Quirks & Quarks

Coal mining left entire populations psychologically damaged and the impact continues today

People who live in former industrial heartlands in England and Wales experience more negative emotions that have been genetically imprinted on them.
This is a photo from of the village of Bournville, just south of Birmingham, England, in 1926. (Wellcome Collection)

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution in England and Wales began in the late 1700s and lasted until the middle of the 19th century. For many people working in mills, factories or mines during this period, the work was dangerous, the hours were long, and life was very hard. The Industrial Revolution is thought to be one of the most influential and formative periods in history in terms of social change. This research looks at the regional patterns of personality traits that have been passed on genetically and persist today. 

The experiment

An international team of psychologists, including Dr. Martin Obschonka from the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, studied a data base of over 400,000 personality tests in the U.K. and similar data from more than one million people in the United States. They looked at what psychologists refer to as the "big five" personality traits — extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. The data was broken down by region and compared to 19th century coal mining areas and other industrial heartlands in both the the U.K. and the U.S.     

The psychological imprint

They found the Industrial Revolution has left a damaging psychological imprint on people who remain living in these areas. This legacy has been passed down genetically. People living in the former industrial heartlands are more disposed to negative emotions and are more likely to struggle with self-motivation. Specifically, neuroticism was much higher in these areas and conscientiousness was much lower on average. The researchers believe that this type of regional personality can also exist in post-war regions as well as in areas that have experienced natural disasters.