Nice State, Mean State

One explanation why different states think the way they do

I’ve looked for explanations why there are geographic pockets of behavior or thinking.  I’ve looked for reasons to explain why some attributes, conditions, traits, behaviors, qualities and characteristics seem to cluster in certain areas, while residents of other places tend towards the opposite.

Why do certain states reliably vote in predictable patterns?  Why is the South especially prone to violent crime?  I’ve performed regression analyses and searched for correlations between certain variables such as income, education, climate, occupations, geography, housing, recreation, cost of living and crime.

It seems like it should be fairly simple to predict what conditions have an effect on crime rates.  For example, our recent brutal recession should have crime rates climbing, due to unemployment, unstable family structure, unaffordable housing, and decreased funding for police services.  But as the FBI notes, “the estimated number of violent crimes in 2011 declined for the fifth consecutive year. Property crimes also decreased, marking the ninth
straight year that the collective estimates for these offenses declined.”

I haven’t found any pattern or rationale that explains much of the variation to my satisfaction, and all the explanations I’ve seen promoted, such as the “broken window” theory and the “Roe v. Wade” angle, have come up short.  As the New York Times noted, a prolonged 20-year decrease in crime has the experts baffled.

However, I recently read an article that has me intrigued by a new theory.

Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times which looks at the notion that different types of people settled different parts of the United States, and their instinctive nature lives on today in the views and values of our population.

“The historian David Hackett Fischer traces the divide back to the British settlers of colonial America. The North was largely settled by English farmers, the inland South by Scots-Irish herders. Anthropologists have long noted that societies that herd livestock in rugged terrain tend to develop a “culture of honor.” Since their wealth has feet and can be stolen in an eye blink, they are forced to deter rustlers by cultivating a hair-trigger for violent retaliation against any trespass or insult that probes their resolve. Farmers can afford to be less belligerent because it is harder to steal their
land out from under them, particularly in territories within the reach of law enforcement. As the settlers moved westward, they took their respective cultures with them. The psychologist Richard Nisbett has shown that Southerners
today continue to manifest a culture of honor which legitimizes violent retaliation. It can be seen in their laws (like capital punishment and a stand-your-ground right to self-defense), in their customs (like paddling children in schools and volunteering for military service), even in their physiological reactions to trivial insults.”

And Pinker sums up his piece with …

“The North and coasts are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that emerged
in the anarchic territories of the growing country, tempered by their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance.”

This idea that we are today still affected by ancient cultural influences is way outside anything I ever considered, but I have to say that it certainly answers some questions and merits further review and reflection.

I could see that some may argue that this is nonsense, that we can move wherever we choose and we are not compelled to live in certain areas.  Yes they say, certain culture and peoples settled different areas but now we have jetliners, cars and an information society that enables to us to travel and work anywhere we choose.

But on the other hand, we are may be able to choose to live where we want, and we want to be surrounded by people who think and act like we do.  We don’t want to spend our lives trying to adapt to people with different values and customs.  So our new freedom to move about and relocate is not making our country more diverse and homogenous, it’s actually creating more clusters of like-minded people.  These islands of like-mindedness are denser and more sharply defined than in previous generations.

When it comes to new theories, if they pass the first tests of credibility and soundness, I like to put them on the proverbial “back burner”.  When certain situations arise, I’ll take them for a test drive and see how they stand up against new evidence.  Based on the results, the new theories will get promoted or demoted before they are put back on the shelf, until the next time they are dusted off and reexamined.

This line of reasoning is definitely outside my usual sphere of research, but I’ll be following up on it in the future.


5 Replies to “Nice State, Mean State”

  1. This actually makes a lot of sense, and explains the red state vs. blue state divide. Scot borderers lived in the austere Scot highlands and many of them fled to the United States with their clannish culture. They kept expanding west and south, had no particular attachment to the land and were suspicious of government, just as they were suspicious about Scotland’s government at the time. They also had a warrior culture, contrasted to the more civilized places like Edinburgh in the lowlands.

    1. Hi Mark,
      Yes, this is a interesting theory that easy to dismiss as kind of odd. But as I think about it occasionally, it makes some sense. in fact, I haven’t found any other theories that hold up as well concerning the regional differences in violent crime and other behavior.
      Let me know if you hear of anything else on this subject.

      1. Bert, two books you may find interesting. The first led me to the second. The first, Joe Bageant’s “Dear Hunting with Jesus”, a mesmerizing and incredibly sad book about the decline of the working class in Winchester, Virginia where he grew up. It is also one of the most moving and best written books I have read and that says a lot. Hard to put down. The white working class in America apparently had its origins mostly in the Scottish highlands. That led me to read about this history of Scotland, and reading “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” by Arthur Herman. Chapters of the book talk about how the Scots spread across America. It’s an interesting book too.

  2. Greetings Mr. Sperling,

    I have enjoyed both editions of your “Cities Ranked & Rated” books very much! I am really, really hoping that a 3rd Edition may be in the works…? Given the changes seen for places between the first two books, I am very curious to see how these locations in America would ‘rank & rate’ more recently with your methodology(ies) – especially following all the changes America has been through since 2007. A scan of headlines since the 2nd Edition was published would include the housing collapse, recession, stimulus spending and how the Affordable Care Act may nullify or exacerbate some of the changes you highlighted in health care when publishing the 2nd Edition. I do hope that you may be considering an update for a decade after your first book was published…

    This post is fairly interesting – my guess is that the source article by Professor Pinker – it may well explain some of the regional differences we see in America today. My perception is that “things” are changing fast in the country. For example, I am from a state (Maine) that is now so reliably blue, national campaigns spend less here that they once did (within my memory). Maine is the same state that was once known (not so very long ago) for producing ‘rock-ribbed republicans’ so I wonder if Professor Pinker’s theory would also be able to account for rapid political shifts that seem to be quite dramatic over the past half-century or so… The South was once overwhelmingly democrat, and that region has shifted significantly towards the Republican Party… I am not sure that ancestral farmers and herders can account for today’s regional attitudes in all areas of life and culture, but in some areas – it may be a cause – handed down generation to generation for some differences we observe today. Just some thoughts and a question or two to ponder…

    Best regards,


    1. Hi Steve,
      Thanks for the kind words regarding my books.
      So many things have changed in the last seven years or so. Book publishing has been turned upside-down, and most of the facts and figures filling many of the pages are now available with a few web searches. But because of overwhelming volume of detailed information, I think there is more of a need for expert interpretation and opinion of all these facts.
      So an updated volume of Places Ranked and Rated might be just the thing, given all the changes we’ve undergone in the last ten years. One thing is for sure, and that is our web site ( will have many new features and functionality. We are completely overhauling the user interface to allow us to more easily add and maintain new features, which has been an issure. We have a backlog of interesting and insightful statistics and analysis to share when we finish with the overhaul later this year.

      Regarding the shifts in political leanings, here’s something to consider – maybe the people are changing less than the poltical parties. Both parties seem to skewing more conservative, to the point where some pundits say that Obama’s positions are not that far from previous moderate Republicans such as Reagan. By occupying more of the middle ground, the Democrats are forcing the Republicans increasing to the right to differentiate themselves.
      So maybe the voters in Maine are still the same flinty pragmatists as before, but it’s the parties which have shifted.
      Just a thought.
      Thanks for writing,

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