Check out the two gorgeous photos below. If you had to choose one place to go on vacation, where would you go: the beach or the mountains?


From "Personality and geography" by Shigehiro Oishi, Thomas Talhelm and Minha Lee. Image credit for bottom photograph: Sara Cedar Miller/Central Park Conservancy

If you said the beach, you’re in the majority. More people pick the beach than the mountains. And since it’s August, you may be dreaming of a dip in the ocean.

But beyond the summer heat, your choice may depend on your personality. According to a new study from psychologists at the University of Virginia, introverts and extroverts prefer different landscapes for their vacations, and they may even seek out different environments for a home.

Psychologists have long known that extroverts tend to enjoy arousing situations, even choosing to study in noisier environments, while introverts seek calmer, quieter environments. Past research has shown that extroverts have a greater need for “affiliation” – being with and conversing with others – and “exhibition” – getting attention from and amusing other people. Introverts need substantially less of these things.

Psychologists have examined how well people fit into various companies, colleges, and even countries based on their introversion or extroversion. We know now that introverts function better in specific office spaces, where there are fewer visual and audio distractions, whereas extroverts are perfectly happy in a buzzing, busy café or office.

However, most of the research on extroversion has focused on social situations – being alone or being at a party – rather than physical surroundings. No study has looked at extroversion and introversion in connection with natural environments, the University of Virginia researchers say.

Through a series of five experiments, the researchers showed that people who are more extroverted prefer wide-open spaces, including the beach, while introverts are drawn toward the woods and mountains.

This seems to be because wooded or mountainous environments offer a lot fewer opportunities for affiliation and exhibition, while wide-open spaces like beaches offer more. The mountains and woods are great places for solitude and self-reflection, while beaches can be a lot noisier and offer a lot more potential for partying and people watching.

Researchers say that being in the mountains doesn’t necessarily make introverts happier than extroverts, since extroverts are on the whole happier than introverts. But being in the woods or mountains does seem to make introverts less sad.

In another experiment, the researchers analyzed a database of personality surveys of 613,000 people across the U.S. to see whether introversion and extroversion was associated with a state’s geography. Here, too, they found that residents of mountainous U.S. states were more introverted than residents of flat states.

You can see how each of the states compare in the graphic below, from their study. The horizontal axis shows the differences in elevation within a state, with more mountainous states toward the right side. The vertical axis scores states on how introverted or extroverted they are: The more extroverted states are toward the top, while the more introverted ones are at the bottom. (You can click on the graphic to enlarge.)


From "Personality and geography" by Shigehiro Oishi, Thomas Talhelm and Minha Lee

Still, the causation wasn’t clear. Did living in the mountains make these people introverted, or do introverted people just tend to “self-select” and move to the mountains?

To analyze this, the researchers performed one more experiment. They sent groups of students into a flat open area or a wooded, secluded area on the UVA campus and analyzed their extroversion and happiness.

Here, the researchers found that the terrain resulted in different levels of happiness for introverts and extroverts – introverts were more stressed out in the open space than in the trees. But the experiment had little effect on how introverted or extroverted students appeared to be, suggesting geography may not be able to change a person’s personality.

However, the researchers caution that this last experiment was one small, short-term study, and that more dramatic terrains or longer exposure times to them might be able to influence people’s personalities. More research on this idea is needed, they say.

The choice between vacationing at the beach or in the mountains might seem like a superficial one. However, there is a long history of people looking to natural environment to fulfill certain psychological needs.

Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher who lived in a cabin in the woods for two years while writing “Walden,” was an extreme introvert who retreated to the woods in search of introspection. “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers,” he writes in “Walden.”

What the extrovert equivalent of Henry David Thoreau had to say on the subject is lost to history. He or she was probably out partying at the beach.

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