The Psychology Behind Why Creative People Cluster
I’ve long noted how openness to new people and ideas can power innovation and economic growth. “The Open City,” a new study by Cambridge University psychologist Jason Rentfrow, offers new insight on this issue.
A large body of literature shows that highly creative people - artists, scientists, entrepreneurs and the like - are highly likely to be open to new experiences. An earlier study by Rentfrow and his colleague Sam Gosling of the University of Texas, titled "The New Geography of Personality," tracked the five major personality types across states. They found open-to-experience people were more likely to "attempt to escape the ennui experienced in small-town environments by relocating to metropolitan areas where their interests in cultures and needs for social contact and stimulation are more easily met."
Not surprisingly, given its reputation as a gay, bohemian paradise, San Francisco has the nation’s largest concentration of open-to-experience people, followed by Los Angeles, Austin, New York, and San Diego. San Antonio, Nashville, Las Vegas, Tampa, and Denver round out the top 10.
Almost all of the top metros on openness-to-experience have a considerable concentration of the creative class. Las Vegas is the exception, but its key industries, nightlife and gaming, employ open-to-experience people that lie outside the creative class.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Columbus, and Pittsburgh have the nation’s smallest concentrations of open-to-experience people. Indianapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, and Cincinnati round out the top ten.
Rentfrow found the concentration of open personalities to be closely associated with high-tech industry, percent of foreign-born population, and the Gay Index—and these correlations held up even when controlling for the level of college graduates. Our own analysis found much the same thing: Rentfrow’s open personality measure was significantly associated with a metro’s share of the creative class and college grads, and even more so with concentrations of foreign-born people, gays and lesbians, and high-tech industry.
In research conducted jointly with Rentfrow, my team used personality surveys to map the concentration and clustering of personality types within large cities and metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and others. Confirming Rentfrow and Gosling’s original insight, we found extreme concentrations of open-to-experience people in downtown urban neighborhoods. (Future posts will show the distribution of personality types within cities).
Rentfrow’s findings and insights have important implications for cities and for urban economic development. Numerous studies have noted the role played by highly skilled people (measured either as those with a college education or advanced degree or those in high-skill occupations) in powering regional economic growth. But psychologists like Rentfrow hone in on another dimension of skill or talent. The type of skills economists are interested in, Rentfrow notes, "implies something that can be acquired with proper training, talent, motivation, and resources."
Personality involves the capacity to acquire and perform certain tasks competently and effectively. "Personality traits predispose people to acquire certain skills," adds Rentfrow. "For example, highly conscientious people have a disposition to be detail oriented, plan ahead, or stay organized. Openness influences people’s ability to acquire new skills relatively quickly." Obviously, some people are more creative or more ambitious or more motivated than others. What separates a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates from the pack is not just their level of education (both are famous college dropouts) or even the work they do; it is this "something else" that is at least partly captured by personality.
Rentfrow’s research also suggests a psychological dimension to creative communities that contributes to their ethos and character. It is not just that people sort themselves into places where they can find work. They seek out environments where they can pursue their personal interests as well. Clusters of open-to-experience personalities are associated with innovation because, he writes:
the jobs at the center of innovation ... such as design, engineering, science, painting, music, software development, writing and acting, appeal to individuals who are curious, creative, intellectual, imaginative, inventive, and resourceful. These professions are primarily concerned with exploring, developing and communicating new ideas, methods, and products.
People who are high in openness are also adventurous, he adds: they are likely to generate new perspectives on old issues and are comfortable with and adaptable to change.
They are also more likely to move to pursue their interests and follow their dreams. It’s not that they do this by design, the process occurs gradually and in an ad hoc way over time. But over time they seek out and find other similar personalities and begin to cluster in particular communities. These communities than take on a certain level of openness which draws in more open people and enhances its openness to new people and ideas, and ability to harness creativity and generate innovations. Openness comes to be imprinted on their psychological and cultural DNA.
This post is an abridged and revised excerpt of material from The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited.