The One Reason Why Families, Companies, and Countries Don’t Get Along

“When we feel chaos around us, we want strict rules to help us cope with it.”

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Michele Gelfand is a Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her pioneering research into cultural norms has been cited thousands of times in the press, and she is the author of the recent Next Big Idea Club finalist, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. She recently sat down with Next Big Idea Club Editor Jeremy Price to discuss navigating cultural differences on scales large and small, and what it means to become culturally intelligent.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To watch the full version, click the video below.

Jeremy: For anybody who may not be familiar with your work, what exactly is this book about?

Michele: This book is about ways to understand cultural differences all around the world, from our nations to our states, to organizations, to our own households. And often we think about cultural differences in terms of rather superficial characteristics, like red versus blue, rich versus poor, or East versus West. And I wanted to understand, “Are there some deeper cultural codes driving behavior?”

So this book is about understanding a really important way in which groups vary. And it’s pretty simple: how groups strictly adhere to social norms, or not. It’s what I call tightness versus looseness. Tight cultures have a lot of rules and regulations, and a lot of punishment for deviance, while loose groups have much more flexibility and permissiveness. It’s something that affects everything from our nations to our neurons, from our politics to our parenting. So the book takes us on a journey of why these differences exist, what consequences they have, and how we can use them to better our lives.

Jeremy: So tightness is all about strict rules and regulations, and any deviation from those norms is punished and frowned upon. Whereas in looser cultures, they still have some rules and norms, but if you deviate from them, that’s totally okay.

Why do tight and loose cultures differ, and what sort of trade offs are we looking at?

Michele: This is a great question, and first I just want to mention that all groups have social norms. We don’t show up to meetings half-naked. We don’t face backwards in elevators. We don’t have sexual encounters in public. We have a lot of rules that we’ve agreed upon that we take for granted, and they’re critical for human society because they help us predict each other’s behavior. They help us coordinate in a way that is unprecedented in other species.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Which is better, tight or loose?’ And the answer is it depends on your criteria.”

I set out to measure tight/loose, both in pre-industrial societies and modern nations and states. We identified cultures like Japan, Germany, Austria, and Singapore as being very tight—even if they have some loose domains—versus cultures like New Zealand, where people walk barefoot in banks, they burn couches on college campuses, and there’s a national wizard that was given a license by the prime minister to entertain the country. Cultures like Greece and Brazil veer looser as well, even if they have some tight domains. And in our data, one of the biggest predictors of tight/loose was the amount of coordination that groups need.

Norms help us coordinate, but some groups need more coordination, and that has to do with the threats that they face. Some groups around the world have had massive amounts of threat from Mother Nature—constant disasters and fear of famine, where you need rules to coordinate and to survive. Those are cases where you don’t want people to defect and start looting and doing all sorts of weird things. You want to trust the system, and rules help us do that. Even invasions and other human threats affect tightness—tightness is predicted by how many times in the last hundred years that your nation has been potentially invaded. [Population] density also predicts it—Singapore, which has 20,000 people per square mile, needs more rules than New Zealand, which has 50 people per square mile.

So generally, loose groups tend to have less threat. They need less coordination, so they can afford to be more permissive. Other factors like diversity and mobility—which make it harder to agree on rules—predict looseness, too. Organizations also vary on tight/loose; organizations that need more rules have more safety and coordination issues, like airlines, police, or nuclear power plants. They’re tighter than the tech [world] and other contexts, where there are fewer coordination needs.

People ask me all the time, “Which is better, tight or loose?” And the answer is it depends on your criteria. Tight cultures have more order, and loose cultures have more openness. Each of them struggles with the opposite criteria—tight cultures have less crime, and they have more uniformity. Even clocks on city streets have more synchrony in tight cultures—they say the exact same time. In loose cultures, my data show, you’re not entirely sure what time it is, because all the clocks in the city streets say something different.

“When we feel chaos around us, we want strict rules to help us cope with it.”

Tight cultures also have a lot of self-regulation. When there’s a lot of potential punishments, you learn to manage your impulses. And loose cultures struggle with order—they have more crime and less synchrony, but they have more openness to different people, they are more creative, and they’re more open to change. The point is, groups veer tight or loose for good reasons. It’s not random, and they confer certain strengths, but also liabilities.

Jeremy: So the degree of threat is a big determining factor in terms of how tight or loose a group is. If there are lots of threats, a group says, “Oh man, we have to coordinate to overcome these threats, so we better have a bunch of rules and regulations to be sure that we can survive.” And then if there aren’t as many threats, a group says, “Eh, you know what? We don’t need to coordinate against something that’s going to endanger our lives, so anything goes!” Of course that’s an oversimplification, but it sounds like that’s generally what’s going on, right?

Michele: In general, yeah. And it doesn’t have to be real threat that produces tightening—perceived threat can produce the same tightening. I can bring you into my lab and tell you that, for example, there’s an imminent terrorist threat, or that there’s [high population] density in the area you’re living in. I call these manipulations ecological priming, and it can push people into a tight mindset almost immediately, wanting stricter rules, more punishments for deviance, and more autocratic leaders.

Of course, it doesn’t last that long in the laboratory. But we did some surveys right after the Boston bombing, and people who were affected were immediately starting to tighten, becoming more culturally superior and a little bit derogatory toward outgroups. Of course, Boston was not bombed repeatedly, so this mentality started to dissipate. Chronic threat is what produces [long-term] tightening.

Jeremy: I wonder if maybe there is no meaningful difference between perceived and real threat, especially when the media is feeding us all these horrible stories about how everything’s falling apart all the time, even though there are lots of good things happening, too.

“These leaders, whether they know it or not, are almost good cultural psychologists; they target groups that feel threatened, they amplify those threats, and they use that psychology to get elected.”

And it seems like there’s an existential psychology dimension to this as well. Let’s say I live in Boston, and there’s a bombing. And I think to myself, “Oh my gosh, the world is so chaotic—anything can happen at any time!” But people don’t like the notion that everything is chaos and nothing makes sense—it’s this really terrifying thought.

So it seems that from a purely individual, existential angle, there might be this drive to reimpose a sense of order on the world, to tighten things up and say, “Things are crazy, so for my own personal sanity, I need to reel that sense of chaos back in.” Would you say that’s fair?

Michele: I think that’s a really important insight. [Psychologist] Erich Fromm talked about this—when we feel chaos around us, we want strict rules to help us cope with it. Mubarak being ousted in Egypt is one example of that—it went from total tightness to total chaos, normlessness. They had no ability to coordinate. And the Egyptian people’s [experience of] disorder predicted their desire for a Muslim brotherhood government—it’s what I call autocratic recidivism. People feel chaos, then they want order.

Before the Trump election, my colleagues and I surveyed people about the perception of threat in the United States. The U.S. has loosened over the last 200 years, but people who felt that the U.S. had a lot of threats, whether perceived or actual, from ISIS or North Korea or immigration, thought the U.S. was way too loose—and this was, in turn, affecting the desire for Trump. And the same exact [progression from] threat to desire for tightness to desire for Le Pen was found in France.

This is something that we’ve seen throughout the centuries, where people’s feelings of chaos and disorder make them want autocratic leaders. These leaders, whether they know it or not, are almost good cultural psychologists; they target groups that feel threatened, they amplify those threats, and they use that psychology to get elected.

Jeremy: In your book, you mention that measures of tightness were the highest predictors of a state’s likelihood for voting for Donald Trump. And that was shocking to me, because so many metrics were so wrong about the outcome of the 2016 election. So with this 2020 election coming up just next year, what advice would you give to presidential candidates as they’re trying to refine their campaign strategies?

Michele: I think one of the things that we missed in the election—and this was also the case in Brexit—was the fact that the working class is really struggling, and feeling incredible amounts of threat. They worry constantly about falling into poverty. There’s a safety net for the working class in other cultures, but not in the United States. So we failed to realize that we need to reach out and help these threatened groups. We need to create partnerships between government and community colleges and industry in order to help them, because they’re really struggling.

Bashing Trump is not going to help, because when people really like someone, they become part of their self-concept. So when you bash Trump, you bash them, too. We need to understand why people were voting for Trump, try to deal with the fears that they’re having, and get out to their communities. Because the Democratic party has come off, I think wrongly so, as being elitist, and not in touch with the fears that are driving these election dynamics.

Jeremy: That last point is so important, because as much as I used to love watching Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, in some ways they make the problem worse. The left often does come off as elitist, and bashing Trump and saying that right-wingers are dumb ultimately just exacerbates the problem without addressing the root cause.

Michele: Totally. And what’s really bizarre is that Trump is the quintessential norm violator, but his working-class base tends to be tight and worried about falling into poverty. So why do they tolerate that? One answer is that they feel like he’s promising to bring them back to a tight, traditional order that they’re used to. The highest goal in a lot of these communities is just to get back to a place that makes sense, that’s less chaotic and scary. These are basic psychological principles that I hope we can get out to the Democratic party, and try to help them understand what’s really driving these dynamics.

Jeremy: Absolutely. I also wanted to get to some of the questions submitted by Next Big Idea Club members. For example, Lisa Westbrook asks, “What should companies be looking for when it comes to hiring a manager that fits with their culture?”

“In this polarized and ever-globalizing world, we really need to understand culture.”

As a quick followup question, let’s say that I’ve got a very loose organization. Do I want a very loose manager who would fit in nicely with the preexisting culture? Or do I want more of a tight manager to create a complementary, yin-yang dynamic?

Michele: The best managers, I would argue, are ambidextrous when it comes to tight and loose. They know where to insert some structure into a loose company that might be getting disorderly—I call this structured looseness. We might nominate Tesla as one example of that. On the flip side, sometimes you need to loosen up cultures that are too tight—I would nominate United for that case. It’s an airline, so it does need to veer tight—we don’t want those people making a lot of weird decisions. But they were normatizing everything—[employees] felt like they were following the rules blindly. In that case, we need more flexible tightness. We need to be on the lookout for when these dynamics get too extreme, because extreme tightness and extreme looseness have a lot of problems.

The best leaders understand the needs that people have. In loose contexts, they have a need for autonomy, so more oversight is really painful. In tight cultures, people have a need for order, so introducing sudden changes is pretty scary. The best leaders understand the psychological needs of these different groups, and know how to be ambidextrous.

I think it’s exciting to think about [this dynamic] as negotiable, even in our daily lives. Think about conflicts you have with your in-laws, for example. My family tends to veer looser, and I have in-laws that veer tighter. And on vacations, we have a lot of tight/loose conflict in terms of structure versus spontaneity. So I can say, “What are my highest priorities for looseness, and what are your highest priorities for tightness? Let’s negotiate.” Understanding where these differences are coming from can help us empathize with our colleagues, our bosses, our kids, our neighbors, and our in-laws. And we often need each other’s strengths—if I’m looser, my liabilities are being disorderly, and for someone who’s tighter, their liabilities are more in the openness side. So coming together can be really beneficial.

Jeremy: Another member question comes from Popsy Kanagaratnam, who says she is thinking about these ideas in the context of the culture in K-12 schools. And part of the reason I bring this up is that author Nir Eyal was recently in conversation with Arianna Huffington, and he was talking about why so many teens are drawn to using social media, sometimes to unhealthy degrees. He was saying that in school, we tell kids what to do, where to be, and who to socialize with, for hours and hours at a time, every single day. And in his view, the only other place where we do that to such an extent is prison.

His argument is that these school environments are so tight that when you have an environment like social media where anything goes, these kids feel the need to flee to those looser environments just to create a sense of balance. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Michele: Yes. I was just talking to my teenage daughter about this, and I said, “What is your theory on social media? Do you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing for kids?” She’s like, “Mom, you adults don’t get it. We are so stressed out from all the deadlines and all the stuff we have to do in school, and this is an escape for us.”

Now with that said, it’s a general principle that when you have a lot of tightness and you escape that context, you can go to the opposite extreme. I’ve seen it with kids who are in very strict households—when they get to college, they might lose control, because they haven’t developed self-regulation mechanisms. They had been monitored [their whole lives] and were simply abiding by the rules without thinking about them. The same is true in the military—when people live on tight ships all the time and then leave those environments, they can lose control and have a lot of counterproductive work behaviors.

Schools need to be organized—and so do the military and our households—but how do you insert some discretion into those systems? That’s the flexible tightness idea again. Teachers can use this construct to balance freedom and constraint, and also to understand students who come from different backgrounds, some of whom want a lot more discretion and some of whom are not used to it.

Jeremy: If you wanted everyone to take away one big idea from this book to bring into their everyday lives, what might that be?

Michele: I think the idea is that we need to be culturally intelligent. We think about intelligence, and emotional intelligence, but in this polarized and ever-globalizing world, we really need to understand culture. And as humans, we invented culture—it’s our most amazing accomplishment. Social norms, in particular, are this amazing thing that we’ve built, but we don’t understand how they’re affecting our behavior. And this very simple principle of tight and loose can help reduce the puzzlement that we have about many issues, from socializing our children to the rise of populism.

It doesn’t explain everything, but with just one shift in perspective, it’s something we can use to diagnose what’s happening in our households and our nations.

Ready for more insights from Michele Gelfand? Join the Next Big Idea Club today!