MONACA, Pa. — In 1854, British epidemiologist John Snow used observation, patterns and mapping to pinpoint the source of a deadly cholera outbreak in London.
Since then, mapping has become not only an integral part of medical and public health research, but a common visual aid. On a map we easily can see, for example, which parts of the country are getting hit by a flu outbreak or dealing with Lyme disease.
But the tracking of mental health patterns has lagged, with meaningful examinations coming in fits and spurts.
To Penn State Beaver Assistant Teaching Professor of Psychology Kevin Bennett, that vacuum looked like an opportunity.
“We do it for medical research,” Bennett said. “I’m arguing that it’s important to psychological research as well.”
So using Snow as inspiration and the growing sub-discipline of geographical psychology as a guide, Bennett gathered disparate data and research to create a comprehensive look at this country’s psychology, broken down by region.
It resulted in his dissertation, which he successfully defended at the University of London in September: “Geographical Distribution of Social and Personality Traits.”
Specifically, Bennett wanted to examine the country’s emotional, decision-making and social differences; pinpoint the root causes of those differences; and predict the possible long-term outcomes.
Among his findings: neuroticism is higher in the Northeast, the West Coast is more open to experimentation, and corporal punishment is still legal in the South.
Taken alone, these findings could be viewed more as fun facts than meaningful information. But, when mapped, important themes emerge. For example, on paper, we know that schizophrenia affects about 1 percent of the population. But on a map, it becomes clear that the disease is concentrated in urban areas.
“Maybe they’re migrating to cities,” Bennett said. “But, more likely, there’s something about living in an urban environment that’s triggering schizophrenia, and that’s useful from a community-health perspective. Now we know where we need to focus our efforts.”
Mapping isn’t only helpful to view patterns and design treatment, it may also give researchers insight into personality.
“There’s research that says the structures of our brains could be affected as a result of where we live or our environment,” Bennett said. “So environmental forces could actually explain differences in personality.”
It’s all fascinating to Bennett, whose past research has focused on personality and decision-making. In fact, the intersection of personality and mapping has set off an explosion of research ideas and resulted in a flurry of publications, including in the Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health, the Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning International Journal, Buzzfeed and the Brainwaves blog.
And there’s more to come.
“I have so many ideas now,” Bennett said with a laugh.