Why, wonders University of Maryland psychology professor Michele Gelfand, are the clocks in Brazil so often wrong, while in Germany the clocks can be counted on? What explains the difference between New Zealand, where prostitution is legal, and Singapore, where chewing gum brings severe sanctions? In Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, Gelfand traces all of this, and so much more, to a single variable: the “tightness” of a culture. She explains the origins of tight (or loose) cultures in countries, in states, in companies, even in families—and then takes readers through the myriad implications, from politics to parenting. Gelfand answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.  

Can you please explain what you mean by “tight” and “loose” cultures?

All groups have social norms, or unwritten standards that guide behavior. As children, for example, we learn to not grab things out of other people’s hands; to walk on the right side of the sidewalk (or the left, depending on where you live); to put on clothes each day. These social norms are the glue that keep us together, they give us our identity and help humans to cooperate at such a remarkable degree.

In our study across 33 societies published in Science, we found that cultures vary in the strength of their social norms, with profound consequences for our worldviews, our environments, and our brains. Some cultures are tight, with little tolerance for deviance, while loose cultures have weak norms and are highly permissive.

But this distinctions isn’t just relevant for nations. The U.S. 50 states can be classified in terms of their levels of tightness, as can organizations. Our recent research also shows that the working class is tighter than the upper class. Even our own households vary in terms of how strict or permissive we are. It’s a remarkable to see how similar this pattern is across different scales.

Why do these differences arise?

That’s a great question. Tight and loose countries aren’t united by obvious qualities. They’re not similar in terms of their location: the tight countries of Japan, Germany, Norway, Singapore, and Pakistan are all scattered around the planet, as are the loose countries of Netherlands, Brazil, Greece, and New Zealand. Groups of tight or loose countries don’t speak the same language. They don’t share any common religion or tradition. Tight countries aren’t all the same age, nor are loose ones. Some, like Sparta and Singapore, or New Zealand and Athens, are separated by over 2,000 years. 

But there’s actually an important, yet largely hidden reason for why these differences evolve: countries that have experienced a lot of threat tend to be tighter. The threat can come from many sources: a high level of natural disasters and famine, a scarcity of resources, the potential of invasions, or a high population density (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 under threat need rules to coordinate and survive (think about how incredibly coordinated Japan is in response to natural disasters). Cultures that have it easier can afford to be more permissive.

Threat isn’t the only predictor of a culture’s tightness. Groups that have more mobility and more exposure to other cultures tend to be looser. Take the Netherlands, for example. Its coastal location has promoted extensive travel among its citizens and a high dependency on international trade, giving the Dutch centuries of rich experiences with other cultures. It tends to be loose.

Which is better, tight or loose?

Neither! Tight cultures have more order. They are more coordinated, more uniform, and people exhibit more self-control.  Loose cultures are comparatively more disorganized and there is less self-control. But loose cultures are much more open—they’re open to new ideas (more creative), to new people (they’re less ethnocentric) and they are more open to change.

This is what I call the tight-loose trade-off; strengths in one group can be liabilities in others. 

One problem—the “Goldilock’s principle of tight-loose”—is that groups that get too extreme tend to have problems. They have higher suicide, lower happiness and more instability. Extremely tight groups are very oppressive but extremely loose groups that have little or no way to coordinate human behavior have what sociologists called anomie or total normlessness. It’s best to not be too far in either direction.  This applies not only to nations but to organizations and even to our own parenting. I actually am very explicit with my kids about the domains in which the rules need to be tight and where they can be loose!

How do you see this playing out in different parts of the United States?

States in the South and parts of the mid-West tend to veer tight and states on the coasts tend to veer loose. Like nations, tight states tend to have experienced more threat (natural disasters, food insecurity, pathogens) than loose states. Tight states have people who have higher conscientiousness and they have more social order and politeness, but they have more discrimination and lower creativity. Loose states are ruder and have less order, but they have people with higher openness and they are much more tolerant and creative. This is the tight-loose trade-off in action again.

Tight-loose overlaps with the red-blue state distinction but it provides a far deeper understanding of how and why states differ beyond their voting behavior.

What insights do you think this framework offers for these troubled political times?

Tightness is an important framework to understand the rise of Trump and other leaders in Poland, Hungary, Italy, etc. When people perceive threat, whether real or imagined, they want strong rules and autocratic leaders to help them survive.  My research has shown that even illusory threats can lead to a remarkably tight psychology. 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, favored their own tribe, and became intolerant of outsiders.

We also found this in studies of Trump and Le Pen. People who felt threatened in our surveys felt the U.S. was too loose and needed stronger rules, and this predicted their support for Trump.

Trump seems to understand this psychology of threat. He continually states that Western civilization faces “dire threats,” that “our country is in serious trouble,” and that “something dangerous is going on.” The goal: To inspire fear, tighten groups, and be perceived as the only person who can deliver safety. Trump’s 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.

Societal tightening in response to real threat is adaptive, but tightening in response to manufactured or exaggerated threats can be destructive. Today we face real challenges, but we’re also confronted with unprecedented levels of fake, manufactured, and exaggerated threats that could push our nation toward unnecessary levels of tightness. Now more than ever, we need to work together to separate the illusory threats from the real ones.