UW News

December 11, 1996

The numbers game: UW psychologist’s urban ardor leads to a better way of rating North America’s cities

Geoff Loftus may be the best thing that has happened to Orange County since the Southern California municipality recovered from bankruptcy several years ago.

Loftus, a University of Washington psychology professor, is the person behind a revised rating system that ranks Orange County as the best place to live, according to the 1996 edition of the “Places Rated Almanac: Your Guide to Finding the Best Places to Live in North America,” which is being released tomorrow (Wednesday).

Orange County, which ranked 23rd in the almanac’s last (1992) edition, edged out Seattle-Bellevue-Everett in Washington, and Houston for the top spot among the 351 cities rated in the United States and Canada. Mansfield, Ohio, replaced Yuba City, Calif., as the worst place to live.

How Orange County leaped to the top of the livability heap is purely a matter of numbers, a subject that Loftus has done a considerable amount of thinking about as a cognitive psychologist. Developing methods for measuring things is one of his professional pursuits and his hobbies include exploring cities.

“One of the fundamental challenges of any science is figuring out measuring tools. The physical sciences have been in business for thousands of years and have developed such devices as the clock and the yardstick. Finding these tools is difficult in the social sciences and we have a paucity of methods to measure such things as racism in culture, fear or livability,” he said.

“One of my hobbies is to think about and try to solve some of these issues. It’s intriguing to find ways of measuring and assigning numbers to the qualities people — or in this case, cities — possess. The “Places Rated Almanac” is filled with raw data such as the number of freeway miles or the average annual snowfall of a city. The challenge was to reduce all of this information in order to assign concrete numbers to the abstract concept of the goodness of cities.”

Loftus, who professes to having a love affair with cities and what makes them interesting, was attracted to the quadrennial almanac almost from its inception in 1980. But he was troubled with the way the book crunched its statistical data to come up with its rankings.

In 1984, after Pittsburgh was named the most livable city, Loftus wrote an article about rating communities for Psychology Today that caught the attention of the almanac’s author, David Savageau. Four years later Seattle climbed into the number one position in the almanac and Loftus, in a Los Angeles Times article, tried to demonstrate that, using more psychologically sensible ranking methods, California was actually a better place to live. He recalculated the statistics and Seattle tumbled to a seventh-place ranking with Los Angeles assuming the top position. In addition, California cities filled five of the top 10 spots.

Savageau was intrigued, but the almanac’s publisher wasn’t convinced the public would accept a new statistical rating system. So the old system of rating cities — ranking them one through 300-plus in nine different categories and then adding up their scores to find the most livable community — persisted in 1992.

But in early 1996, Savageau, whom Loftus says is a genius in his ability to ferret out statistical information, was wallowing in a sea of data. Savageau convinced the publisher it was time to change the rating system and asked Loftus for his assistance.

Loftus agreed and became co-author of the almanac. The most noticeable change from this collaboration is a transformation of the scores in the nine categories — cost of living, crime, weather, higher education, job outlook, transportation, the arts, recreation and health care. Instead of numerically ranking cities, Loftus put their scores into percentiles on a scale of 0 to 100 with 50 being the average and 100 the ideal. A city’s overall score is an average of its scores for all nine categories. Thus, Orange County’s overall score of 78.30 shaded Seattle’s 77.72 and Houston’s 77.06.

Loftus believes percentiles convey more information than a ranking system. “Simple rankings don’t tell the true difference between two cities. For example, the number one and number two ranked cities in transportation might have percentile rankings of 99 percent and 80 percent, a huge difference, or their rankings could represent 99 percent and 98.9 percent, a very minor difference,” he said.

In addition, Loftus used a statistical technique called factor analysis as a more effective way of processing the mountains of data that Savageau collected. The idea was, for example, to take all the information collected on a city’s weather and collapse it into one number.

The new ratings, like any such rankings, inevitably will cause controversy and discussion. That’s because Americans, for some reason, strongly identify with the city in which they live, Loftus said.

“We all belong to a hierarchical organization — where we work, our neighborhood, our city, our state and our country. But for whatever reason, people seem to bestow their geographical loyalty mostly on the city where they live rather than on their company, neighborhood, state or country. This inclination is most easily seen in their attachment with sports teams, but it also shows up in their reaction to city rankings.”

For more information, contact Loftus at (206) 543-8874, or by e-mail at {gloftus@u.washington.edu}.