Our behavior is still shaped by the Industrial Revolution

Posted on under Today's research

The Industrial Revolution of 200 years ago, powered by coal and steam engines, and laid the foundations of modern society. World-first research by a number of universities has found its effects are still felt and not in a good way.

What the researchers say: The Industrial Revolution casts a long shadow with former coal-mining and manufacturing communities in the UK the US still struggling. For example, coal-based industrial hubs in the UK and the US show a “hidden” psychological legacy today –a regional personality pattern characterized by traits associated with lower happiness, well-being and health (e.g., high Neuroticism, lower Conscientiousness, lower Extraversion).

A team of psychologists from five universities examined personality data collected from 381,916 people across England and Wales and from 3,457,270 people across the US.

They discovered that people living in the former industrial heartlands of the UK and the US are more disposed to negative emotions such as anxiety and depressive moods, more impulsive and more likely to struggle with planning and self-motivation.

“Our findings show that, generations after the white heat of Industrial Revolution and decades on from the decline of deep coal mining, the populations of areas where coal-based industries dominated in the 19th century retain a ‘psychological adversity,’” said the lead researcher.

Their paper was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“It is our belief that this generational unhappiness and dysfunction is the inherited product of selective migrations during mass industrialization compounded by the social effects of severe work and living conditions,” he said.

“This damaging cognitive legacy of coal is “reinforced and amplified” by the more obvious economic consequences of the high unemployment and economic hardship we see today.”

One of the co-authors added: “Regional patterns of personality and well-being may have their roots in major societal changes underway decades or centuries earlier, and the Industrial Revolution is arguably one of the most influential and formative epochs in modern history.”

The team analyzed individual test scores by looking at the “Big Five” personality traits: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness. The results were further dissected by characteristics such as altruism, self-discipline, and anxiety.

While the researchers said there would be many factors behind the correlation between personality traits and historic industrialization, the two most likely ones are migration and socialization (learned behavior).

“The people migrating into industrial areas were often doing so to find employment in the hope of escaping poverty and distressing situations of rural depression—those experiencing high levels of ‘psychological adversity’,” the researchers said.

“However, people that left these areas, often later on, were likely those with higher degrees of optimism and psychological resilience.

“This ‘selective influx and outflow’ may have concentrated so-called ‘negative’ personality traits in industrial areas—traits that can be passed down generations through combinations of experience and genetics.”

The study’s authors argue their findings have important implication for the future economic and social trajectories of these regions as regional personality patterns shape these trajectories.

“The decline of coal in areas dependent on such industries has caused persistent economic hardship in early industrialized countries—most prominently high unemployment. This is likely to have contributed to the baseline of psychological adversity the Industrial Revolution imprinted on some populations,” said the researchers.

“These regional personality levels may have a long history, reaching back to the foundations of our industrial world, so it seems safe to assume they will continue to shape the well-being, health, and economic trajectories of these regions.”

So what? There was a huge attempt by the British government to move industry into the former coal mining areas at the time of pit closures. This effort failed spectacularly leading to huge pots of money being poured in with very little to be shown for it. The US has tried the same by offering companies huge tax credits to locate in depressed areas.  In the UK the effort led to a TV comedy show scrolling through a long list of companies who had received public largess noting at the end that they all had “Failed in Wales.”

One of the problems is that the decline in psychological well-being means that the employees in those areas are liable to be poorer performers who are less engaged in their work. They will also be more open to the siren song of the likes of DT who promises to “bring coal mining jobs back.” No-one can and no-one will.

Nor, it would seem from this research, will retraining work as the underlying psychological unease will remain. The majority of the workers in these regions may remain unemployable. There have been instances recently where new industries have successfully blossomed in Rust Belt areas—but the jobs have largely been very low paying or have gone to people who have been attracted from the outside.

Perhaps we have to rethink the nature of work. Maybe we should think about divorcing work from dignity, status, community and a sense of purpose and find other ways to give these to people. In a hunter-gatherer band, everyone had a role and was valued. There was status and safety attached to that role. There were the hunters and the gatherers obviously but also the shaman, the story-teller and the council of elders. The community existed not in work but in commonality and mutual support. But this was only possible because nobody feared exclusion or redundancy or loss of livelihood.

What now? If a company is thinking of moving into one of these depressed areas its owners and leaders must be prepared to work very hard to raise up the psychological profile of the people they find there. This will not be easy and, with the increasing level of mechanization, maybe not worthwhile. The market is not suited to the task of rescuing these regions. Governments local, State and Federal are the ones who will, in the end, have to tackle the problem.

By Dr Bob Murray