Why We Leave : How Personality Traits Influence the Emigration Journey

Why We Leave : How Personality Traits Influence the Emigration Journey

March 09, 2023


Now that you have done the cost analysis, let us look at the emotional cost of emigration

Many South Africans are considering leaving the country. However, of the few who actively start the process, even fewer see it through. The decision to emigrate is often made at important crossroads in people’s lives, with lasting consequences for the decision-maker and people affected by this decision. To underestimate the emotional cost of emigration or to have false expectations about the destination or even yourself can have costly implications, should the result fail to meet your expectations. A decision to return may be extremely expensive and even unaffordable.

While the cost to emigrate is often framed in economic terms by both the sending and receiving countries, the emotional cost thereof has to date received less attention.[1] Quitting your job (if you had one), selling your home, storing some precious belongings after selling the rest, and leaving loved ones behind, all form part of the cumbersome process. Emigration is a major life event that requires a conscious decision to make a break with an established, secure existence and a familiar environment. This phenomenon is multi-layered and requires a holistic approach.

“Should I stay or should I go?”

For some people, emigration is a liberating and positive experience. Others experience a profound sense of being emotionally uprooted, causing feelings of loss and pain. The expectation of being uprooted and relocating into an unknown environment usually causes ambivalent feelings.

Let us talk!

In my profession as an emigration therapist, potential emigrants often seek indicators that their emigration journey will be successful and will inevitably lead to a better life. I am therefore frequently asked the question: “Should I stay or should I go?” This question elicits feelings of uncertainty. To assist, I advise them to answer the following three questions:

  1. Why are you leaving?
  2. Who are you? Do you truly know yourself?
  3. What does ‘successful emigration’ mean to you?

Before making the final decision to emigrate the would-be emigrant should do a cost-benefit analysis. On the one hand the prospect of increased income and the opportunity to discover new places might be enticing. On the other hand, there is the stress of leaving home, together with the  financial risks and emotional costs of emigration. As emigration can be a significant turning point in one’s life, it is common for individuals to second-guess themselves and question whether they are making the right decision.

Why are you leaving?

Emigration is a life-altering event that can follow multiple incidents and interpretations of a situation. To decide whether you should stay or go, one of the first steps is to understand the “push” factors that are driving you to leave the familiar, and the “pull” factors that are encouraging you to move to the unfamiliar. In other words, you need to identify and understand the events and circumstances that led to your decision.

There is no single reason why people emigrate. Rather, it is a complex interaction of multiple factors. South Africans are driven by lingering issues in the country, such as the uncertain political climate, violent crime, lack of employment opportunities, increasingly deteriorating infrastructure, and endemic corruption. Although these socio-economic and political drivers of emigration are well documented, it does not fully account for people’s desire to emigrate. Crucial to this perspective are our personality traits.

Who are you?

Wittingly or unwittingly, the decision to emigrate is often prompted by the psychological attributes of the decision-maker. What is more, research suggests that these attributes can serve to potentially predict successful emigration. Yet, this role of personality factors are often overlooked by emigrants themselves. To address this issue, Boneva and Frieze[2] have devised the concept of a ‘migrant personality’, which presumes that people who persevere and eventually see the emigration process through have personality traits that differ from people who decide to stay.

Personality traits and emigration

The Five Factor Model, also known as the Big Five Personality Traits, is a psychological theory that describes human personality in terms of five broad dimensions.[3] These include a tendency to be open to new experiences, to be conscientious, to have an extraverted personality, to be agreeable, and to be neurotic. Personality is considered to be the expression of the dynamic interaction of all these traits. Furthermore, each trait functions on a continuum with its opposite trait and dictates how an individual thinks, feels and behaves in situations, which tends to be consistent over time. By determining your position on each of these dimensions you can gain a clearer  idea of your personality and how it influences your thoughts, feelings and behaviors.


Open-minded individuals tend to be adventurous and to display neophilia.[4] They have a tolerance for diversity, a positive mindset about complex situations, a broad range of interests, and are more likely to be creative. They are often curious about the world and other people, are eager to learn new things, and enjoy new experiences. Open-minded individuals may therefore be more open to the idea of emigration and be more willing to embrace change. They also tend to be more adaptable to the challenges that the lengthy and complex process of emigration poses.

Unsurprisingly, a tendency to be open to new experiences is considered the main factor linked to the decision to emigrate. People who tend to be more open-minded are usually on the hunt for new challenges and will exert a lot of energy in those efforts. Emigration presents much novelty in terms of location, social networks and culture, and these factors are usually favoured by open-minded individuals.


People with a high level of extraversion have an energetic approach to life and are often sociable and assertive. Such people are generally more talkative, adventurous and emotionally expressive. Their being around others leave them feeling energised and excited. Extraversion plays an important role in emigration, since emigration is an inherently bold move where a person must often socialise with complete strangers.

Being optimistic usually makes extraverts more confident that they will be successful in a new location. Extraverts and those open to new experiences are more likely to strongly consider pulling up their roots and resettling in a new country. In contrast, people who decide to emigrate, but show more introverted tendencies should accept that it will require some effort to reach out and build a new circle of friends. As such, emigration can be a personal growth experience.


People who are agreeable are characterised by qualities such as kindness, cooperativeness and a tendency to prioritise the well-being of others. Agreeable individuals tend to internalise the values and norms of their local community, and it is possible that these individuals may be more likely to value the well-being of their local community and be less inclined to leave it behind. They have a strong need to connect with people they know and may therefore be less motivated to move to another country.


Conscientiousness is characterised by qualities such as responsibility, dependability, self-discipline and duty. As predictability and order are important to them, conscientious people may perceive the psychological costs of emigration to be too high. It may be possible that people who are both agreeable and conscientious are less likely to emigrate, since they are more inclined to stick to familiar routines and commitments. They are usually also more content in their present environment and less inclined to take risks and make major changes in their lives.


Neuroticism refers to an individual's tendency to experience negative emotions, such as anxiety, fear, sadness, and guilt, and to be more prone to emotional instability. People who are more neurotic are often described as sensitive, anxious, moody, and easily stressed, making the process of adjusting to a new environment and culture more of a challenge. In contrast, individuals who are less neurotic are generally considered to be more emotionally stable, which can help when adapting to the challenges that accompany emigration.

The discussion on the ‘big five personality traits’ demonstrates that although emigrants do not necessarily have similar personalities, they share a set of personality traits that can be used to predict their likelihood to venture into new and unfamiliar territories, such as resettling in a new country. People that tend to be more open and extraverted may be more likely to embark on this complex journey and follow through with the emigration process.

Personality traits can therefore preempt how a person will weigh up the expected benefits and drawbacks of permanently leaving their country of birth and can potentially predict emotional responses to ventures into the unknown. Voluntary emigration is, by its very nature, a function of individual differences. Therefore, knowing your own personality traits can potentially predict the success of the emigration process and affect your decision to emigrate.

What does ‘successful emigration’ mean to you?

‘Successful emigration’ is a highly subjective term and is unique to each person. In his study, Berry[5] defines successful adaptation as the process where immigrants are able to integrate into their new society and are able to achieve a sense of fulfilment, satisfaction, and well-being. In this regard, he identifies a number of factors that contribute to successful adaptation such as employment, housing, education, health, social networks, and cultural adaptation, among others. For some, however, ‘successful emigration’ means choosing to leave their country for another, with the option to return. Yet for others still, it means permanently settling in a new place without ever returning to their country of birth. Defining success is therefore unique to each individual; as unique as their  personality traits.

Emigration is not for everyone, and that is OK!

The decision to emigrate  is a complex and personal one that requires careful consideration of many factors. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question “Should I stay or should I go”, as the outcome of the decision is unique to each individual and their circumstances. What is universal, however, is that the event to be uprooted and relocated in an unknown environment comes at significant social, psychological, economic, and cultural costs that can have varying effects on people. While some may find the process of emigration liberating and positive, others may be left with feelings of loss and emotional upheaval. An informed decision, one where you are clear and realistic about your expectations, will help you embark on this journey with no false expectations. In this regard, seeking advice from professionals or researching as much as possible about the country you are considering emigrating to will ensure a decision that will align with your motives and priorities.

It is indeed not a decision that should be taken lightly.


[1] Ferreira S & Carbonatto C 2020. "A license to leave South Africa": A qualitative study of South African parents' narratives of their children's reasons for emigration [online]. Social Work, 56, 3: 310-327. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.15270/52-2-860 [Accessed 7 December 2022].

[2] Boneva BS & Frieze IH 2001. Toward a concept of a migrant personality [online]. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 3: 477-491. Available from: https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/0022-4537.00224 [Accessed 9 January 2023].

[3] Cherry K 2022. What Are the Big 5 Personality Traits? Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism [online]. Available from: https://www.verywellmind.com/the-big-five-personality-dimensions-2795422 [Accessed 7 February 2022].

[4] Neophilia refers to an “appreciation for and even a desire to have fresh, new experiences”, or “a love of the new” (https://thriveworks.com/blog/novelty-seeking-ups-downs-neophilia/). People with a high level of neophilia are willing to make life-changing decisions, even if it involves taking personal and social risks.

[5] Berry JW 2002. A psychology of immigration [online]. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 3: 615-631. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/0022-4537.00231 [Accessed 9 January 2023].


Caleo Capital USA (Caleo Capital NA LLC) are an integrated wealth advisory and asset management firm that serves high-net-worth South African families who have relocated or are planning relocation to the United States. Emigration and relocation is complex both administratively and emotionally, with so many aspects to consider. Financial planning for the average high-net-worth individual is no simple task, but tax, retirement, trusts and estate planning is even more complicated when your financial life spans international borders. Caleo Capital has established relationships with reputable partners who assist with a range of challenges facing newly immigrated clients.

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