East vs. West: Stark Coast-to-Coast Culture Clash Revealed

San Francisco and Golden Gate bridge
San Francisco lives up to its reputation as innovation-focused and individualistic. (Image credit: Andy Z., Shutterstock)

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed up at a meeting with Wall Street investors in May wearing a hoodie, his sartorial choice sparked a flurry of headlines contrasting Silicon Valley's laid-back culture with the East Coast's insistence on formality.

Now, new research finds that this West Coast-East Coast culture clash isn't just media stereotyping. In fact, people living in the east coast city of Boston closely link their overall life satisfaction with how content they are with their own social status. In San Francisco, residents don't make the same connection, reflecting a more individualistic, free-to-be-me culture.

"Our ideas about who we are and how we should feel are shaped in quite dramatic ways by our local environment," said study researcher Victoria Plaut, a social and cultural psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley Law School. Broadly speaking, Plaut told LiveScience, the stereotypes are true: "If you examine the local world, you'll find that the East is more old and established, and the West is more new and free."

A tale of two cities

Plaut and her colleagues are interested in how interactions between a person's environment and their own individual characteristics affect their well-being. While your own personality, education, finances and relationships all make a difference in how happy you are, Plaut said, "they might matter in different ways in different places." [7 Things That Will Make You Happy]

The researchers wanted to go in-depth, so they picked two cities that are similar on many levels but differ in historical and cultural ways. Boston and San Francisco are both waterfront, politically liberal cities with similar economies and lots of well-educated residents, Plaut said. But while Puritans founded Boston in 1630, San Francisco didn't boom until the gold rush era of the 1840s, when thousands of hopeful miners flooded California, hoping to get rich quickly.

Even today, the makeup of the cities is different. About 60 percent of Bostonians are natives of Massachusetts, and only 16 percent of city residents are originally from other countries. In San Francisco, 38 percent of residents originally come from California. Nearly a third of San Franciscans are foreign-born.

Tradition vs. freedom

The attitude differences between the Boston metro area and the San Francisco Bay Area could be summed up in the marketing copy, or viewbooks, of the regions' prominent universities, Plaut and her colleagues wrote online Sept. 13 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Stanford University in California opens its 2009 viewbook with the words, "The wind of freedom blows," and refers to "forward-looking, forward-thinking people" looking for "the freedom to be themselves."

Harvard University, on the other hand, opened its 2008 and 2009 viewbook by discussing the school's "tradition of excellence" since 1636 and talking up the community of students and faculty.

The researchers wanted to find out if this freedom versus tradition schism was widespread in each metro area. First, they surveyed an online sample of Bostonians and San Franciscans, asking them their own perceptions of social norms in their cities. They found Bostonians perceived the culture in Boston to be much more rigid than San Franciscans viewed Bay Area norms.

"Bostonians are more likely than San Franciscans to believe that there are clear expectations for how people should behave in their city," Plaut said. "Whereas San Franciscans are more likely than Bostonians to believe that in their areas people have the freedom to go their own way."

Boston has a stronger focus on tradition and community ties than San Francisco. (Image credit: SeanPavonePhoto, Shutterstock)

Next, the researchers analyzed the "cultural products" of each city — newspaper headlines and the websites of hospitals and venture capital firms. (Health care and venture capital are major industries in both cities.) They found that the Boston Globe refers more often to communities and groups than the San Francisco Chronicle, which favors stories about innovation, creativity and notable individuals. While the Globe might lead with a headline like, "Church Struggles to Keep Its Voice," the Chronicle might go with "Wheelchair Athlete Sets High Goals."

Likewise, Boston venture capital firms were more likely to tout their reputation and experience, while San Francisco firms emphasized their pioneering spirit. Accel, a San Francisco firm, epitomized this attitude with marketing copy like, "We partner with entrepreneurs around the world who have unique, breakthrough ideas and the courage to be first."

Even local hospitals reflected their city attitude. Boston hospitals tried to lure patients with a focus on their facilities, skilled community of physicians and long histories. San Francisco hospitals were more likely to mention alternative medicine and individual patient empowerment.

Happiness differences

Next, Plaut and her colleagues looked beyond the marketing patter to the city residents themselves. They surveyed 3,485 Boston and San Francisco residents about their satisfaction with their finances, family, community, education and work, as well as their overall satisfaction with themselves. In Boston, overall satisfaction was contingent on satisfaction with all five of these factors, while in San Francisco, only work satisfaction was correlated with overall satisfaction.

In another survey, the researchers asked 403 riders of public transportation in Boston (the MBTA) and San Francisco (CalTrain) questions about things that made them happy(daily uplifts) and daily hassles. [7 Thoughts That Are Bad For You]

They found that Bostonians are at their happiest when relieved of daily hassles, especially those related to family and work relations — again emphasizing the community-based nature of the city, Plaut said. In San Francisco, happiness was more closely tied to the number of everyday uplifting experiences a person had.

"The bottom line is that in Boston, people feel the social pressure more than in San Francisco," Plaut said.

Do you live in a tradition-focused place like Boston or a more free-wheeling area like San Francisco?

The findings don't suggest that every Bostonian loves tradition and community while San Franciscans are all wild and free creative types, Plaut said. The differences are on a citywide scale, not an individual one. Nor does the study suggest that one city is happier than the other, just that residents of each city might find their happiness in different ways.

The trend is likely driven both by the cities' history and natives as well as by outsiders drawn by each town's reputation, Plaut said.

The findings are useful for understanding how cross-regional interactions — like Zuckerberg's hoodie incident — can go wrong, Plaut said. They may also matter to businesses trying to break into new markets or move employees from one city to another. Transferring to a city that doesn't share your values can be very disorienting, Plaut said.

"That can even cause unhappiness and anxiety. It can cause people to experience a lack of belongingness," she said. "Understanding the source of that disorientation is an important first step in addressing it."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.