Tight and Loose Cultures: A Conversation with Michele Gelfand

Michele Gelfand is Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland and author of an eye-opening new book on the role that culture—and specifically how strictly different cultures enforce norms—plays in our lives. The book, Rule Makers Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World explains how Gelfand’s research over the past couple of decades helps us understand some of the social forces that underlie our behaviors. Norms guide people’s behavior at all levels of social organization, from families, to companies, to entire nations, and life can look quite different when a culture’s enforcement of those norms is tight or loose.

Dave Nussbaum: Let’s start with the basics—what are tight and loose cultures and why does it matter?

Michele Gelfand: Culture is a really important puzzle—it’s omnipresent—and affects us from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. But its largely invisible. We rarely recognize how powerful it is!

One of the most important aspects of culture that we take for granted is our social norms. We follow norms constantly. And we rarely recognize how much we need norms: social norms are the glue that keep us together, they give us our identity and help us to coordinate and cooperate at such a remarkable level. What’s more, social norms are the key that unlocks societal order, and even the possibility of constructing a human society. If people didn’t abide by socially expected rules, their behavior would be unbearably unpredictable. We wouldn’t be able to coordinate our actions to do most anything—from getting place-to-place to having meaningful conversations to running schools, organizations, and our governments.

But my research has shown that some groups have much stronger norms than others; they’re tight. Others have much weaker norms; they’re loose. Of course, all cultures have areas in which they are tight and loose—but cultures vary in the degree to which they emphasize norms and compliance with them. Since I got my Ph.D. in cross-cultural psychology, I’ve been studying tight-loose cultures in over a hundred groups, and I’ve discovered that this distinction can help us understand differences across nations, states, organizations, and social classes, and even our own households. It’s what I call a “fractal pattern” of culture. Remarkably, tight-loose has a very similar pattern in terms of its antecedents and consequences across different levels. Tight-loose also causes a lot of conflict, but once we understand its logic, we cultivate greater cultural empathy and manage our divides more constructively.

One of the antecedents of a tight culture that you emphasize is threat. Why is threat so important in determining the tightness or looseness of a culture? And does it have to be a concrete threat, or can a just be a perceived one?

Often when we think about cultural differences, we don’t realize that they have a certain logic—a rationale that makes good sense. In our data, countries that experienced a lot of threat were tighter. Some nations experience a lot of threat—whether it is a high level of natural disasters, famine, and resource scarcity, or whether it comes from the constant threat of invasions from one’s neighbors or from a high level of population density on one’s soil that can create chaos (compare Singapore with about 20,000 people per square mile to New Zealand that has about 50 people per square mile!). It makes sense, cultures that have threat need rules to coordinate to survive (think about how incredibly coordinated Japan is in response to natural disasters). But cultures that don’t have a lot of threat can afford to be more permissive and loose.

Social norms are the key that unlocks societal order, and even the possibility of constructing a human society. If people didn’t abide by socially expected rules, their behavior would be unbearably unpredictable.

We’ve found this principle to not only apply to modern nations, but also to states within the U.S. States with the most disasters and pathogen prevalence are the tightest. We’ve even replicated this in traditional societies by analyzing ethnographies from the standard cross-cultural sample which provides information on 186 pre-industrial societies from around the world. We can reliably classify these societies in terms of tight-loose, and the tightest of the cultures in our data had more threat, just like the modern era. In more recent work with computer scientists, we’ve shown that threat indeed causes the evolution of tightness. Of course threat isn’t the only factor that affects tight-loose, and not all tight cultures have threat and not all loose cultures lack it; but it is an important predictor. Other important factors include things like diversity, debate, and mobility.

But to your second question—threat need not be objective to cause groups to tighten. It can be highly subjective, and subjective threat can also tighten us. In this way, tight-loose is an important framework to understand the rise of President Donald Trump and other leaders in Poland, Hungary, Italy, and France, among others. The gist is this: when people perceive threat—whether real or imagined, they want strong rules and autocratic leaders to help them survive. My research has found that within minutes of exposing study participants to false information about terrorist incidents, overpopulation, pathogen outbreaks, and natural disasters, their minds tightened. They wanted stronger rules and punishments.

When people think their culture is “on the brink of disaster,” their immediate response is to embrace tight rules and tough leaders.

We also found this in studies of President Trump and French Politician Marine Le Pen. People who felt threatened in our surveys (for example, by ISIS, Korea, or immigration) felt the U.S. was too loose and needed stronger rules, and this predicted their support for Trump. Leaders can also use that psychology in reverse—they can amplify and exaggerate threat and target people who are already threatened to gain popularity. This has been happening for centuries. This strategy has been enormously successful because it taps into a deep evolutionary principle that has helped nations survive for millennia. When people think their culture is “on the brink of disaster,” their immediate response is to embrace tight rules and tough leaders.

So when are tight norms better than loose ones (and vice versa)?

This is a great question because tight-loose produces a pretty predictable trade-off. In other words, it has similar liabilities and strengths depending on your vantage point for groups. Tight cultures have more order—they are more coordinated, uniform, and have people who have more self-control—after all, they have to regulate their behavior a lot to avoid punishment. Loose cultures are comparatively more disorganized and have a lot more problems with self-control since this muscle doesn’t get as much practice.

But loose cultures, from our data, are much more open—they’re open to new ideas (more creative), to new people (they’re less ethnocentric), and they’re more open to change. Tight cultures, on the flip side, tend to have much less openness—they’re less creative, more ethnocentric, and have much more cultural “inertia.” Even in our computer models, we can see that tight groups have a great resistance to change. After all, change threatens the social order, which tight groups cling to in the face of threat.

Image: Bookstore in Venice, Italy, Darwin Vegher/Unsplash

This is what I call the tight-loose trade-off—strengths in one group can be liabilities in others. Thus, when people ask me which is better—tight or loose—the answer is neither. Both tight and loose confer important strengths to groups (and liabilities)—depending on your vantage point.

One way to look at this – which I call the “Goldilocks principle of tight-loose”—is that groups that get too extreme—either too tight or too loose—have problems. They have higher suicide rates, lower happiness, and more instability. Extremely tight groups are very oppressive but extremely loose groups have little or no way to coordinate human behavior—what sociologists call anomie. They feel a tremendous amount of unpredictability and also suffer. The trick, I think, is that cultures often need to have different levels of norm strength given their varying ecologies but they need to ensure they don’t get too extreme.

How do you nudge a culture? For example, you’ve written about United Airlines maybe being too tight and not allowing their employees enough discretion. How do you nudge them towards looseness?

Great nudges start with a cultural audit. First and foremost, we need to analyze where an organization is in terms of the strength of its social norms, as we talk about in a recent Harvard Business Review article. But then we can negotiate the level of norm strength. For example, some organizations, like United, may indeed operate best under tight conditions, but these companies’ leaders need to know when and how to give employees more discretion—for example, in non-safety domains. At the same time, some organizations, such as Tesla, would benefit from knowing when and how to insert stronger norms into their daily practices. When already loose organizations insert some tight features into their daily operations, I call this structured looseness. On the flip side, steering a tight organizational culture into a looser state is what I refer to as flexible tightness.

Image: IHEID Library, Geneva, Switzerland, Martin Adams/Unsplash

The same principle, by the way, applies to our own households. Some families may need to veer tighter given their circumstances (in our data, for example, the working class, which experiences a lot of threat, is tighter, which is important for keeping kids out of trouble and avoiding falling into hard living, or poverty). But we can negotiate the domains that we are tight in and the domains we are loose in. In my own family we’re pretty tight on school habits and how the kids treat each other but we’re pretty loose in terms of how messy the kids are! Once you realize that tight-loose is negotiable it opens up a lot of creative potential in any social setting.

How do tight norms preserve power and status? For example, as women’s power grows, it seems that it affords them more looseness in how they behave, but that in turn may impinge on men’s power, feel like a threat, and inspire more tightness—can you speak about that dynamic?

Your intuition is dead on. As a general principle, women and minorities live in tighter worlds—they have less latitude and are punished more severely for violations than their majority counterparts (and this is even more pronounced in some cultures than others). When they do gain power, and have more latitude, this is a direct threat to the status quo that majority members are used to enjoying, and that is why we see high power women and minorities punished (and why we see, according to our research published in Psychological Science, that majorities let other majority members off the hook for deviant behavior).

President Trump seems like he’s got a good tightness message, but I’m curious why he’s not a terrible tightness messenger given that he flouts norms in an unprecedented way—what’s the deal there?

This is a million dollar question! As I mentioned, powerful people have more latitude to break norms, and Trump is the quintessential norm violator. The question is why do people tolerate it, particularly his working class base who tend to veer tight. My hunch is that people who support him feel so threatened by societal disruptions that they are willing to tolerate his bad behavior if they feel he will return them to the tight social order that they so desperately want.

How can we help people from tight and loose cultures understand each other better?

Just as it’s important to have IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence), we need to cultivate CQ or cultural intelligence. That means we have to understand the rules that are guiding behavior and how strictly they are enforced in order to best adapt to the local culture.

When we understand why cultures have different norms, we can have more empathy and less judgmental attitudes toward them.

When we understand why cultures have different norms, we can have more empathy and less judgmental attitudes toward them. The fact that I was born in the U.S. versus Singapore is pretty random—but if I were born there and was subject to a lot of historical and ecological threat, I would understand why there are so many restrictions—why people are able to sacrifice some freedom for security in that context. Understanding where cultural differences come from also helps to understand very puzzling behavior.

Take the fact that if you are caught importing gum into Singapore you may face a fine of up to $100,000 and/or jail time of up to two years. Many Americans would be very puzzled by this behavior. Why can’t they bring in something as innocuous as gum!? But the country’s extreme population density suggests why this ban makes sense. During the 1980s, city workers struggled to keep up with cleaning chewing gum waste, which became a public crisis. The sticky wads gummed up mailboxes and elevator buttons, and even jammed apartment keyholes and the sensors on subway system doors, causing frequent malfunctions. In a place with so many mouths per square mile, the solution was simple: get rid of the temptation. By 1992, the sale of gum was prohibited in Singapore, and people caught selling the chewy treat faced hefty fines. The ban led to some frustration at first, but today it’s widely upheld. And if you lived among more than 20,000 people per square mile, chances are that you’d support it, too.