The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

US Cities: Sinful and Saintly

Cities, like individuals, can be good and bad.

What I like about cities is that everything is king size, the beauty and the ugliness. - Joseph Brodsky


A recent Internet article by Jordan Rane (2012) caught my eye because it resonated with my interest in psychological variations across United States (US) cities. The premise of the article was that cities differ in terms of their sinfulness and that it was possible to identify the most sinful of them. The subtitle of the story suggested that these cities might be good places to visit if you wanted to feel good about your own bad habits. The story was tongue-in-cheek, but it raises some important issues.

There is a long tradition of regarding urban life as bad. William Morris, a 19th-century urban critic, wrote about "the hell of London and Manchester" and "the wretched suburbs that sprawl all round" (Ash, Jasny, Roberts, Stone, & Sugden, 2008, p. 739). These sentiments still dominate how many social scientists regard cities. Urban life is often depicted only in terms of what is wrong: crowding, crime, poverty, prejudice, pollution, and social isolation.

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So, why not classify contemporary US cities in terms of their sinfulness, and why not use the well-known Seven Deadly Sins as the basis of this multidimensional classification?

As a research psychologist, what I especially appreciated about Rane's article is that he made the abstract concrete by specifying actual indicators of the seven sins, and then used data from various sources to identify the best (worst?) examples of each. We can quarrel with the specific indicators he chose (their operational definitions, as it were) as well as his data sources, but what he did followed the form of good research practice, no matter how whimsical his goal. Reading his article put a smile on my face, which is not quite the same thing as rigorous peer review, but it sufficed for me.

Here are the Seven Deadly Sins, how Rane gauged them across US cities, and the highest scoring city for each.

1. Gluttony was reflected in the number of restaurants in a city, the number of fast food joints, and the obesity rate. Chicago came out on top, with figures of 4000, 3500, and 25.2%, respectively. Interesting. And, by the way, are you going to finish that order of fries?

2. Sloth was measured by low exercise levels, hours of cable TV watched, video games purchased, and death rates from deep-vein thrombosis (linked to excessive sitting). The two most notable US cities slothwise were Lexington, Kentucky, and Indianapolis.

3. Greed was ascertained by calculating how much of a city's income was derived from gambling. As Rane put it, classic greed is shown by the "dumb ... dream of getting rich against all better odds and judgment during a single, hedonistic weekend." The greediest city? Las Vegas, of course, although we must qualify this designation by recognizing that it is visitors to Sin City and not its permanent residents who leave behind close to $10 billion per year. As the saying goes, what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas ... especially the money you lose.

4. Lust was reflected in the preference by a city's residents for casual sex relationships. Portland, Oregon, is apparently the nation's leader in this respect, as well as the nation's leader in the most strip clubs per capita.

5. Envy was rated by Rane not with numerical data but rather with historical facts. So, here we have qualitative research. In designating Philadelphia as the most envious US city, he argued that it  has fallen far from once being "the epicenter of the Founding Fathers to an I-95 stepchild" gazing wistfully at New York (which is richer), Boston (which is smarter), and Washington, DC (which is more powerful). At least Philadelphia gave us Rocky, punch-drunk though he may have been.

6. Wrath (anger in plain English) shows itself in aggravated assaults, hypertension, and the number of anger-management specialists per capita. By these criteria, Detroit is angry. Really angry. Maybe that's why I have visited Detroit only five times in the 25+ years I have lived in nearby Ann Arbor. Maybe that's why Detroit had the arson and vandalism of Devil's Night every October 30 from the 1970s to the 1990s. And maybe that's why D etroit Lion Ndamukong Suh is beloved today in Detroit. According to Rane, the anger of Detroit may be explained by recent CDC data ranking Detroit as the most sleep-deprived city in the US. A poor night's sleep makes anyone cranky; so, imagine an entire city that is perpetually sleepless (and I am not referring to Seattle).

7. Pride was assessed from survey results asking residents of different cities to rate their own attractiveness as well as those of others in their town. More so than folks elsewhere, Miami residents saw themselves as much more attractive than their neighbors, a pretty good indicator of vanity. Supporting the validity of this assessment is that Miami residents were more likely to know "someone" who had elected cosmetic surgery. Miami, you're so vain, you probably think this survey's about you.

This blog is supposed to be about the good life, not the evil life, so I am not yet done with this entry. I happen to believe that cities, like individuals, can be as good as they are bad. Indeed, cities provide direct and indirect benefits to the well-being of their residents. In the industrialized world, individuals living in cities are increasingly more healthy and more productive than their rural counterparts. The aggregation of highly educated and creative people in a city allows the incubation of new ideas and the creation of new technologies.

Decades ago, urban activist Jane Jacobs (1961) argued that cities are centers for innovation, tolerance, diversity, novelty, and surprise—all good things. I agree, and I therefore thought a bit about what the positive analogue of Rane's rankings might look like.

I started with the Seven Heavenly Virtues, the Catholic theology flip of the Seven Deadly Sins. Could these be made concrete; could relevant data be found at the city level for these saintly indicatrors; and could a top US city be specified in each case? Yes, yes, and yes. Here goes:

1. The virtuous opposite of gluttony is temperance, and one indicator would seem to be how thin a city's population is. Here the cities in Colorado, like Denver, fare especially well.

2. The virtuous opposite of sloth is industry, how hard people work. I don't know much about Jackson*, Mississippi, but I did learn that this city leads the nation in overtime hours logged by its workers.

3. Greed is offset by charity, and top US cities can be identified in terms of the amount of charitable giving by their residents. Not surprisingly, given the large number of Mormon residents and their practice of tithing, Salt Lake City tops the nation in religious donations. And San Francisco tops the nation in donations to the arts. A topic of another blog entry would be what else Salt Lake City and San Francisco have in common, but I am drawing a blank at present. Let us move on.

4. Offsetting lust is chastity. Chastity can be gauged, perhaps, by low rates of condom sales, low birth rates, and low rates of sexually-transmitted diseases. By these criteria, Portland, Maine, is chaste. Please do not confuse Portland, Maine, with Portland, Oregon (see above). It might be embarrassing to do so. If you meet someone who says that he or she is from Portland, press on for more details before you make any assumptions and make a fool of yourself.

5. The heavenly virtue that opposes envy is kindness (humanitas in Latin). Here we have "real" data bearing on the willingness of a city's residents to help strangers who need directions or change or the like. Levine (2003) conducted field experiments in dozens of US cities (and in cities around the world). In the US, help was most likely to be given to strangers in Kansas City.

6. According to Catholic theology, the heavenly virtue paired with the sin of wrath is patience, and the first indicator of which I thought (after driving home this evening from work) was the average commute time in different cities. Perhaps long commutes reflect patience (as well as heavy traffic and lack of public transportation). Especially long commute times are found in Atlanta, Detroit, and Miami. We already know that Detroit is one angry place, so this may not be the best of criteria. Oh well. Be patient with me.

My next thought was that a better indicator of patience might be a city's divorce rate. Marriage is difficult, so I am told, and not everyone is willing to weather the worse in the hope that the better will occur. That takes patience. Which US city has the lowest divorce rate? The answer surprised me: New York**. New Yorkers also marry later than people elsewhere, another possible indicator of patience. When New Yorkers say "I do," they apparently do so.

7. The moral opposite of pride is humility. Here I exercise my prerogative and nominate my own hometown Chicago as a humble place. How could a place with the nickname The Second City not be humble? How could a city in love with the Chicago Cubs not be humble?

Chicago has had its sports moments, to be sure, but these have never gone to our heads. Even when Michael Jordan was leading the Bulls to multiple championships, Chicagoans never took them for granted. We were simply grateful. Compare that reaction to those of New Yorkers, who expect championships by their sports teams and are offended when these do not occur.

When the 1985 Chicago Bears won Superbowl XX, I was thrilled. I talked to my dad, then 70 years of age, after the game, and he said, "Be happy, but don't expect this to happen again in your lifetime." I gently responded, "You mean in your lifetime, Dad." "No. Chris," he said, "I mean in your lifetime." Father knows best, and Father in this case is a Chicagoan.

*I had long thought that the wonderful Johnny Cash and June Carter song "Jackson" was about Jackson, Mississippi, but per my recent check with Wikipedia, apparently not. No particular Jackson was in mind by the song's writers.

**By the way, honesty compels me to note that it is very difficult in New York to obtain a divorce, which no doubt contributes to the low divorce rate. I could argue that the legal intricacies represent an insitutionalized embodiment of patience, but that might be stretching the point I am trying to make. Again, be patient with me.


Ash, C., Jasny, B. R., Roberts, L., Stone, R., & Sugden, A. M. (2008, February 8). Reimagining cities. Science, 319, 739.

Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. New York, NY: Random House.

Levine, R. V. (2003). The kindness of strangers. American Scientist, 91, 226-233.

Rane, J. (2012, F ebruary 15). America's most sinful cities: The places to visit to feel good, not guilty, about your hellish habits. CNNGo. Document available on the Worldwide Web at,0&hpt=hp_bn7.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.


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