60-Second Science

Threats Drive Cultural Norms

A study of people from 33 nations led researchers to conclude that a given people's history of threats leads to cultural norms. Cynthia Graber reports

Do you come from a country that has, let’s say, a history of environmental disasters or conquests? Then your culture is probably “tight”—it has strong social norms and doesn’t tolerate much deviance from those norms. And your society is probably autocratic with few political and civil liberties. Or, a happier history probably led to your culture being “loose,” with more rights and openness. So says a study in the journal Science. [Michele Gelfand et al., "Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study"]

Researchers surveyed almost 7,000 people in 33 countries. They asked respondents to scale the truth of statements such, “In this country, if someone acts in an inappropriate way, others will strongly disapprove.” Participants also rated the acceptability of activities such as kissing in public.

Then the researchers correlated those answers with current and historical data about ecological and societal threats, population density, even the prevalence of diseases. They found that the more stresses a society has faced—whether ecological or human-made—the more likely that culture is to be a tight one.

The scientists say that its threat history could explain why a given culture finds others to be alien or immoral. And that appreciating the roots of cultural differences could improve international communication.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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