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Imagine zooming in from space, close enough to see Earthlings moving through their days. What would you see? Humans driving their cars on roads (sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right); humans walking on gray sidewalks and green paths (sometimes alone, sometimes in groups, sometimes with animals); we saw them laughing and crying, kissing and hugging; eat – with forks, sticks and hands; shake hands, hold hands, wave hands; sleeping on beds and floors; celebrate life and mourn death; survive, succeed, learn, fight, work and love.
What would be more difficult to see is the patchwork of rules that supports this movement on a daily basis. We follow these rules on what cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand calls a normative autopilot – without thinking too much about it. It’s when we leave our homelands (or zoom in from space) that we suddenly realize that not only are the rules themselves different in the world, but the strength with which they are followed. Some cultures are strained. Their quilting is woven in orderly, even stitches that don’t leave much room for breaking the rules. Some cultures are loose, with more permissive seams that allow less strict compliance with the rules.
Source: Michele Gelfand / Marianna Pogosyan
I recently spoke with Gelfand, who in his book Rule makers, rule breakers presents compelling arguments about the importance of the narrow and loose dimension and how recognition of our cultural programming can help us better understand ourselves – across nations, organizations and families.
What surprised you about your intercultural research?
I find it fascinating that the same principle can help explain reality on different levels. In my research, I continue to see similar patterns of antecedents and consequences of narrowness at the national, organizational and social class levels. I even thought about the rise of populism in politics and my own parenting style in terms of cowardice. It helps reduce the complexity of the world and it’s rewarding to see reality differently through a simple lens.
Why is the tight-loose dimension so important in defining cultural differences?
All human groups have unwritten rules or norms of behavior. What’s fascinating about the rules is how much we take them for granted. Rules help us predict and coordinate. We constantly follow them without recognizing that we are following any rules. For example, we both wear clothes for this interview. We obey the stop lights. In restaurants, we don’t take food off people’s plates. In elevators, we don’t face upside down. I think the rules are some of our most important inventions. We all have them. We all need it. But some bands need stricter rules to survive, and that’s where I started with this project.
Source: Adobe Stock
Why do cultures get crowded or loose?
My hunch was that there is no common geography, religion, language or tradition that unifies tight and loose cultures. Rather, it is an ecological and human threat. I watched how many times nations had been invaded and how many natural disasters they had. The idea is quite simple: when groups have a threat – whether it’s Mother Nature’s fury or invasions – then they need stricter rules to coordinate and survive. On the other hand, when we don’t have a threat, we can allow ourselves to relax and be a little more permissive. After the Boston bombing, you could see people tightening up. In my lab, if people feel a false threat, they want stricter rules. The reason is that you feel like you can’t solve these problems on your own and want cohesion as a group. You want strict rules and punishments that prevent people from defecting. We saw the same principle in the American elections and in France: people who feel threatened have the impression that their country is too cowardly and they want stronger leaders. We had better take history more seriously, because according to our ethnographies, what we are currently seeing is a historical replication.
What can policymakers and rule breakers learn from each other?
It is important to remember that culture is not random. It arises and evolves for good reasons. Take Singapore, for example. Singapore’s gum ban is confusing to many Americans. But when you step back and consider that Singapore is a very threatened place in terms of ecology and population density (20,000 people per square mile), then it makes sense. People threw their chewing gum on the floor and it caused a big mess and malfunction of trains and elevators. If you were born in Singapore, you might also be in favor of a chewing gum ban. Often we look at the strengths of our own cultures and the “responsibilities” of other cultures. But there is always a compromise. For example, tight cultures have more order, synchrony, uniformity, self-regulation, impulse control, and less crime. Bulk crops struggle with this. They are disorganized, have little synchrony and self-regulation. But while tight cultures struggle with openness, loose cultures are much more tolerant of a wide range of people, more open to different ideas and change, more creative. We all have weaknesses and strengths and we can appreciate them better once we understand why they have developed. We don’t often notice why we are the way we are. We take our values and attitudes for granted. But consider this thought experiment: What would it be like if I was born in this other country? Of course, there would be similarities, but you would also have different opinions depending on their rationality in this context.
How can your research be of benefit to conflict resolution?
At the individual level, once people understand the types of threats others may have had or why they are more likely to have a loose or tight mindset, it can help us understand ourselves better and have more empathy for each other. An intervention we made where we asked Pakistanis and Americans to write daily diary entries demonstrates this. The two countries have extreme stereotypes of each other along tight and loose lines: Pakistanis think Americans are very cowardly and Americans think Pakistanis are very tight. We asked the participants to read the journal entries about the daily lives of people in Pakistan and the United States. It was remarkable how this simple intervention reduced the cultural distance of the participants. They realized they had differences, but they weren’t as different as they thought they were. Not stereotyping and having some cultural empathy about why these differences evolved go a long way in managing conflict and improving our sense of how we can negotiate with the people around us.
What is the biggest driver of behavior – culture or personality?
These are bottom up and top down processes that are difficult to separate. For example, an individual’s state of mind (tight or loose) can help them adjust to strong or weak standards. If you live in a country with very loose standards, you need to be very tolerant of ambiguity. In tight cultures, it’s the opposite: you need to have strong self-monitoring to detect norms. There is a constellation of personality differences that build and maintain the strength of norms, so personality and culture are closely related.
How does Goldilocks’ principle of avoiding extremes apply to optimal functioning and our daily well-being?
People often ask me “What’s better – tight or loose?” And I say: “Neither! It’s all about (cultural) balance. Groups tend to be tight or loose for good reasons. But as they get extreme, they start to have problems. Cultures that start to fail become unpredictable. Cultures that start to become extraordinarily crowded tend to become repressive. It is the same for companies, even households. Parents who are too controlling or too laissez-faire produce ill-adapted children. With children or teenagers, we can think about which areas need to be squeezed and where we can relax a little more. It is empowering for children to understand this.
The principle of Goldilocks is found at different levels and has the same implication: we should be able to start diagnosing when groups are veering too much in one direction or the other, and then start to negotiate. Maybe not all areas need to be tight or loose and we can negotiate that by committing to flexible sealing – insert more flexibility, or structured release – add more structure to the system.
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How can the results of your research be applied to improve people’s lives?
We can harness the standards we develop as a human species to build a better planet by becoming more aware of this pervasive force in our lives. For example, for millennia we have adapted from small groups to dealing with strangers and found social norms for these great social changes. The same is happening now with the Internet. The uncivil behaviors we see online are happening because people are not being watched face to face, which is why I think we need to strengthen the internet while maintaining a healthy balance of freedom that it offers. Rules and latitude is something we must learn to balance in all parts of our life. It’s not easy, but when you start to recognize the patterns of changing cultures and their consequences, it gives us more power.
People ask me if we are getting tighter or looser in the world. The answer is: both. Release has increased in the United States over the past 200 years, as we show in an upcoming article in Nature Human Behavior, but at the same time, tightness can be evoked very easily. When we sense a threat, whether real or imagined, we can tighten up. And a huge task ahead is to discern when our threat is real or imagined.
Many thanks to Michele Gelfand for her time and ideas. Dr Gelfand is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park and Director of the Culture Lab. She uses field, experimental, computer and neuroscientific methods to understand the evolution of culture.