Was the Industrial Revolution Really Worth it?

Study reveals lingering psychological effects of 19th century coal-based industry.

Machine Shop

A machine shop in the early 20th century. (Image courtesy of John Abbott.)

Of course the Industrial Revolution was a good thing!

If it weren’t, why bother having two more, with a fourth industrial revolution on the way?

Well, that’s the trouble with human beings: we have difficulty appreciating problems that extend beyond the scale of a single generation. Climate change is the most obvious example, but there are plenty of others: the Dust Bowl, the Great Pacific garbage patch, every major financial crisis, etc.

Now, psychologists from the University of Cambridge have identified another long-term impact of the (first) Industrial Revolution. According to a study of almost 400,000 personality tests, people living in the former industrial heartlands of England and Wales are more disposed toward anxiety, depression and impulsivity, as well as being more likely to struggle with planning and self-motivation. Generations after the Industrial Revolution’s peak in the UK and well after the decline of its deep coal mining, these populations retain a “psychological adversity.”

“Regional patterns of personality and well-being may have their roots in major societal changes underway decades or centuries earlier, and the Industrial Revolution is arguably one of the most influential and formative epochs in modern history,” said co-author Jason Rentfrow.

Rentfrow and his colleagues argue that the damaging cognitive legacy of coal is “reinforced and amplified” by the more obvious economic consequences of high unemployment we see today. Presumably, the researchers controlled for the psychological effects of high unemployment in areas without a history of intensive, coal-based industrialization. The UK findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, are supported by a North American “robustness check,” with less detailed data from US demographics suggesting the same patterns of post-industrial personality traits.

“Those who live in a post-industrial landscape still do so in the shadow of coal, internally as well as externally,” said Rentfrow. “This study is one of the first to show that the Industrial Revolution has a hidden psychological heritage, one that is imprinted on today’s psychological make-up of the regions of England and Wales.”


The Big Personality Test

I’m sure there are a fair number of readers rolling their eyes at this point.

A population suffering from “psychological adversity” as the result of events that occurred over a century before they were born? As if the replication crisis wasn’t enough reason to be suspicious of psychology research. Still, it’s hard to argue with the methodology at work here.

An international team of psychologists, including researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, University of Texas, University of Cambridge and the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University, used data collected from 381,916 people across England and Wales during 2009-2011 as part of the BBC Lab’s online Big Personality Test.

The team analysed test scores by looking at the “big five” personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. The results were further dissected by characteristics such as altruism, self-discipline and anxiety.

The data was also broken down by region and county, and compared with several other large-scale datasets including coalfield maps and a male occupation census of the early 19th century, collated through parish baptism records, where the father listed his job.

The researchers controlled for a range of other possible influences, including competing economic factors in the 19th century and earlier, as well as modern considerations of education, wealth and even climate. Nevertheless, their research still showed significant personality differences for those currently occupying areas where large numbers of men had been employed in coal-based industries from 1813 to 1820.

Neuroticism was an average of 33 percent higher in these areas compared with the rest of the UK, indicating increased emotional instability, susceptibility to feelings of worry or anger, and a higher risk of depression and substance abuse. These same areas scored 31 percent higher than the national average for tendencies toward both anxiety and depression.

In addition, conscientiousness—which manifests as orderly and goal-oriented behaviors, including financial prudence—was 26 percent lower on average. Life satisfaction, metrics for which were included on the BBC Lab questionnaire, was an average of 29 percent lower.


The Price of Industrialization

Although the researchers admit that many factors are no doubt involved in this apparent correlation between personality traits and historic industrialization, they suggest that two of the most likely factors are migration and socialization. The story goes like this:

Those who migrated into industrial areas in the 19th century were hoping to escape the poverty of rural depression, so they were already experiencing higher levels of psychological adversity. The people who migrated out of the industrial areas later on were most likely those with higher degrees of optimism and psychological resilience. The result is a concentration of “negative” personality traits—like neuroticism—in industrial areas.

Furthermore, this migratory effect could have been exacerbated by the socialization of repetitive, dangerous and exhausting labor from childhood onward, combined with overcrowding and poor sanitation.

Taken together, these migration and socialization hypotheses would account for both nature—the migratory proposal is essentially a watered-down version of genetic drift—and nurture, though the researchers would likely disagree with this characterization.

In any case, the researchers argue that their findings could be useful to policymakers looking at public health interventions.

The peppered moth

Another unexpected consequence of the first industrial revolution. The peppered moth changed its coloration over time as a consequence of increasing air pollution. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

“The decline of coal in areas dependent on such industries has caused persistent economic hardship – most prominently high unemployment. This is only likely to have contributed to the baseline of psychological adversity the Industrial Revolution imprinted on some populations,” said co-author Michael Stuetzer from Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University. “These regional personality levels may have a long history, reaching back to the foundations of our industrial world, so it seems safe to assume they will continue to shape the well-being, health, and economic trajectories of these regions.”

The researchers also noted that, while they focused on the negative psychological imprint of coal, future research could examine possible long-term positive effects in these regions born of the same adversity—such as the solidarity and civic engagement witnessed in the labor movement.

So, was the Industrial Revolution really worth it? Environmental and psychological damage notwithstanding, living in an industrialized world is a pretty sweet deal. They key question—and one the researchers don’t seem to consider—is whether the effects of all three industrial revolutions have been similarly deleterious.

One might reasonably expect a kind of remediating effect as technological advancement makes industrial workers’ lives better: the choice between working in a factory now or a hundred years ago is a no-brainer. Unlike the first industrial revolution, perhaps the upcoming Industry 4.0 will alleviate—rather than exacerbate—the economic and psychological consequences of unemployment in the manufacturing sector today.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.