People - 12.12.2023 - 09:00 

Sitting down with Assistant Professor Tobias Ebert

Tobias Ebert brings his expertise in psychology and economic geography to HSG’s Institute of Behavioral Science and Technology where he aims to understand the psychological make-up of the places we live in. An interview.
He brings his expertise in psychology and economic geography to HSG’s IBT where he aims to understand the psychological make-up of the places we live in.

While working at Columbia University in the USA and the University of Mannheim in Germany, Tobias Ebert saw a perfect fit between himself and the Institute of Behavioral Science and Technology at HSG. Arriving in August in 2023, the assistant professor hopes to make an impact by translating large-scale psychological data into actionable insights for business decision-making and human well-being.

Assistant Professor Tobias Ebert, give us a brief history of where you were before coming to our university.

I received my PhD from the University of Mannheim (Germany) in 2020 and have been working as a postdoc at the University of Mannheim and at Columbia University in New York (USA). Before my PhD I obtained master’s degrees in Psychology from the University of Cambridge (UK) and in Economic Geography from the Philipps-University of Marburg (Germany). 

Your studies have an interdisciplinary feel to them. How do you describe your field of research? Why is the HSG Institute for Behavioral Science and Technology a good fit for you?

Yes, I guess it is fair to say that my research combines theory, data, and methods from different fields. Reflecting on my background in psychology and economic geography, I study spatial variation in psychological attributes. This can, for example, mean that we ask in which cities people tend to be more extraverted and courageous. In a next step, we then try to find out where such differences come from and to understand their consequences for individuals and society. For example, in previous projects we found that regional personality differences can predict where new companies and innovations emerge, or that peoples` spending decisions not only reflect their own personality, but also the personality of those living around them. The Institute of Behavioral Science and Technology (IBT-HSG) brings together researchers with different backgrounds and has a strong standing in quantitative methods and, therefore, provides an ideal environment for me to conduct my research.

You focused your PhD Thesis on the Geography of Personality. Can you describe what that is?

Geographical Psychology is a novel research field that explores how psychological traits are distributed across different areas. Traditionally, psychologists studied this by looking at broad cultural contexts, comparing entire nations or continents. Geographical Psychology continues in this tradition but with the aim of applying a more fine-grained approach. Instead of focusing on big cultural gaps, new methods of digital data collection now make it feasible to explore variations at a more specific level, such as differences between cities or even neighbourhoods within a single city.

One of your recent studies looked closer at previous studies that showed that Republicans in the United States on average live longer than Democrats. Did you discover anything new?

Yes indeed, this recent study is an example how the place we live in may be relevant for our well-being. The study builds on recent findings indicating that Republican partisans in the US have – on average - a higher life expectancy than Democratic partisans. We wanted to know whether this is true everywhere in the US or only in certain places.  Specifically, we hypothesized that Republicans longevity benefit only occurs in states with a Republican Political culture (i.e., in states where Republicans are surrounded by many other Republicans). This reasoning builds on psychological theory suggesting that people enjoy benefits if their individual attributes are shared by those living around them.

We tested our hypothesis in two separate studies. In the first study, we used a survey of more than 40,000 US citizens. In the second study, we analysed digital biographies and obituaries. In both studies, our findings upheld previous research, confirming that people who strongly identify as Republicans or are recognized as such by their descendants generally enjoy longer lifespans. Importantly though, Republicans only tended to live longer in states that align with their political affiliation. Our study challenges the assumption that Republican partisanship universally translates to health benefits. Rather, the link between political partisanship and longevity seems to depend on where people live.

Could your finding have to do with Americans who live in an Urban or Rural settings? Or with socio-economic status?

Indeed, political convictions are not equally distributed across space and societal strata. For example, it is well known that rural areas are often more traditional and more likely to vote for conservative candidates. In our analyses, we tried to account for differences in urbanity/rurality and socioeconomic status, but also for other dimensions such as religiosity, ethnicity, or inequality. We find that these basic sociodemographic differences are relevant but could not fully explain our effect. 

Does the same hold true for Democrats living in predominantly Democratic areas?

A very interesting question and the answer is no. We find that Republicans live longer in Republican areas, but we did not find the reverse effect. In Democratic areas, Republicans and Democrats lived equally long lives. This pattern converges with findings from previous studies that, for example, looked at religiosity. These studies found that religious people are happier and healthier in religious areas, but in non-religious areas there were no such benefits for the non-religious. At this point, we do not fully know what is behind this pattern. It could be that the cultural norms are not strong enough to elicit benefits, or that simply fitting in is not as relevant for certain individuals. But these are only speculations at this point and clearly more research is needed to understand the underlying mechanisms.

Are there studies that look at this trend in other countries?

I am not aware of many (if any) studies that looked at the partisanship-mortality link beyond the US. In that sense, our study, unfortunately, is in line with most geo-psychological studies. For different reasons (data availability being a particular important one) the research field is often focused on Western countries in general, and the US in particular. This is obviously a limitation, and it is an important task for the future to see whether our findings also generalize to other countries.

What are you currently working on?

One current project that I find particularly fascinating is a series of studies in which we investigate how regional personality differences relate to the adoption of innovations in cities. We find that cities vary quite a bit in how open-minded their local populations are and that this variation can predict how quickly innovations gain traction in these cities. These insights may hold practical implications, such as potentially assisting companies in identifying target markets for new products and services.

Another current interest of mine is a bit quirky. A while ago I started studying people through the imagery and inscriptions on their gravestones. I was amazed by how much we can learn about people that way. Together with computer scientists, we have scaled-up this idea and created a database comprising Millions of gravestone pictures. These data are fascinating and have a lot of potential. For example, we currently use them to travel back in time and study societal and economic shifts that happened decades (or even hundreds of years) ago.

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