Whether differences in personality among populations really exist and, if so, whether they are only due to cultural and linguistic differences or have a genetically selected adaptive value, is a controversial issue. In this research, we compared three Italian populations living on three small archipelagos in the Tyrrhenian Sea (n = 993), with their corresponding neighbouring mainlanders (n = 598), i.e. sharing the same geographical origin, culture and language. We used an adjective-based Big Five questionnaire in order to measure personality traits in four categories of individuals for each archipelago/mainland population: (1) original islanders; (2) non-original islanders; (3) mainlanders and (4) immigrants to the islands. We further analysed original and non-original islanders who had or had not emigrated from the islands. We found that islanders had different personality traits from mainlanders, the former being more conscientious and emotionally stable and less extraverted and open to experience. We also found that the subgroup of islanders whose ancestors had inhabited their island for about 20 generations in isolation (original islanders, n = 624) were less extraverted and open to experience than immigrants (n = 193). In contrast, immigrants retained the typical personality profile of the mainland populations. Lastly, emigrants from the islands (n = 209) were significantly more extraverted and open to experience than original and non-original islanders who had never left their island (n = 741). We hypothesise that population differences in extraversion and openness to experience are more probably related to genetic differences which evolved rapidly, presumably through an active gene flow produced by selective emigration from the islands. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.