How You Feel Depends on Where You Are

New research uses GPS data from cell phones to draw connections between people’s location and their mood.



By Susan Pinker

July 9, 2020 12:20 pm ET

Do the places where we choose to spend time have any part in shaping our personalities? The answer lies in the GPS data captured by nearly every app on our phones, according to a new study by Sandra Matz, a computational scientist at Columbia Business School, and Gabriella Harari, a social psychologist at Stanford.

The study, published in June in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that people’s persisting characteristics as well as their fleeting states of mind can be reliably predicted by the geographic breadcrumbs they leave behind. “Where you are tells us something about who you are and how you currently feel about yourself. And that’s not something you necessarily want to reveal to everyone,” said Prof. Matz.

The researchers began by assessing the personalities of nearly 2,000 university students. Participants answered 44 questions, using a scale of 1 to 5 to rate their agreement with statements such as “I can be moody,” “I do a thorough job” and “I am sometimes shy and inhibited.” The goal was to estimate how the students’ assessment of their own temperaments aligned with the “big five” personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

The researchers then kept tabs on the students’ locations, along with their thoughts and feelings, over a two-week period. (Data collection took place before the pandemic.) Four times a day, the participants were pinged on their smartphones. At each alert, they (and their phones) recorded their location, noting if they were at one of 12 commonly visited places, including a cafe, a friend’s place, the gym, their apartment, a class, a store, a religious environment, work or a party.

The students also answered five questions pertaining to their current state of mind, choosing among adjectives such as quiet, considerate, anxious, upset and lazy. These in-the-moment psychological states were averaged over the two weeks of tracking.

The researchers discovered that people’s longstanding psychological traits predict where they will spend their time. No surprise there: Under normal circumstances, it makes sense that our personalities dictate where we will be. Extroverts prefer bars, cafes, parties and restaurants, while introverts prefer to cocoon with their laptops at home.

What’s intriguing, especially now that so many people are stuck at home, is that the places we find ourselves in also shape us. ”Controlling for a person’s personality, we also saw that many of the places they spent time in affected how they thought and felt in the moment,” said Prof. Harari. “People feel more extroverted, more agreeable, more conscientious, when they are in other places, compared to when they are at home,” she said, while “people feel more disorganized and chaotic when they are at home.”

That’s a finding business leaders might ponder as they consider whether to make remote working the norm after the pandemic subsides. When people spent time in social environments, they also felt more compassionate, open-minded and kind compared to when they were at home.

Without doing a controlled experiment, the authors can’t prove which comes first, our personalities or the environments we consistently choose. Still, these findings confirm what many of us are feeling after nearly four months of lockdown. Whether frazzled or lonely, “our data suggest that if you just change your environment, you can change your psychological experience,” said Prof. Harari. Socially distant tennis, anyone?