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Do You Live in a ‘Tight’ State or a ‘Loose’
Guest EssayCredit...Illustration by The New York Times; photograph by David Miur/Getty ImagesBy Thomas B. EdsallMr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.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

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Guest Essay

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Credit…Illustration by The New York Times; photograph by David Miur/Getty Images

By Thomas B. Edsall

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.

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 Ph.D. 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, Donald 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 results were telling: People who felt the country was facing greater threats desired greater tightness. This desire, in turn, correctly predicted their support for Trump. In fact, desired tightness predicted support for Trump far better than other measures. For example, a desire for tightness predicted a vote for Trump with 44 times more accuracy than other popular measures of authoritarianism.

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:

Some groups have much stronger norms than others; they’re tight. Others have much weaker norms; they’re loose. Of course, all cultures have areas in which they are tight and loose — but cultures vary in the degree to which they emphasize norms and compliance with them.

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,

is an important framework to understand the rise of President Donald Trump and other leaders in Poland, Hungary, Italy and France, among others. The gist is this: When people perceive threat — whether real or imagined, they want strong rules and autocratic leaders to help them survive. My research has found that within minutes of exposing study participants to false information about terrorist incidents, overpopulation, pathogen outbreaks and natural disasters, their minds tightened. They wanted stronger rules and punishments.

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:

If liberalism and conservatism have historically played a complementary role, each checking the other to constrain extremism, why are the left and right so destructively hostile to each other now, and why is the contemporary political system so polarized?

Along the same lines, if liberals and conservatives hold differing moral visions, not just about what makes a good government but about what makes a good life, what turned the relationship between left and right from competitive to mutually destructive?

In her emailed reply, Niemi contended that sensitivity to various types of threats is a key factor in driving differences between the far left and far right. She cited research that

found 47 percent of the most extreme conservatives strongly endorsed the view that “the world is becoming a more and more dangerous place,” compared to 19 percent of the most extreme liberals. Being threatened by the world, in turn, correlated with support for the Muslim ban and building a U.S.-Mexico wall. But if perceived threat were measured by endorsement of the statement “the U.S. is becoming a more and more dangerous place,” the results would likely look different — liberals, thinking of gun violence, may appear very high in threat perception.

Conservatives and liberals, Niemi continued,

see different things as threats — the nature of the threat and how it happens to stir one’s moral values (and their associated emotions) is a better clue to why liberals and conservatives react differently. Unlike liberals, conservatives strongly endorse the binding moral values aimed at protecting groups and relationships. They judge transgressions involving personal and national betrayal, disobedience to authority and disgusting or impure acts such as sexually or spiritually unchaste behavior as morally relevant and wrong.

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

the values oriented around group preservation, are associated with judgments, decisions and interpersonal orientations that sacrifice the welfare of individuals. For example, binding values are associated with Machiavellianism (e.g., status seeking and lying, getting ahead by any means, 2013); victim derogation, blame and beliefs that victims were causal contributors for a variety of harmful acts (2016, 2020); and a tendency to excuse transgressions of in-group members with attributions to the situation rather than the person (2023).

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 sexual assaults and robberies.

Niemi and Young wrote:

We measured moral values associated with unconditionally prohibiting harm (individualizing values) versus moral values associated with prohibiting behavior that destabilizes groups and relationships (binding values: loyalty, obedience to authority and purity). Increased endorsement of binding values predicted increased ratings of victims as contaminated, increased blame and responsibility attributed to victims, increased perceptions of victims’ (versus perpetrators’) behaviors as contributing to the outcome and decreased focus on perpetrators.

In summary, Niemi wrote:

Numerous factors potentially influence the evolution of liberalism and conservatism and other social-cultural differences, including geography, topography, catastrophic events and subsistence styles. What happened to people ecologically affected social-political developments, including the content of the rules people made and how they enforced them. Just as ecological factors differing from region to region over the globe produced different cultural values, ecological factors differed throughout the U.S. historically and today, producing our regional and state-level dimensions of culture and political patterns.

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:

I would guess that the reason conservatives are more likely to blame the victim has less to do with binding values and more to do with the just-world bias (the belief that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, therefore if a bad thing happened to you, you must be a bad person).

Belief in a just world, Hartshorne argued, is crucial for those seeking to protect the status quo:

It seems psychologically necessary for anyone who wants to advocate for keeping things the way they are that the haves should keep on having and the have-nots have got as much as they deserve. I don’t see how you could advocate for such a position while simultaneously viewing yourself as moral (and almost everyone believes that they themselves are moral) without also believing in the just world. Conversely, if you generally believe the world is not just and you view yourself as a moral person, then you are likely to feel like you have an obligation to change things.

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:

There is variation across countries in hostility between left and right. The United States is a particularly polarized case which calls for a contextual explanation. For example, my own country, Denmark, has a multiparty system and now for the first time since 1978-79 has a coalitional government which includes both the main party on the political left and the party on the political right. A central explanation typically offered for the current situation in American politics is that partisanship and political ideology have developed into strong social identities where the mass public is increasingly sorted — along social, partisan and ideological lines.

I then asked Aaroe 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:

It’s a combination of factors. Conservatives are likelier to be married, patriotic and religious, all of which make people happier. They may be less aggrieved by the status quo, whereas liberals take on society’s problems as part of their own personal burdens. Liberals also place politics closer to their identity and striving for meaning and purpose, which is a recipe for frustration.

At the same time, Pinker continued,

some features of the woke faction of liberalism may make people unhappier: As Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have suggested, wokeism is cognitive behavioral therapy in reverse, urging upon people maladaptive mental habits such as catastrophizing, feeling like a victim of forces beyond one’s control, prioritizing emotions of hurt and anger over rational analysis and dividing the world into allies and villains.

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,

because a predominantly liberal social science establishment tends to analyze conservatism as a kind of pathology and apply a double standard to the characterizations. It may be liberals (or at least the social-justice wing) who are more sensitive to threats, such as white supremacy, climate change and patriarchy; who may be likelier to moralize, seeing racism and transphobia in messages that others perceive as neutral; and being likelier to surrender to emotions like “harm” and “hurt.”

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:

While liberals tend to be more concerned with protecting vulnerable groups from harm and more concerned with equality and social justice than conservatives, conservatives tend to be more concerned with moral issues like group loyalty, respect for authority, purity and religious sanctity than liberals are. Because of these different moral commitments, we find that liberals and conservatives can be persuaded by quite different moral arguments. For example, we find that conservatives are more persuaded by a same-sex marriage appeal articulated in terms of group loyalty and patriotism, rather than equality and social justice.

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, contended 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 an author of a separate 2020 paper that focused 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 addressed the question of how partisan biases are encoded in the brain:

Partisan biases in processing political information contribute to rising divisions in society. How do such biases arise in the brain? We measured the neural activity of participants watching videos related to immigration policy. Despite watching the same videos, conservative and liberal participants exhibited divergent neural responses. This neural polarization between groups occurred in a brain area associated with the interpretation of narrative content and intensified in response to language associated with risk, emotion and morality. Furthermore, polarized neural responses predicted attitude change in response to the videos.

The four authors argued that their “findings suggest that biased processing in the brain drives divergent interpretations of political information and subsequent attitude polarization.” These results, they continued, “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 (DMPFC) as conservatives and liberals watched videos presenting strong positions, left and right, on immigration.

“For each video,” they wrote,

participants with DMPFC activity time courses more similar to that of conservative-leaning participants became more likely to support the conservative position. Conversely, those with DMPFC activity time courses more similar to that of liberal-leaning participants became more likely to support the liberal position. These results suggest that divergent interpretations of the same information are associated with increased attitude polarization. Together, our findings describe a neural basis for partisan biases in processing political information and their effects on attitude change.

Describing their neuroimaging method, the authors pointed out that they

searched for evidence of “neural polarization” activity in the brain that diverges between people who hold liberal versus conservative political attitudes. Neural polarization was observed in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), a brain region associated with the interpretation of narrative content.

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 suggested — 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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