States are not divided by red or blue — a deeper difference came way before politics

  • The red state-blue state dividing line between U.S. states ignores a much deeper history and psychology that each state possesses.
  • The real question: Is your home state tight or loose?
  • Research conducted on half a million Americans shows that the tightness-looseness divide remains at the root of the way a state acts and how its residents think.

What do a state’s weather and history have to do with its business competitiveness? Quite a lot.

To understand the strategic advantages that different states bring to business, we need to step back and understand the deeper template on which states vary: their culture. For years we’ve parsed our states on a red vs. blue dichotomy. Yet our research finds that the 50 states vary more fundamentally on the degree to which they are tight or loose. Tight cultures are defined by strict rules and social order, tradition and predictability. Loose groups eschew rules, welcome new ideas and embrace tolerance. It’s a primal template that has differentiated groups for millennia.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed the 'Alcatraz of the South' is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. It is located on property that was previously known as the Angola Plantations. 
Giles Clarke | Getty Images News | Getty Images
The Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed the 'Alcatraz of the South' is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. It is located on property that was previously known as the Angola Plantations. 

In the first study that documented this difference, we showed that across 33 nations, the countries with the strongest social norms and strictest punishments were those with a history of warfare, natural disaster and resource scarcity. Countries like Japan, which face the threat of more than 1,000 earthquakes per year, and Germany, the center of two world wars in the last century, are tight. Countries with a history of relative stability, like New Zealand and Brazil, are loose. Our response to threat is adaptive: By imposing social order in the form of strict norms and sanctions, we can better survive threats. Meanwhile, cultures that face few threats have the luxury of remaining loose and open.

This tight-loose logic applies to the 50 states. Jesse Harrington and I quantified states’ level of tightness-looseness by measuring how strictly they punish norm violations — such as the use of corporal punishment in schools and the severity of their legal sentences — along with indices of latitude, such as the availability of alcohol and nontraditional forms of marriage and other factors.

Understanding how your home state thinks

Where does your state score on tightness-looseness?

The 10 tightest states are Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The 10 loosest are California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Hampshire and Vermont. Delaware, Iowa, Idaho, Nebraska and Minnesota fall in the middle. From these rankings, regional patterns emerge: The South is tightest, the West and Northeast are the most loose, and the Midwest is in the middle.

As with nations, states that have faced significant threat throughout their histories are much tighter than those that have enjoyed relative safety. A map of the states that have suffered the most natural disasters coincides closely with our U.S. map of tightness-looseness: Tight states have higher death rates from heat, storms, floods, lightning, and tornadoes, as well as higher rates of disease threats and food insecurity. Similarly, it’s not surprising that southern states who felt their existence threatened during the Civil War tightened up and remain tight to this day. These are not the only factors that explain states’ levels of tightness. Centuries ago when people settled in different states, they transferred tight or loose norms from their own countries.

Tightness-looseness provides a new metric on which to understand the 50 U.S. states. As you might expect, tight-loose relates to things like conservative or liberal attitudes in predictable ways. But it provides a far deeper way to understand the culture of the 50 states and why they vary. It also can help us to identify the unique benefits — and liabilities — that tightness and looseness each bring to business competitiveness. This is what I’ve called the tight-loose trade-off: Tight states have a high degree of order, while loose states have a lot of openness.

More from America's Top States for Business:

See where your home state ranked in 2018

America's best states to live in

The 10 best states for job seekers

Analyzing data from over a half million American residents we found that people in tight states are more likely to rank high on a personality trait psychologists call “conscientiousness; and they are more likely to be self-disciplined rule followers who desire structure.

Highly organized, careful, and reliable, they tend to agree with statements such as, “I see myself as someone who is a reliable worker,” as someone who “makes plans and follows through with them,” and as someone who “does things efficiently.” People in tight states also have been found to have greater self-control than those in loose states. They’re less rude to people (my home state of New York ranked the highest in rudeness!) and are better at regulating their behavior: they have less debt and have lower illicit drug use and binge drinking. They also show other signs of traditional social order — such as lower divorce, mobility, and homelessness relative to loose states.

Loose states may have less self-control and order overall, but they have their own suite of advantages. As compared to tight states, people in loose states are more likely view themselves as original, curious, deep thinkers, and imaginative — all indications of a personality trait known as “openness.” They are also much more tolerant. A wide array of indicators at the state level, from hate crime incidents to level of religious tolerance, are strongly related to our rankings of looseness.

Using survey data from more than 2,000 Americans, we also found that people in loose states are more accepting of interracial marriages and harbor more positive attitudes toward homosexuals. Loose states have higher percentages of minority-owned and female-owned firms, more representation of women and minorities in public office, and stronger legal protections for traditionally stigmatized groups, including people with mental illness. They also have far fewer discrimination claims. Meanwhile, tight states are less open to new ideas and to diversity.

Why a state's deep culture is a business issue

These patterns offer a key to understanding where particular business advantages are located. Loose states corner the market on creativity. For starters, they have more patents per capita. Lasers, fax machines, microwave ovens and email were all invented in loose states, ranging from New Hampshire to California. You’ll also find more creative types per capita — including artists, painters, writers and illustrators — in loose states. Loose states are some of the most fun places to visit and reside in, having more recreational and nightlife options. But while tight states produce less creative output, their stricter social order allows them to corner the market on manufacturing, which requires discipline and rule-orientation to be effective. Manufacturing jobs as a share of employment and gross state product are much higher in tight than in loose states.

This is the tight-loose trade-off in action.

When considering a state's business competitiveness, it’s important to remember that states vary in their deep cultural programming that arise from their historical and ecological conditions that persist to this day. Each contributes meaningfully to business competitiveness, albeit in different ways. Depending on their goals, businesses can benefit from an understanding of the tight-loose trade-off to help make the most of their surrounding environment and enhance their competitive edge.

By Michele Gelfand, University of Maryland psychology professor and author of the book "Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our Minds," to be published in September.

Top States Past Year Rankings

  • CNBC unveils its 11th annual America's Top States for Business ranking for 2017, scoring all 50 states on 10 key measures of competitiveness.

  • Top States promos Arm Wrestling

    CNBC unveils its 10th annual America's Top States for Business ranking, scoring all 50 states on 10 key measures of competitiveness.

  • Top States 2015

    CNBC unveils its 9th annual America's Top States for Business. See where your state ranks.

Latest Special Reports

  • senior couple on beach

    A fixed-income strategy is key for investors who are retired or are approaching retirement. This special report details the range of tools and strategies used to manage a fixed income portfolio.

  • The nexus of technology -- cloud, social, mobile and data -- are transforming user behaviors and creating new businesses.

  • NYSE Trader on the floor

    The buzz on the trading floor