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How Psychopathic Is Your State? Hopefully Less Than This Study Claims

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It’s the perfect little bit of scientific viral goodness: A new study looks at the traits of psychopaths and you can totally guess which city is number one in America! The red states get to make jokes, the blue states get to make jokes, and we all get to make fun of Connecticut, which came in second only to grand champion of psychopathy: DC.

One teeeeensy problem, though: The study doesn’t hold up. Let’s start with the findings as they were published. Conducted by Ryan Murphy, a research assistant professor at Southern Methodist University’s O’Neil Center for Global Markets and Freedom, the study is an attempt to look at “geographical psychology.”

The theory here is that where you live affects your “Big Five” personality traits — extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. As you can see, we’re already deep in subjective territory here, and we haven’t even gotten into the actual paper yet. While it’s not a strange idea that where you live can inform your psychological outlook, taking any one factor too far is a bit questionable. And you don’t have to go very far before you stumble over a rather large red flag, when Murphy groups the Big Five personality traits by region:

They then use cluster analysis to identify three clusters of personalities – “Friendly and Conventional,” which roughly corresponds to the Midwest and the South, “Relaxed & Creative,” which is primarily found in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest, and “Temperamental & Uninhibited,” corresponding to the Northeast plus Texas.

As anybody who’s spent any length of time away from home knows, the exact tenor of a place in America depends heavily not just on your personal experience but who people perceive you to be. Our next sticking point is that Murphy admits he’s using an “indirect methodology” on other people’s data, which he follows with this:

To explore the data, this paper takes these estimates and compares them to two variables that relate to psychopathy at a micro level – homicide rate and the percentage of the state living in an urban area.

80% of Americans live in what we defined as a city in 2010. Murphy, to his credit, does note that part of the reason Washington DC is number one is that it’s an entirely urban area, and that this may have thrown his results out of whack — so much so he reran the results while omitting DC. Still, if more people are in cities, there are going to be more of every type of personality, including psychopaths, especially when Murphy argues that psychopathy is a spectrum.

Next, there’s the problem of using the homicide rate. First, we should note that while the US sees about 15,000 homicides a year, as of 2016, America is a nation of 320 million people: Homicide is just extremely rare, or even unheard of, in the vast majority of the country. Furthermore, homicide is, thanks to a variety of social factors, heavily concentrated in a few small areas of the United States, again cities. Not to mention the fact that not all homicides are committed by genuine psychopaths.

Finally, Murphy looks at occupations. He analyzed how many people were employed in jobs that had an unusually high number of psychopaths in previous research: “CEO, lawyer, media, salesperson, surgeon, journalist, police officer, clergyperson, chef, and civil servant.” Again, you can see how the deck is stacked here: You don’t find a lot of surgeons making their home base in the middle of a wheat field. Another problem pops up when you look at the least psychopathic professions: “care aide, nurse, therapist, craftsperson, beautician/stylist, charity worker, teacher, creative artist, doctor, and accountant.” Notice there’s a bit of a gender divide there: There are nearly ten female nurses for every male nurse in America, for example, and while the idea that women are less prone to being psychopaths is questionable, there are less women arrested for murder.

The real takeaway here is not that we can rank states by how likely they are to have psychopaths, but rather that it’s difficult to turn soft science into hard numbers. And if a study tells you what you want to hear, you should take a closer look. Still, it’s fun to think that everyone in Connecticut is crazy AF.

Here’s the Top 10 (after the exclusion of DC) according to the study, if you still want it:

  1. Connecticut
  2. California
  3. New Jersey
  4. New York
  5. Wyoming
  6. Maine
  7. Wisconsin
  8. Nevada
  9. Illinois
  10. Virginia
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