By all accounts, it was a classic “Florida Man” story. On July 26, 2018, a 25-year-old man fired two shots in his home to ward off what he first described as an armed and masked intruder. When police found no evidence of a break-in and his story unraveled, the man, a self-appointed paranormal investigator, eventually allowed that the intruder might have been a ghost. He was arrested the following month for, among other things, giving a false statement to police.
The headline, “Man Charged With Firing Gun at ‘Ghost’,” was almost certainly absurd enough to join the pantheon of uniquely bizarre infractions by Floridians popularized by a tremendously popular Twitter account that tweeted headlines like “Florida Man Steals $33,000 Worth of Rare Coins, Cashes Them in CoinStar Machine for $29.30.” There was only one problem.
This happened in Connecticut.
Last month, I presented TIME readers with 20 such weird headlines with the state of the alleged offender redacted—including the Connecticut Ghostbuster—only 10 of which were from Florida. Readers were challenged to identify which were which: Florida or Not Florida. This was a casual experiment to investigate—with no paranormal assistance—the burning question that many ponderous columns have tried to unpack: What is it about the psychology of Floridians that has spawned, by some viral parthenogenesis, the “Florida Man” persona originally billed as the “world’s worst superhero?”
Based on the data from about 2,700 participants who permitted us to anonymously log their guesses, I submit that the answer is: “not a lot.”
On average, users identified bona fide Florida men and women a shade better than flipping a coin, with an average score of 11.9 out of 20, bending toward a higher success in identifying Floridians. This is not surprising since, although participants were informed ahead of time that only half of the headlines were from the Sunshine State, they typically guessed Florida about 11 times. As for the Connecticut Man, 59% guessed (incorrectly) that it was a Florida story.
On the face of it, this would suggest that Floridians do not, as so many have averred, possess a unique brand of weirdness compared to the rest of the country. But things get a little more interesting. Users were also asked to volunteer their home state and their current state of residence. After running a standard test of statistical significance against every permutation of a person’s origins and present location, I found that the strongest predictor of how people performed was whether or not they were from Florida, regardless of whether they still live there.
Native Floridians correctly identified the Florida stories 7.1 times on average compared to 6.5 for those from anywhere else. They didn’t do any better with the non-Florida stories. (They were marginally more likely to guess Florida in the first place, but not to the extent that this would explain their better performance in sniffing out Florida stories and equal performance otherwise.)
While it’s not a tremendous difference, the statistical significance is extraordinarily high. There are a variety of possible explanations here. One could posit that those from Florida might remember a few of the “Florida Man” or “Florida Woman” stories, but if so, we’d expect a much stronger correlation to those currently in Florida, since most of the headlines we used are recent. More likely, I think, is that there is something different about Florida hijinks that born-and-raised Floridians can recognize. Just not that much different.
When putting together this experiment, I spoke with Robin R. Vallacher, a longtime Florida resident and social psychologist at Florida Atlantic University. He offered several intriguing theories for why we tend to pick on Florida — other than because the state seems to export the largest volume of hapless criminal headlines. When I called Vallacher this week to share our results, he came back to one of the most compelling possibilities: That the chaotic recount in the 2000 election put Florida on the map, so to speak, at precisely the time when the spread of information was rapidly accelerating.
This is known across a variety of fields as a “frozen accident” — a random, circumstantial event that leads to a lasting change in an ecosystem. Had that election hinged on 537 votes in Ohio, it is perfectly plausible that we would be talking about Ohio Man instead.
Since the now-retired Florida Man Twitter account debuted in 2013, and soon blossomed into a digital pandemic of schadenfreude, thousands of words have been devoted to unpacking its origins. Last weekend’s Washington Post Magazine led with a long meditation on the question “Is It Okay to Laugh at Florida Man?” In the story, the originator of the Twitter account, speaking on the record for the first time, expressed some unease that the alleged perpetrators occasionally become small-time celebrities, in prison or out.
It’s a tricky question, but perhaps the more exigent one is: “why do we laugh at Florida in the first place?” The clearest explanation I’ve found is that, through a combination of frozen accidents, lots of snakes and alligators, and the state’s appendix-like geography, it seems sufficiently strange and remote to non-Floridians. After all, it’s much easier to laugh at someone from a different tribe — psychologists often refer to this as “in-group vs. out-group” behavior.
While in-groups have traditionally formed around physical proximity, Vallacher notes that social media has blurred these boundaries and allowed us to form groups with those like us from anywhere. In turn, that makes it easier for people around the country to gang up on Florida instead of, say, Connecticut. “They’re all staring at the same zoo,” Vallacher says.
Which is all to say: There are Florida Men and Florida Women everywhere. The vast majority of worthy candidates who are from the other 49 states just have a branding problem.
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