even after controlling for possible historical confounds (historical energy supply, education, wealth, geology, climate, population density), we find that the historical local dominance of large-scale coal-based industries predicts today’s markers of psychological adversity (lower Conscientiousness [and order facet scores], higher Neuroticism [and anxiety and depression facet scores], lower activity [an Extraversion facet], and lower life satisfaction and life expectancy). An instrumental variable analysis, using the historical location of coalfields, supports the causal assumption behind these effects (with the exception of life satisfaction). Further analyses focusing on mechanisms hint at the roles of selective migration and persisting economic hardship. Finally, a robustness check in the U.S. replicates the effect of the historical concentration of large-scale industries on today’s levels of psychological adversity. Taken together, the results show how today’s regional patterns of personality and well-being (which shape the future trajectories of these regions) may have their roots in major societal changes underway decades or centuries earlier.

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