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Tight or Loose, Not Red or Blue

Research Finds Deeper Basis for State Differences

By Liam Farrell


States are usually labeled “red” or “blue” based on voting history, but new research at Maryland has a deeper way to distinguish their different behaviors, cultures, and even laws on marijuana and the death penalty.

Psychology Professor and Distinguished University Scholar Teacher Michele J. Gelfand and graduate student Jesse Harrington systematically identified states as “tight”—those with strong norms and little tolerance for deviance—or “loose”—those with weak norms and high tolerance for deviance. The paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and builds upon an earlier Science paper on tightness-looseness across 33 countries.

Tight states, which use tougher rules in the face of greater ecological and manmade threats, are primarily in the South and parts of the Midwest. Loose states are mostly in the Northeast and on the West Coast.

“It’s kind of the social glue that keeps society together, to know what the standards of behavior are that you have to abide by. Some states have stronger glue than others,” Gelfand says. “(Looser places) can afford to have a much wider range of behavior and punishment because they don’t have as much threat to their coordination and order.”

Tight states have more storms, food insecurity and disease, in addition to larger incarceration rates and greater discrimination, but also lower drug use and homelessness. Loose states without such threats have greater gender equality and creativity but also more transient populations and less social stability.

Ranked from tightest to loosest, Maryland comes in at No. 34, sandwiched between Idaho and New Mexico.

“A lot of people mistake looseness for a good thing,” Gelfand says. “It depends on your vantage point. We don’t see one as worse than another.”Gelfand's Map

State Tightness-Looseness Rankings
1. Mississippi
2. Alabama
3. Arkansas
4. Oklahoma
5. Tennessee
6. Texas
7. Louisiana
8. Kentucky
9. South Carolina
10. North Carolina
11. Kansas
12. Georgia
13. Missouri
14. Virginia
15. Indiana
16. Pennsylvania
17. West Virginia
18. Ohio
19. Wyoming
20. North Dakota
21. South Dakota
22. Delaware
23. Utah
24. Nebraska
25. Florida
26. Iowa
27. Michigan
28. Minnesota
29. Arizona
30. Wisconsin
31. Montana
32. Illinois
33. Idaho
34. Maryland
35. New Mexico
36. Rhode Island
37. Colorado
38. New Jersey
39. New York
40. Alaska
41. Vermont
42. New Hampshire
43. Hawaii
44. Connecticut
45. Massachusetts
46. Maine
47. Nevada
48. Washington
49. Oregon
50. California

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.