Today more than ever, we need to understand cultural differences. A lot of times, we think about our differences in terms of rather superficial characteristics like red versus blue, East versus West, rich versus poor, religious versus secular. I’m a cross-cultural psychologist and have been trying to understand the deeper codes that drive behavior.
My focus has been on the degree to which groups strictly adhere to social norms. All groups have norms, or unwritten rules for behavior. We need them to predict each other’s behavior and coordinate on a daily basis. But what I’ve found is that certain groups are tight—they have strict rules and punishments for deviance—and other groups are loose—they’re more permissive and accept a wider range of behavior.
What I’ve found is that certain groups are tight—they have strict rules and punishments for deviance—and other groups are loose—they’re more permissive and accept a wider range of behavior.
Tight-loose is a continuum. For example, in a paper we published in Science, cultures like Japan and Singapore tended to veer tight whereas cultures like Greece and Brazil veer more loose. Tight-loose is related to but distinct from other cultural dimensions like individualism-collectivism. Our work has shown a clear trade-off that tight-loose confers to groups. Tight groups tend to have a lot of order—they tend to have less crime, more synchrony (even in city clocks and financial markets!), and have more self-regulation (lower debt and drug abuse). Loose cultures struggle with order, but they corner the market on openness—to different people, ideas, and change. All cultures have tight and loose elements—it’s the cultures that get too extreme in either direction that start to become dysfunctional.
What we also find is that there are good reasons cultures evolve to be tight or loose. It has to do with threat. When groups experience chronic threat—either from mother nature (think natural disasters and famine) or from human nature (think invasions, pathogens, or high population density)—they need strong rules to coordinate to survive. Our data across nations and states and social classes have illustrated this, and computational models we’ve developed also show how threat affects the evolution of tightness. We’ve also seen the same pattern in preindustrial societies. When there’s threat, strong rules help groups survive.
There are good reasons cultures evolve to be tight or loose. It has to do with threat.
But what we’ve found is that even when we activate fake threat in the lab, it produces the same psychology of tightening: people want stricter rules and endorse autocratic leaders who promise to return them to a tight social order. Field data also show that people who misestimate the number of illegal immigrants in the United States believe the U.S. is too loose and endorse President Trump. Of course, leaders also activate and amplify threats, target already threatened populations like the working class, and use this strategy to gain popularity. This has been happening for centuries. Today, more than ever, we need to negotiate fake threat so that we don’t tighten unnecessarily. Our lab has been developing a new computational dictionary of threat to be able to track it on social media and identify its antecedents and consequences.