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How “tightness” vs “looseness” explains the U.S. political map

We are forever in search of ways to better understand the cultural differences in our country that lead us to such divergent politics.

A new paper by two psychology professors at the University of Maryland proposes a new way to understand the differences between the states: tightness versus looseness.

Professors Jesse R. Harrington and Michele J. Gelfand studied "the degree to which social entities are 'tight' (have many strongly enforced rules and little tolerance for deviance) versus 'loose' (have few strongly enforced rules and greater tolerance for deviance)" and then produced a ranking of each state from tightest to loosest.  (Among the various characteristics they used to define "tight" or "loose" included the use of corporal punishment in schools, the rate of executions, access to alcohol and the legality of same sex unions. You can read the full paper here.)

Here's the full rankings.

Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 10.26.02 AM

And here's how those rankings translate in map form.

Map courtesy of University of Maryland


While it's not exact, the tightest states tend to be the most solidly conservative/Republican voting and are largely clumped in the South and Southwest. The study's authors note that while "tightness" and conservatism are linked, they are not one in the same. And, there are states --  particularly in the western half of the United States -- that are quite conservative politically but on the "looser" end of the spectrum.

By and large, however, the tight/loose rankings mirror the political map. The South is solidly Republican and tight. Swing states like Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa are in the middle of the tightness/looseness rankings. And strongly Democratic areas like New England and the QWest Coast are also among the loosest in the country. Of the ten tightest states, President Obama averaged just 40.3 percent of the vote in 2012. In the 10 loosest states, he got an average of 58.8 percent.

Now correlation does not equal causation -- as the authors note.  But, it's still a fascinating way to analyze the cultural and political currents at work in the country.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.



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