Washington vs. Oregon: Who's more uptight?

A new study shows how cultural and political attitudes are state specific - and shaped by nature.
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Cultural attitudes differ among states and influence voting patterns.

A new study shows how cultural and political attitudes are state specific - and shaped by nature.

Legal pot, same-sex marriage, creativity, artistic excellence. It's all part of being Left Coasters, “loose” in the way we view life, government and politics. So say two University of Maryland psychologists in a paper titled, “Tightness-looseness across the 50 united states”, and published by the National Academy of Sciences. (You can find it here.)

Things like naked bicycle parades, hempfests, gay mayors and micro-brewery entrepreneurs also figure into defining who’s loose and who’s stuck in a tightness mire of conformity and distrust. By the way, Washington is (very slightly) tighter than Oregon, which is tighter than California. (Though Jerry Brown is still the man!)

Using a lot of very solid numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies, as well as peer-reviewed publications of fellow scholars, study authors Jesse R. Harrington and Michele J. Gelfand characterize the Left Coast and Northeast as “loose”, and the old Confederacy and its border states as “tight”. They find Utah, with its huge Mormon base, “looser” than states like Ohio and Pennsylvania; and the Dakotas more “loose” than the Carolinas. Mother Nature, say the authors, factors into these distinctions.

According to Harrington and Gelfand, “Tight states experience greater ecological vulnerabilities than loose states” — as in a propensity for floods, tornadoes and disease. These nasty conditions produce a population that is conscientious, cautious, controlled, focused on prevention and extremely fond of order. Contrast that, say the authors, with looser, less disaster-prone states that can afford less constrained behavior and greater flexibility in private and public life.

The Civil War is 150 years in the past, but the authors suggest that former slave states, threatened by the loss of their “way of life,” are still “tight” when it comes to law enforcement, military enlistments and dependence on military bases. Washington has a larger military presence than Oregon and California, proportionally; a reason, perhaps, that it is slightly tighter than those other Left Coast states. Tight states enjoy greater social stability and lower rates of drug and alcohol use. But they also exhibit more gender inequality, greater rates of incarceration and less innovation and creativity.

Studies of “tight vs. loose” are not new, but they focused primarily at the nation level. The United States is really, as the study's title suggests, a bunch of (sometimes) united states. The authors quantify the differences, and they are stark. Mississippi, the tightest state, gets a 78.86 score on the “tightness chart.” California, at the opposite end of the scale, earns a 27.37. (Washington is 31.06; Oregon 30.07).

Oh yes, I thought you would never ask — tightness scores do correlate to how we vote. The 15 “loosest states” all voted for President Obama in 2012 — except for Alaska. All but one (Virginia) of the 15 “tightest states” went for Mitt Romney.

There you go.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.