Coal’s mentally toxic echoes

Coal mining in the UK at the peak of the Industrial Revolution has bequeathed a bitter geographic legacy, a new study has found.

The legacy in question is not one of environmental degradation, but of psychology. Almost 200 years after the Revolution reached its most energetic stage, the residents of the areas where its essential coal was mined have personalities marked indelibly by the hardships of the men who dug it out of the ground. 

A study led by Jason Rentfrow, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, found that people who live in former Nineteenth Century coal mining areas in England and Wales are on average 33% more neurotic than those who live elsewhere.

The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that this meant the residents of former coalfields were significantly more likely to experience feelings of anxiety or worry, and had a higher risk of developing mental illnesses such as depression and of falling prey to substance abuse.

To make their findings, the researchers used data from 381,916 people from England and Wales. The information was collected between 2009 and 2011 as part of an online exercise by the British Broadcasting Corporation called the Big Personality Test.

The data was broken down by region and country, and assessed against other large information troves, including a male occupation census conducted in the early Nineteenth Century and parish baptism records.

All the information was then cross-matched against the so-called “big five” personality traits – extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness – and further divided into subcategories measuring traits such as self-discipline and altruism.

As well as being over-represented as depression risks, people living in former coal mining areas also fared particularly poorly in another of the big five: conscientiousness.

This measure was on average 25% lower, meaning that people displayed lower levels of goal-oriented behaviours such as forward-planning and saving money.

Rentfrow and his colleagues describe the deficits – which remained robust even after controlling for factors such as education, income and health – as the accumulated product of successive migrations during the Industrial Revolution and the harsh conditions the newcomers were forced to endure. The result, they suggest, is a sense of “psychological adversity” still retained today.

“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,” says co-author Michael Stuetzer from Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, Germany.

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