In a 2011 study, cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand and her colleagues discovered that some nations are relatively tight while others are relatively loose. Tight nations have many rules, the rules are vigorously enforced, and citizens have little tolerance for those who break the rules. Loose nations, on the other hand, have few strongly-enforced rules and greater tolerance for deviance. Pakistan and Singapore are among the tightest nations in the world; the Netherlands and Brazil are among the loosest.

In a follow-up study published in 2014, Gelfand and her student Jesse Harrington examined tightness and looseness in the United States. For all 50 states, they measured its degree of tightness and other variables that, in theory, are associated with tightness.

To measure a state's tightness, they constructed a 9-item composite index that included (1) sentencing severity for criminal offenses, (2) the illegality of same-sex civil unions, (3) state-level religiosity, (4) the percentage of students hit or punished in schools, and (5) the rate of executions.

According to their measure, southern states are 2 to 2.5 times tighter than states on the West Coast and in New England. Most states in the Midwest are, well, in the middle.

Why are some states tighter than others? Gelfand and Harrington identified many statistical predictors of state-level tightness. Tight states have more tornadoes and more deaths due to heat, lightning, and floods. They're more rural and poorer than loose states and have higher mortality rates and lower life expectancy at birth. Tight states were also more likely to have been part of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

When social groups, including states, are threatened by natural disasters, diseases, and other groups, "it is adaptive to develop a cultural milieu with stronger norms, greater behavioral constraint, and lower deviance tolerance" (Harrington & Gelfand, 2014, p. 7995). Being permissive (that is, "loose") in a threatening environment would make it difficult to coordinate and mobilize group members to deal effectively with the threat.

Another way to deal with external threats is to cultivate particular personality traits. In fact, Gelfand and Harrington found that residents of tight states are, on average, more conscientious and dutiful, more cautious, and less open to new experiences and cultures. They're also less happy.

Differences in tightness-looseness scores at the state level help us understand why illicit drug use is higher in Hawaii and New Hampshire than in Mississippi and Oklahoma--and why instances of discrimination are higher in the latter states than in the former.

For those who are curious, Gelfand and Harrington have created a map that depicts all 50 states in terms of their tightness. Don't be surprised if your own attitudes and behaviors are inconsistent with your state's average tightness or looseness. The individual differences among residents of a state are very large, much larger than any differences between states.

References

Gelfand, M., Raver, J., Nishii, L., Leslie, L., Lun, J., Lim, B., … Yamaguchi, S. (2011). Differences between tight and loose cultures: A 33-nation study. Science332, 1100-1104.

Harrington, J., & Gelfand, M. (2014). Tightness-looseness across the 50 United States. PNAS, 111(22), 7990-7995.

About the Author

Lawrence T. White Ph.D.

Lawrence T. White, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Beloit College.

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