A psychologist helps us understand why life is so different around the world

Michele Gelfand used to be “a sheltered Long Island kid who only saw New York and the world through a cartoon lens.” In college, she went to London for the first time and, surprised by the culture shock, decided to learn more about what makes cultures so different around the world. Today, Gelfand is a cultural psychologist at the University of Maryland and author of Rule Breakers, Rule Makers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, which is out on September 11th from Scribner.

Gelfand’s key insight is that “tight” societies care more and “loose” cultures care less about enforcing social norms. The Verge spoke to Gelfand about what drives cultures to be tight or loose, which one might be “better,” and what it means for politics and living online.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How does the framing of “tight versus loose” culture interact with other psychological measures? For example, “individualism versus collectivism”?

Collectivism is about family, whereas being individualistic is about being self-reliant. This is one dimension, and tight versus loose is another. They’re not competing; they’re compatible.

For example, East Asia is collectivist and tight, and the US is loose and individualistic. But there are places that are more focused on individualism and they’re tight — like Austria and Germany and Switzerland — and places that are collectivist and loose, like Latin America and Spain. Plus, tightness and looseness varies by region of the country or organization or even family.

What causes the difference in tightness versus looseness?

Cultural differences emerge because they’re somehow adaptive, or at least were adaptive at some point in time. One of the biggest predictors of tightness is the level of threat that groups experience, which could be nations, states, or social groups. In one of my first papers on this topic, I was looking at historical population density and the number of natural disasters of regions, and I found that groups that face a lot of chronic threat become tight. They need rules and norms to coordinate for survival. Groups that don’t have a lot of threat can afford to be more permissive.

I’ve worked with computer scientists, and we see the same principle validated with computer simulations of fake societies. This isn’t the only factor that pushes groups toward tightness or looseness, but it’s one of the most important.

What are some of the pros and cons of each approach?

Across many different contexts, whether it’s nations or organizations or households, tight groups have much more coordination and order and control. You have less debt, less alcoholism, less drug abuse. With loose cultures, they tend to be more disorganized and have a host of self-regulation failures — they have the opposite issue — but they corner the market on openness. They’re much more open to new ideas, new people, to change. Tight cultures struggle with these issues. They’re more ethnocentric and tend to have a lot of cultural inertia.

Crime rates are much lower, and it’s very safe in tight cultures. But when I send my research assistants to tight cultures and they have some sort of stigmatized marker, like tattoos, they’re treated much more negatively.

What can this tell us about how politics work and the rise of more autocratic leaders?

I think a lot of the divides that we see in this country, and around the world, don’t stem from ideological perspectives, but they reflect more of this tight-loose tension.

People crave order when they feel threatened, and that threat can steep in from many places, like financial stress. And then they have a desire for autocratic leaders to help them survive. So it creates this perfect storm. You like leaders like Trump or [far-right French politician Marine] Le Pen who are exaggerating threats and targeting people who are the most vulnerable. This is the recipe for getting elected. The biggest challenge we have is trying to separate out what is real versus what’s illusory because these politicians are good cultural psychologists.

There are a bunch of implications. One is that there are groups that experience a lot of threat — like working-class rural areas — and we need to create a safety net for them and for the US as a society. We also need to contend with the exaggerated illusions that keep people supporting these leaders.

Are there places that are balanced in tightness and looseness?

There are countries in Europe that are quite balanced, like Germany, France, the UK. The more extreme places were like Pakistan, South Korea, Malaysia, or the former communist countries that experienced the pendulum shift of being very tight to total chaos.

We do see that countries that have too much constraint and a lot of repressiveness have really low happiness scores and a lot of instability and a hard time creating wealth. At the opposite end, very few norms guiding behavior leads to problems, too. So it’s important to recognize that there is a Goldilocks principle: too tight or too loose is bad.

Are people happier in places that match their mindset?

Yes, people who have more of a match between their own individual proclivities do better when they come to a country that matches their sense of norms. It’s also important when choosing an organization and in families. Often, when we choose a spouse or we think about parenting styles, we don’t think, “Oh what domains does my spouse or my partner think need to be strict? Which domains do they think need to be permissive?”

What about the online world? How can tightness and looseness affect us there?

We need to harness the power of social norms to better our world. We can use culture for the betterment of our planet once we better understand the dynamics and in some contexts need to loosen up and in some contexts need to tighten up. Knowing the difference is critical, and the internet is a great example of a place that really requires both.

It’s a cesspool of anti-normative, loose behavior that’s creating fraud and cheating and bullying. We haven’t quite reckoned with the fact that we live online now. This is a place where we need tighter norms, whether it’s top-down through companies developing standards for behavior, or happening bottom-up where people say, “This is our community.”

It’s a complicated issue because we don’t want to be in China where there’s so much monitoring, but right now, we’re at the opposite end. We’re in a cultural place that needs more personal accountability and needs to tighten up.

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