Q&A with PANGEA Lab Director Dr. Friedrich Götz

Following an around-the-world academic journey, Dr. Friedrich Götz joins UBC Psychology as assistant professor in the social personality area.

Dr. Friedrich Götz’ research focuses on the geographical differences in psychological characteristics, tracing the historical sociocultural causes of present-day regional differences in personality and values. He is excited to collaborate with researchers across the globe to better understand the impact of regional differences—not only in a western context.

“One thing I’m currently really excited about is broadening the geographical horizon of geographical psychology. The social sciences suffer from a staggering overreliance on data from North America and psychology is no exception. However, if we really want to understand something about humanity, we need to study all of humanity, not just a small, often WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) fraction of it.”

In a Q&A, Dr. Götz shares how his travels influenced his studies, how his work was sparked by reverse-engineering Harry Potter’s sorting hat, and his fascination with incorporating AI into psychological research.

First can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born in Jena, a university town in Eastern Germany. Growing up, we bounced around quite a bit, my parents were students when they had me, but we ultimately settled in the greater Braunschweig region, in the state of Lower Saxony in Northern Germany. After graduating from high school, I spent half a year teaching English and Music at a boarding school for tsunami orphans and socially disadvantaged children in the middle of the jungle in the province of Phang Nga in South-Western Thailand. That was an extremely formative period of my life. My parents had always instilled this longing for travelling in me, but it was only when I started living abroad that my wanderlust fully hit me. At the same time, seeing how the school I was working at managed to turn lives around and offer children that had had such a difficult start perspectives and opportunities to go places and chase their dreams really inspired me and when I came home, I decided I wanted to study psychology and become a psychotherapist, specializing in childhood and adolescence.

I really wanted to go abroad again – I never stopped loving Germany, I just thought there was so much more to discover. My parents threw in a veto and asked me to stay within the borders of Germany, at least for my undergrad. In equal parts because it was an excellent school and because I wanted to make a point, I enrolled at the University of Konstanz – bordering onto Switzerland, as far away from home as was geographically possible while still staying within Germany. Once there, before my first lecture I went straight to the international office and said: “I know I just got here, and this is place is great. But please – could you help me to get out of here again and go see the world.” They could and they did. I seized every opportunity I could, doing internships in Stockholm and Hong Kong and exchange semesters on Long Island and in Vienna. At the same time – I changed course within my field. When I entered college, I was determined to go into clinical psychology but my first course in social psychology changed that forever. Something just clicked. I also was blessed to run into the most generous mentor I could possibly find – Stefan Stieger, an Austrian who had just arrived in Konstanz and did cutting-edge work using science apps to collect data in the field.

As a senior, I dared to attempt a big leap and applied for grad school at the University of Cambridge in the UK. I figured my chances were slim, but I had generous funding from Germany that would cover my tuition and my prospective grad school advisor, Jason Rentfrow, did work on geographical differences in personality and music psychology – both super timely and cool areas. Plus, Cambridge itself was this mystical, young, electrifying, multicultural place. It was too good a package not to try. And then I got in. For the next four years I called Cambridge my home. It was everything I had hope for and more. Sure, it was challenging, and the workload was crazy at times – I was going to grad school and wanted to stay in academia after all. But it was also an extremely inspiring and enriching journey. I made friends from all over the world, took up the age-old Cambridge tradition of getting up at 6am to row on the river cam, sang evensongs in my college choir, went to conferences around the world, did research stints in Brisbane and Tokyo, had dinner with engineers, philosophers and classicists – and met my partner, a corky, quick-witted and absolutely adorable Vancouverite who had set out to explore the old world.

We followed her job and moved to London together. Then the pandemic hit. I was in my last year of grad school. In a brief, blissful moment of relief – between Covid waves – I was with my parents hiking in the Dolomites in Northern Italy, I saw a job ad for UBC. Just like four years before the dream was too real not to chase it. I applied – not daring to hope for much. And just like four years before, against all odds it worked. The rest is history. I am typing this as I sit in our beautiful new apartment. I am so thrilled to be joining UBC and am so grateful for how everything turned out. I started taking kayaking lessons lately. And I brought my trumpet – I guess my love for music stuck with me.

What kinds of questions do you try to answer through your research?

How do people from different parts of a country differ psychologically and what does that mean for them and the regions they are live in? Thanks to the digital age and big data revolution, we can now look at data of millions of individuals to identify geographical variation in psychological characteristics, such as personality traits. Our findings consistently show that countries aren’t monolithic cultures but actually have clear regional differences (in addition to a broader, shared national culture).

Moreover, we are beginning to understand the causes and consequences of these differences. For example, we are now able to trace back influences of certain historical sociocultural influences – such as war experiences, exposure to religious doctrine or industry structure – and ecological factors – such as the climate and topography of places – to present-day differences in personality traits and basic values. We are also observing that such psychological differences (within regions, cities, and neighbourhoods) matter for a host of macro-level outcomes, such as election results, crime and volunteering rates, prevalence of obesity and suicide, start-up foundations and patent production.

Can you give us an example of this in our daily lives?

Happily! How do regional personality differences matter for us individually? For one, they have a substantial impact on our happiness and self-esteem. For example, across multiple studies in different countries around the world, we see that people whose own personality is similar (but not identical) to the average personality of their surroundings report higher life satisfaction, are happier with their personal relationships, are less likely to want to move away and have higher self-esteem (read more in the published paper). We call this person–environment–fit. In recent work, we could further show that who the people in our surroundings are does not just affect our emotions, but also our behaviour. In a big study in the UK, we analyzed spending behaviour by looking at transaction records over one year in over 100,000 individuals. We found that what people spend their money on is not only determined by their gender, age and individual personality, but also by the average personality of the region that they live in (read more in the published paper). For example, if you live in London, a place where many extraverted and open-minded people live (according to our data) you will likely spend more money on things that extraverted and open-minded people generally spend money on, such as travelling or eating out – than you would if you were living in, say, Manchester. And that is regardless of whether or not you yourself are extraverted or open-minded (which of course would further amplify these tendencies).

How did you become interested in this line of research?

Serendipity. When I started in Cambridge, I wanted to research wanderlust (I still do – I think it’s a fascinating phenomenon, perhaps now more than ever) – but then I stumbled into a large-scale media collaboration with TIME Magazine. It started out as a side project, we reverse-engineered Harry Potter’s sorting hat, using established, psychometrically-sound personality questionnaires. We got ethical approval for the project and invited people to donate their data. Suddenly this thing went viral and overnight I owned a dataset with over 1.5 million people in it.

Around the same time, I met my best grad school buddy, a geographer-turned-psychologist. We saw an opportunity we ran with it and never looked back. It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun! Also: I just love maps (and from the reactions I get when giving talks I think most people I speak to do too) and what could be more fun than looking at them all day long?

Can you tell us about any new research you are particularly excited about?

Most of the research that I am really excited about is done by other people. There are just so many brilliant minds out there – and the vast majority of these minds are housed in kind humans that generously share their work and insights. Academia can be a real grind – but most academics I have met are delightful and many are really inspiring. But I guess that’s not really what you were asking about, is it? So yes, one thing I am currently really excited about is broadening the geographical horizon of geographical psychology.

The social sciences suffer from a staggering overreliance on data from North America and psychology is no exception. However, if we really want to understand something about humanity, we need to study all of humanity, not just a small, often WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) fraction of it. So, I try to push for more diversity here. Currently, in collaboration with colleagues in Medellín and the Colombian Ministry of National Education I am examining regional differences in personality across Colombia and in another project with colleagues at Waseda University in Tokyo we are doing the same for the 47 prefectures of Japan.

Another stream of my work that genuinely fascinates me is determining how we can use AI to facilitate traditional psychological research. For example, there is this new generation of algorithms – which have been trained on millions of websites – that can generate text that is virtually indistinguishable from text written by humans. With this comes enormous potential (one applicable area that I am currently working on is the development of new psychological scales and tests) but of course also many challenges, ethical and otherwise. My contribution here is modest and mostly translational – that is, I try to find ways to make these new technologies available and applicable to psychological audiences, but I think it’s a powerful development that will continue to change the landscape of science and society in the years to come.

Do you have a motto?

I don’t. But my mom – who is much wiser than me – often says: “You don’t always need to make the right decisions in life. But when you look back at them you need to be able to remember why you made them.” I try to live by that.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I love running and – as my partner, family and friends will confirm – go stir crazy when I cannot hit the tracks for a few days (yes, quarantining wasn’t fun – for me or anyone near me!). I also never tire of life stories – whether it’s listening to other people I meet or losing myself in books. I tend to think that’s also a big reason why I enjoy my work so much. On the flipside, it really interferes with me reading all the amazing non-fiction books my colleagues write on scientific topics – sorry! And food – I just love exploring cuisines from around the world (and Vancouver is a beautiful spot for that!). True to my own research, my hobbies are also very much shaped by my surroundings – I recently took up sea kayaking and had my first skiing lesson. In non-Covid times I am also a passionate traveller and I very much hope to be able to resume that once the pandemic will be under control.