Red State, Blue State. Tight State, Loose State.
Political biases are omnipresent, but what we don’t fully understand yet is how they come about in the first place.
In 2014, Michele J. Gelfand, a professor of psychology at the Stanford Graduate School of Business formerly at the University of Maryland, and Jesse R. Harrington, then a PhD. candidate, conducted a study designed to rank the 50 states on a scale of “tightness” and “looseness.”
Appropriately titled “Tightness-Looseness Across the 50 United States,” the study calculated a catalog of measures for each state, including the incidence of natural disasters, disease prevalence, residents’ levels of openness and conscientiousness, drug and alcohol use, homelessness and incarceration rates.
Gelfand and Harrington predicted “that ‘tight’ states would exhibit a higher incidence of natural disasters, greater environmental vulnerability, fewer natural resources, greater incidence of disease and higher mortality rates, higher population density, and greater degrees of external threat.”
The South dominated the tight states: Mississippi, Alabama Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, South Carolina and North Carolina. With two exceptions — Nevada and Hawaii — states in New England and on the West Coast were the loosest: California, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont.
In both 2016 and 2020, Trump carried all 10 of the top “tight” states; Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden carried all 10 of the top “loose” states.
Gelfand continued to pursue this line of research, publishing “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the World” in 2018, in which she described the results of a 2016 pre-election survey she and two colleagues had commissioned:
The 2016 election, Gelfand continued, “turned largely on primal cultural reflexes — ones that had been conditioned not only by cultural forces, but by a candidate who was able to exploit them.”
In a 2019 interview, Gelfand said that
Cultural differences, Gelfand continued, “have a certain logic — a rationale that makes good sense,” noting that “cultures that have threats need rules to coordinate to survive (think about how incredibly coordinated Japan is in response to natural disasters). But cultures that don’t have a lot of threat can afford to be more permissive and loose.”
The tight-loose concept, Gelfand argued,
There are significantly different costs and benefits to tight and loose communities. In her book, Gelfand writes that tightness encourages conscientiousness, social order and self-control on the plus side, along with close-mindedness, conventional thinking and cultural inertia on the minus side. Looseness, Gelfand posits, fosters tolerance, creativity and adaptability, along with such liabilities as social disorder, a lack of coordination and impulsive behavior.
I recently contacted Laura Niemi, a professor of psychology at Cornell, posing a series of questions that included these two:
In her emailed reply, Niemi contended that sensitivity to various types of threat is a key factor in driving differences between the far left and far right. She cited research that
Conservatives and liberals, Niemi continued,
Underlying these differences are competing sets of liberal and conservative moral priorities, with liberals placing more stress than conservatives on caring, kindness, fairness and rights — known among scholars as “individualizing values” — while conservatives focus more on loyalty, hierarchy, deference to authority, sanctity and a higher standard of disgust, known as “binding values.”
As a set, Niemi wrote,conservative binding values encompass
Niemi cited a paper she and Liane Young, a professor of psychology at Boston College, published in 2016, “When and Why We See Victims as Responsible: The Impact of Ideology on Attitudes Toward Victims,” which tested responses of men and women to descriptions of crimes including both sexual assaults and robberies.
Niemi and Young wrote:
In summary, Niemi wrote:
Not everybody buys this.
Joshua Hartshorne, who is also a professor of psychology at Boston College, took issue with the binding versus individualizing values theory as an explanation for the tendency of conservatives to blame victims:
Belief in a just world, Hartshorne argued, is crucial for those seeking to protect the status quo:
I asked Lene Aaroe, a political scientist at Aarhus University in Denmark, why the contemporary American political system is as polarized as it is now, given that the liberal-conservative schism is longstanding. What has happened to produce such intense hostility between left and right?
Aaroe replied by email:
I then asked Aarøe why surveys find that conservatives are happier than liberals. “Some research,” she replied, “suggests that experiences of inequality constitute a larger psychological burden to liberals because it is more difficult for liberals to rationalize inequality as a phenomenon with positive consequences.”
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, elaborated in an email on the link between conservatism and happiness:
At the same time, Pinker continued,
Why, I asked Pinker, would liberals and conservatives react differently — often very differently — to messages that highlight threat?
“It’s difficult to pin down the psychological underpinnings of liberals and conservatives,” he said,
While liberals and conservatives, guided by different sets of moral values, may make agreement on specific policies difficult, that does not necessarily preclude consensus.
Robb Willer, a sociologist at Stanford, agreed that research “consistently finds differences in the moral values endorsed by liberals and conservatives,” but, he argued in an email, there are ways to persuade conservatives to support liberal initiatives and to persuade liberals to back conservative proposals:
In a 2015 paper, “From Gulf to Bridge: When Do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence?” Willer and Matthew Feinberg, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, contend that “political arguments reframed to appeal to the moral values of those holding the opposing political position are typically more effective. We find support for these claims across six studies involving diverse political issues, including same-sex marriage, universal health care, military spending, and adopting English as the nation’s official language.”
In one test of persuadability on the right, Feinberg and Willer assigned some conservatives to read an editorial supporting universal health care as a matter of “fairness (health coverage is a basic human right)” or to read an editorial supporting health care as a matter of “purity (uninsured people means more unclean, infected, and diseased Americans).”
Conservatives who read the purity argument were much more supportive of health care than those who read the fairness case.
Conversely, in a test of liberals, Feinberg and Willer measured support for maintaining high levels of military spending, with respondents reading either an editorial making the case “in terms of fairness (through the military, the disadvantaged can achieve equal standing and overcome the challenges of poverty and inequality)” or an editorial citing “a combination of loyalty and authority (the military unifies us and ensures that the United States is the greatest nation in the world).”
Liberals who read the fairness argument were substantially more supportive of military spending than those who read the loyalty and authority argument.
Willer is the co-author of a separate 2020 paper that focuses on a concept the authors call “neural polarization.”
In “Conservative and Liberal Attitudes Drive Polarized Neural Responses to Political Content” Willer, Yuan Chang Leong of the University of Chicago, Janice Chen of Johns Hopkins and Jamil Zaki of Stanford, address the question of how partisan biases are encoded in the brain:
The four authors argue that their “findings suggest that biased processing in the brain drives divergent interpretations of political information and subsequent attitude polarization.” These results, they continue, “shed light on the psychological and neural underpinnings of how identical information is interpreted differently by conservatives and liberals.”
The authors used neural imaging to follow changes in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (known as DMPFC) as conservatives and liberals watched videos presenting strong positions, left and right, on immigration.
“For each video,” they write,
Describe their neuroimaging method, the authors point out that they
The question is whether the political polarization that we are witnessing now proves to be a core, encoded aspect of the human mind, difficult to overcome — as Leong, Chen, Zaki and Willer suggest — or whether, with our increased knowledge of the neural basis of partisan and other biases, we will find more effective ways to manage these most dangerous of human predispositions.
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