Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Oct 31, 2019

Harry Potter and the Start-Ups: Geographic Variation in Courage

by Tobias Ebert
Man walking in London on Thames sidewalk

Places have their own personalities much like people do. In recent years, researchers have shown that countries, cities, and neighborhoods differ in the personality composition of their populations. For example, people living in California are, on average, more open-minded than people living in Alabama. Likewise, people living in London are, on average, more extraverted than people living in Liverpool.

Besides the fact that geographical areas differ in their personalities, we also know that these differences are consequential. For example, studies have shown that people feel better if they live in places where their own personality matches the personality profile of the place in which they live. In addition, geographical differences are relevant not only for the individuals who live in a place but also for that location’s development as a whole. For example, several studies have shown that geographical personality differences can shed new light on the fundamental question of why some places are economically more successful than others.

A particularly important driver of economic success is entrepreneurship, the process of starting and growing an independent business. In cities where new businesses emerge and grow, jobs are created and technological and societal change are promoted. Creating and running a new business requires bold and risk-taking individuals, so we thought that geographical variation in the personality trait of Courage might play an important role in a city’s entrepreneurial landscape.

Being interested in geographical personality differences in Courage, we faced one problem: investigating personality across many different places requires a very large amount of data, and the finer-grained the geographical level you want to study, the bigger the data set needs to be. So how can we get many (many, many) people to take part in a survey without paying them?

We found a solution consisting of two main ingredients: a topic that is of interest to many people, and a media platform for promoting that topic to a wide audience. In our case, the ingredients were Harry Potter and TIME Magazine, and we used a three-step recipe to bring the two ingredients together.

If you’re familiar with the Harry Potter books or movies, you know that the student wizards at Hogwarts were assigned to one of four houses (Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin) and that the students in the different houses were somewhat different kinds of people. Our idea was to match research participants in various cities to the Hogwarts house that best fit their personality.

To do this, we identified five personality traits that, in one way or another, are prototypical of each of the four Hogwarts houses. We can call them the MAGIC traits: Machiavellianism, Agreeableness, Courage, Humility, and Conscientiousness. We then designed a survey that assessed these traits using short, psychometrically sound measures. Second, we recruited Harry Potter experts from internet fan forums who helped us to estimate how typical house representatives (such as Dumbledore for Gryffindor) would fill out the survey. Third, the survey was featured as a Harry-Potter-Quiz ( on the websites of TIME magazine. After taking the quiz, participants received feedback about which Hogwarts house they most closely matched by comparing their responses on the personality measures with the responses of the Harry Potter experts. Luckily, the quiz went viral and within only six months, almost 850,000 people completed the survey.

The data we collected allowed us to investigate our hypothesis about Courage and entrepreneurism across 283 U.S. cities. Using data from 390,341 participants, we found that cities differ in Courage. For example, people living in El Paso or Jacksonville, on average, scored higher in Courage than people living in Milwaukee or Buffalo. We also found that differences in Courage played a role in a city’s entrepreneurial landscape. Specifically, in cities where more courageous people live, people are more willing to take economic risks and more businesses are founded. However, we also found that new businesses in courageous cities fail more often than those in less courageous cities, likely because residents of such places are more prone to make overly risky business decisions.

Our research highlights how unconventional ways of collecting data—such as a Harry Potter Quiz—can help to address new research questions. In our case, we used the data to show that cities differ in the personality trait of Courage, and that this variation in Courage is relevant to economic development. But Courage is a double-edged sword for a city’s economy. Courage seems to contribute to a city’s economic vitality, with more start-ups being founded. However, start-ups in courageous cities survive less often. Consequently, high courage within local populations can come at a cost.

For Further Reading

Ebert, T., Götz, F. M., Obschonka, M., Zmigrod, L., & Rentfrow, P. J. (2019). Regional variation in courage and entrepreneurship: The contrasting role of courage for the emergence and survival of start-ups in the United States. Journal of Personality, 87, 1039-1055.

Jokela, M., Bleidorn, W., Lamb, M. E., Gosling, S. D., & Rentfrow, P. J. (2015). Geographically varying associations between personality and life satisfaction in the London metropolitan area. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112, 725–730.

Obschonka, M., Schmitt-Rodermund, E., Silbereisen, R., Gosling, S., & Potter, J. (2013). The regional distribution and correlates of an entrepreneurship-prone personality profile in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom: A socioecological perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 104–122.

Rentfrow, P. J., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2008). A theory of the emergence, persistence, and expression of geographic variation in psychological characteristics. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 339-369.


Tobias Ebert is a third year Ph.D. student at the University of Mannheim who is interested in the causes and consequences of geographical variation in personality.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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