Wisconsin is not a meme


Paula M. Niedenthal, Howard Leventhal Professor of Psychology, is a professor in Affective Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and president of the Society for Affective Science. She has lived in New York City (NY), Chicago (IL), Ann Arbor (MI), Baltimore (MD), Bloomington (IN), Aix-en-Provence (France), Clermont-Ferrand (France) and Madison (WI).

I lived and worked in France for 14 years and I often asked friends and colleagues there about their impressions of the United States. A Swiss colleague who had enjoyed living in the Bay Area for several years mentioned that his occasional visitors from Europe were not always so impressed. Oh, you know, he said, friends from Europe came with negative expectations and stereotypes, they looked for supporting evidence, and they left with their (negative) stereotypes of Americans fully intact. Looking for what you already believe? That’s called a “confirmation bias” in social psychology.

And everyone can be guilty of confirming their biases. Wisconsin, where I live by well-informed choice, and where the Democratic National Convention will take place? I shudder to think about the visitors who will bring their expectations and stereotypes to Milwaukee. The state has basically become a meme. In important media outlets, Wisconsin is lumped together with Indiana, for example, and called part of “the heartland.”

FYI everybody: unlike Indiana, Wisconsin was … the first state in the union to have public kindergartens, a strongly and uniformly abolitionist state (Lincoln’s anti-slavery party was founded here), the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment (OK, it was rushing to beat Illinois), and the first to pass laws against discrimination according to sexual orientation. Simply because a recent Republican governor of the state didn’t understand the unique intellectual and historical import of the University of Wisconsin System (with the idea of being 30 miles from every citizen of the state) or the meaning of the Wisconsin Idea (the intimate relationship between science and government) doesn’t mean that thinking, educated people from other states should work so very hard to remain ill-informed about the state. And it matters because Wisconsin had one the highest percentages of eligible voter turnout in the country in the 2018 midterms. It counts in the 2020 elections.

The most perplexing of the Wisconsin memes is the notion of being “nice.” When I left the US, in 1997, to become a scientist in the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France), the English word “nice” had a positive meaning: Someone was “nice” to you and that was a good thing. When I moved back, in 2011, to Madison, Wisconsin, the word nice had taken on a whole new meaning. Suddenly it was code for passive aggressive. It was linked to the state of Minnesota and then became associated with Wisconsin. In the conceptual space previously occupied by “nice” we now use the word “kind.” When George H. W. Bush passed away, social media celebrated his being “kind.” The country seems to have realized, as represented by Jamil Zaki’s book The War for Kindness, that being nice (no, kind!) is good for us. It transcends the political divide. But just being considerate and smiling at people is a good thing. I don’t care what you call it.

Engaging in behaviors that are considerate of others -- I’ll go ahead and call that being nice -- is a social norm, wide-spread in the Upper Midwest, which upholds smooth and civil social interaction, especially in public spaces. It is not the equivalent of the use of the expression “Bless your heart” in the South, which southerners claim to be a derisive comment. Furthermore, a norm of niceness is behaviorally and psychologically distinct from passive aggressiveness. Passive aggressiveness is the use of obstruction and stone-walling as ways to indirectly express negative feelings or attitudes. So, an example of being passive aggressive is not my being nice to you even though I personally dislike you. It is rather my offering to be helpful, even though I dislike you, but then not completing any tasks that you asked me to perform in order to indirectly show you how much I dislike you.

And here is something to understand about the development of norms including verbal expressions of niceness and also non-verbal ones such as smiling: They arise in part due to long-term features of the social environment. One factor that has influenced norms for social interactions in the Upper Midwest is the heterogeneity of the long-history migration into those regions through the Great Lakes. The states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois for example have been continuously populated, starting before their statehood, by waves of immigrants from different parts of the world who did not speak the same language or possess the same cultural practices. The immigrants nevertheless had to coordinate their agricultural, commercial and educational activities. Immigration to the South over the past three centuries, in contrast, has been far less heterogeneous. Research from my laboratory suggests that at least two behaviors develop in conditions of high ancestral diversity: People become more expressive of their emotions, and they use (true) smiles frequently to develop trust and coordinate interaction. In general, they develop a norm of being nice. In the sense of kind. Not passive aggressive.

Heterogeneity of long-history migration across the countries of the world and the United States. Left panel: Number of source countries that contributed to the present-day population (at least .05%) of every country of the world since 1500 CE (from the World Migration Matrix; Putterman & Weil, 2010). Right panel: Average percent foreign-born population from 1850 to 2010 of each of the United States, based on US Census data (Niedenthal et al., 2018). Darker purple represents higher historical heterogeneity.

Passive aggressiveness is an interaction strategy that is most likely to arise when individuals feel that they are in a low power position vis a vis the person they are (indirectly) reacting to. This suggests that as a stable social strategy, passive-aggressive behavior should be most frequent in societies with rigid social hierarchies. Interestingly, the countries of origin of many residents of the Upper Midwest are nations with some of the lowest indicators of hierarchy in the world (e.g., Scandinavian and other norther European countries).

And finally, about the cold winters in Wisconsin. They are not the coldest in the union and most importantly they don’t feel nearly as cold as places with higher numbers on the thermometer. The Polar Vortex in 2019 lasted for 48 hours and the temperatures went up 40 degrees in the following couple of days. It’s all a state of mind. Or, as a colleague who was raised in a mild climate told me, “People worry about winters in Wisconsin as opposed to the heat in some places or the relentless windy humidity in others??. How immature is that? I just tell them to put on a coat.”

The bottom line is that Wisconsin is not a meme. Visitors to Milwaukee for the DNC would do well to understand. Relying on stereotypes is only embarrassing to the user. It’’s they who appear ignorant and provincial.


Niedenthal, P.M., Rychlowska, M., Zhao, F., & Wood, A. (2019). Historical migration patterns shape contemporary cultures of emotion. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1745691619849591.

Niedenthal, P.M., Rychlowska, M., Wood, A., & Zhao, F. (2018). Heterogeneity of long-history migration predicts smiling, laughter and positive emotion across the globe and within the United States. PloS one, 13(8).

Zaki, J. (2019). The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. Crown Publishing Group

Paula NiedenthalComment