Forget ‘Red’ Vs. ‘Blue’ — Here’s A Whole New Way To Think About States

In modern-day America, the red and blue divide is such a common way to describe the increasing polarization in politics that it is taken as gospel. These distinctions, however, don’t get to the core of the deep, cultural issues that divide the nation and fail to help us understand how and why circumstances in states vary across the U.S.

In a paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we advance a more useful framework for understanding state-by-state variation — namely that states vary in the degree to which they are tight (i.e., have strong norms and little tolerance for deviance), or loose (i.e., have weak norms and greater tolerance for deviance). Tight states have greater constraint and limit behavioral options across contexts, while loose states have greater latitude and afford a wider range of behavioral options across contexts. Tightness-looseness gets at the issues that tend to result in cultural divisions in the United States — the fulcrum around which the modern-day “culture war” in America rotates. Indeed, the arguments bandied about between these two sides are often concerned with issues of regulation and permissiveness, which get to the deep values that each side holds dear.

Check out the map of tightness-looseness in the U.S. states here:

Tighter states are found primarily in the South and the Midwest, while looser states are generally found in the Northeast, the West Coast, and some of the Mountain States. Here’s how we did it: we calculated these scores by creating a composite index consisting of nine variables capturing the strength of punishments and degree of permissiveness in the states. Variables reflecting strength of punishment included the legality of corporal punishment in schools, the percentage of students hit/punished in schools, the rate of executions from 1976 to 2011, and the severity of punishment for violating laws related to marijuana use.

Other variables reflected permissiveness and deviance tolerance and included the ratio of dry to total counties per state and the legality of same-sex civil unions. This index also captures the strength of institutions that reinforce moral order and constrain behavior, such as state-level religiosity and, conversely, the amount of individuals without religious affiliation. And it also includes the percentage of the state population that is foreign, an indicator of diversity and cosmopolitanism.

At this point you may reasonably ask how tightness-looseness differs from the red-versus-blue divide, given similar patterns between our map and that of the electoral map of the U.S. Tight states tend to be conservative and vote Republican, and loose states tend to be liberal and vote Democrat. Yet, these are distinct constructs. Conservatism and liberalism are individual beliefs, while tightness and looseness describe an objective, external social reality that exists independently from any one individual. Importantly, red and blue are not necessarily indicative of tight or loose state social norms. This can be demonstrated by those loose states that vote Republican — including Idaho, Montana, and Alaska — and those tight states that vote Democrat — including Pennsylvania. It’s also notable that tightness-looseness is a distinction that generalizes beyond the U.S. It has been fruitfully applied to differentiate nations and tribal groups in previous research (check out our international study here). As such, it taps into a core cultural dimension that is found across the globe. The red-versus-blue dichotomy is too particular to the United States to do so.

The tightness-looseness framework provides an explanation for why states, nations, and tribal groups differ so greatly on the strength of social norms and tolerance for deviance. Similar to patterns found between nations, tight states have more threatening ecological conditions, including a higher incidence of natural disasters, poorer environmental health, greater disease prevalence, and fewer natural resources. Tight states also have greater perceptions of external threat, reflected in the desire for more national defense spending and greater rates of military recruitment; this may have a historical basis, as those states with a large amount of slave-owning families in 1860 — those that were “occupied” by the North after the Civil War and lost the backbone of their slave-based economy — are tighter. In all, we argue that ecological and historically based threats necessitate greater coordinated action to promote collective survival.

Our study also found that tightness-looseness is predictive of significant differences in state level personality and various advantages and disadvantages in terms of state level outcomes. Tighter states had a higher average of conscientiousness — a personality characteristic related to lower impulsivity, greater self-control, orderliness, and conformity — relative to looser states. On the other hand, looser states had greater average openness — a personality characteristic related with non-traditional values and beliefs, tolerance toward difference, and cosmopolitanism. Tight states have greater social organization (less instability and greater cohesion), better indicators of self-control (lower alcohol and illicit abuse), and lower rates of homelessness relative to loose states. However, they also have higher incarceration rates, greater discrimination, lower creativity, and lower happiness relative to loose states.

Forget “red” versus “blue” and think “tight” versus “loose.” This distinction helps us to understand differences between traditional societies, modern nations, and now the 50 states.

Jesse Harrington is a doctoral student in the Social Decision Organizational Sciences program at the University of Maryland and a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow. Michele Gelfand is a Professor and Distinguished University Scholar Teacher at the University of Maryland.

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