APRIL 28, 2021
60 min read
Systems In Flux: A Unified Theory of Culture, Branding, and Human Behavior
Welcome to Unseen Unknown. I am Jasmine Bina. For the third episode in our series on Systems in Flux, we’re talking about the invisible systems that make a culture tight or loose, relaxed or rigid. The culture in your state might be loose while the overall culture of your country may be tight. The culture at your school may be relaxed, but at your fancy gym, it’s in fact quite rigid. Every single culture and subculture falls along the tight-loose continuum and it affects people’s perceptions of threats, how they relate to each other, how they consume, and, of course, the narratives that shape the businesses and brands that form within that culture.
Michele Gelfand is the author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers. Her life’s work has been spent researching something extremely fascinating, how tight and loose cultures form in the first place and if and how they can actually be changed. Of all the studied cultural phenomena out there, this is perhaps one of the most important in helping us understand the world in this very moment and, as we love to discuss on Unseen Unknown, why the world works the way that it works. Tight and loose cultures are systems that have been especially in flux over the past few years. Once you understand the concept, it will not only reveal a new perspective on the world of business and branding, it will also reveal the deeper logic beneath the many seemingly illogical things in the world that may have been on your mind lately.
But I have a story about how I accidentally discovered cross-cultural psychology. I was pre-med and I was at Colgate University. I left to go for a semester abroad to London and I remember really being totally shocked when I got to London in terms of the differences in… I remember calling my father, Marty from Brooklyn, and confiding in him how much culture shock I was having. Among other things, the idea that people were just going from London to Paris or to Amsterdam just for the weekend. My dad said something that really changed my life. He said, “Well, imagine like it’s going from New York to Pennsylvania.” I’m like, “That’s a great metaphor.” Actually, the next day, this is a true story, I booked a trip from London to Egypt and it was really there in Egypt when I was traveling around and thereafter around the world where I recognized just how powerful a course culture was.
So I came back to Colgate and I luckily was able to find a class on cross-cultural human development taught by Caroline Keating who was telling us about all her work on Africa on visual illusions and how they’re not universal. I went to the University of Illinois, worked with Harry Triandis. From then, it was history. I’ve just been spending my life in studying this invisible, powerful force that affects us all.
Define for us how you delineate between tight and loose cultures. What are the differences? How are they formed?
All cultures have social norms or unwritten rules for behavior. We’re socialized from a young age to wear clothes when we leave the house, most of us, to not steal people’s food off their plates in restaurants, or not to sing loudly in libraries or in movie theaters. We implicitly learn the codes of our cultures in terms of following social norms. What I’ve been focusing on is the idea that groups vary in how strictly they adhere to social norms. Some groups very strictly adhere to norms. They’re tight in our language. Other groups are more permissive. They’re much more loose.
Basically all cultures have tight and loose elements, but what we can see from our research is that you can place groups on a continuum in general from tight to loose. For example, cultures in our data that veer tight include places like Singapore and Japan and Austria. Culture that veer more loose include places like Spain and the Netherlands and the US and Brazil. It’s important neither is intrinsically good or bad. It really depends on your vantage point. Tight cultures provide a lot of order, a lot of discipline. Loose cultures are the bastions of creativity and tolerance.
So it’s really something to really understand in terms of why these cultures evolved the way they do. Why might some cultures be tighter or looser? That was really the subject of our first study on tight-loose. What was fascinating is tight cultures on the one hand and loose cultures on the other weren’t united by any obvious features. They didn’t share the same geography or the same religion or tradition. They didn’t share differences in wealth either. But they did share something really pretty profound. Tight cultures in our data tended to have much more collective threat in their histories. That threat could be from Mother Nature, like think about Japan having chronic natural disasters, or it could be from human nature. Think about places that have had constant invasions of their soil or have had high population density where there’s potentially a lot of chaos. Or even pathogen outbreaks.
When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. When you have chronic threat, you need stricter rules to help coordinate and to survive. That’s not to say that all tight cultures have had a lot of threat or all loose cultures have been on easy street, but in general, tightness tends to evolve from having a lot of collective threat. So that’s a big picture summary. In the book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, I talk a lot about how we can analyze our many different contexts through a tight-loose lens, whether it’s nations or states, organizations. Even our own households and our individual mindsets.
Yeah. I’m glad you mentioned that because I’m wondering, how powerful is threat really? Does it take much of a threat to create a tight culture or does it take very little?
Yeah, I mean, it’s a really important and fascinating question. In fact, prior to COVID, I would have had a different answer to this question because a lot of our research in the laboratory, like if we bring people into the lab and we activate threat, like fake threat, we talk about potential terrorist attacks or we talk about population density increasing or other types of threats, we see quickly people tend to like rules more. They want rules. They have this intuition that having rules helps in these kinds of contexts, whether they understand that consciously or not. We saw that with the Boston Bombing for example or 9/11. We saw that immediately we accept more rules and, again, the intuition that rules can help coordinate during these kinds of contexts.
But what was fascinating is that last March in 2020, I was starting to get really nervous about whether or not the US, with its great amount of looseness, is going to be able to tighten up as quickly as other cultures that have experienced a lot of chronic threat. Looseness is great for, like I mentioned, for things like creativity and innovation and tolerance, but there’s a real question whether these cultural traits are a mismatch during times of collective threat. So I started studying this, partnering with computer scientists, seeing, well, is it the case that loose groups tighten up less quickly? Is it the case that this affects their ability to contain the disease in terms of cases and deaths?
Sure enough, what we found in a paper we just published in the Lancet, is that loose groups across 57 countries had five times the cases and almost nine times the deaths as tighter cultures. This was controlling for many different factors that could be important in predicting these variables. Things like population density, like average age, wealth, inequality. Tightness-looseness predicted above and beyond these variables. What was really fascinating from my point of view was we found that loose cultures were far less fearful of COVID. Not just in the first 100 days of the virus, but also throughout COVID-19 up until the day that we were analyzing this data, which was mid-October, whereas tight cultures had far more fear. It was on the order of 70% of people on average in tight cultures were very scared of getting COVID, whereas only 50% in loose cultures were.
So would you go so far as to say that tight or loose cultures can actually affect your perception of a threat?
Well, yeah, because when you’re in a context that’s had a history of a lot of threat, it becomes something that’s chronically accessible in the population is what I would say. If we in the US were constantly invaded by Mexico and Canada throughout our history, if we constantly had chronic natural disasters or chronic pathogens, then we would have this cultural preparedness to know that sacrificing liberty for some constraint temporarily is important, that it saves lives.
How do the people that are raised in tight or loose cultures relate to the idea of authority? Because you did mention in the book how different cultures create different kinds of authority.
Yeah. Well, I think that in general in loose cultures, you socialize from an early age to question all sorts of rules. You look at the bookstore, mainstream American bookstores. They’re all about breaking the rules. If you live in a context where there’s less threat, those codes really make a lot of sense. But if you live in contexts where there’s a lot of collective threat, then following the rules is going to be more important and transmitting those kind of values and norms to kids is going to be more important. This also applies, by the way, even within our country.
In some of our research, we’ve been looking at differences across social classes. You can think about people in the working class having a lot of threat, like chronically having to worry about slipping into poverty, into hard living. Chronically living in neighborhoods that are more dangerous and being in occupations that not only have more structure and less digression, but that are also more dangerous. In our research, we can see that working class families, parents think rules are much more important than middle and upper class families where there’s a cushion, there’s a safety net. If you do something wrong, you’re not going to be in dire straits. I mentioned this is socialized very early. We can see this even among three year old kids in our laboratory who are playing with puppets who start violating the rules. It’s the working class kids in our data that are much more likely to protest when the puppets starts breaking the rules.
So it’s not as though rules are not important in any social class or any culture. They are, but it’s the matter of how much they are negotiable.
Yeah. This idea of how if there is chaos in our lives or lack of control, people are pretty willing to give up a lot of liberties for a strong hand that would actually promise some idea of normalcy.
Totally. That is totally right. In fact, we just published a chapter on culture and populism that applies exactly what you said. You’re a great psychologist, Jasmine. This is a perfect hypothesis, that when people feel threat, whether it’s perceived or it’s actual, then it makes sense that they want stricter rules and stricter leaders who are going to deliver that kind of structure. We know from the election dynamics that this was found to be the case. So before the 2016 election, we were measuring in the US how much threat people perceived from ISIS, from immigration, from other threats. Sure enough, people who felt a lot of threat, they felt the US was too loose and they wanted a stricter ruler like Trump. This was also replicated in France during the Le Pen election.
It also helps to explain some puzzling phenomenon. Like why were people in Iraq welcoming ISIS in some areas? It sounds ridiculous to Americans. In fact, when we look at some of the data being collected on the ground during that time, my colleague Munqith Dagher was measuring people’s sense of security, their sense of normlessness in some of these areas. Sure enough, the places where ISIS took over rather quickly felt like there was just a sense of normative breakdown whereby you’re yearning for some kind of order.
The same thing applied in many ways to Arab Spring. Once Mubarak was taken out, this very strong man, things tended to go to the opposite direction. They went to extreme normlessness and chaos. You heard people shouting freedom in the streets of Cairo, but in fact, it quickly became obvious that there was very little coordination, a lot more crime, a lot more disorder. Sure enough, in our data, people who felt that things were getting too loose, they wanted another autocrat. They wanted the return of the Muslim brotherhood or Salafi government. This is a common pattern that we often miss in foreign policy, that when we see a place losing control of their norms, having no order, they yearn for extremists and autocrats to fill that void. It’s not the only reason why that autocratic recidivism, we can call it, happens, but it’s certainly culture is an important part of that story.
You also expand on this a little bit in your whole chapter on America’s warring states. Because I think I, like many people before they read this book, if they just heard of the concepts tight and loose, they might confuse tight and loose for conservative and liberal. But they’re not the same, are they?
That’s right. I mean, conservative is really a mindset and preference for stability and traditions. Certainly conservatives probably would like to live in contexts where there’s stricter rules. They even, in fact, probably are able to enforce them more. But you certainly could find loose domains among conservatives and you can find tight domains among liberals. So environmentalism is really a very tight domain for liberals. It’s something that’s become an ultra rallying point around having stricter rules in this context. It’s not the case among conservatives. I think we can think about, zooming into any context, what domains are tight, what domains are loose, why might that be the case, and then, of course, thinking about how to negotiate those.
Yeah. So I want to start applying this to branding a little bit. Let’s talk about this in a brand context. When it comes to political brands, is there anything that ever beats the threat story?
Well, I don’t know… I’m not a branding researcher, but I can say that threat is certainly a primal response and we don’t always realize it’s affecting us. Like I mentioned, in our laboratory research, we can easily manipulate threat, activate fake threat, and we see pretty quickly people have this tightening response. That is to say that they start desiring stricter rules, stricter leaders. They start becoming more focused on order and discipline to the sacrifice of creativity and tolerance. So we see this in the laboratory. It’s not, obviously, long lasting because it’s just a rinky dink prime in the laboratory, but clearly, I would say, when it comes to using threat messaging, it’s a mixed bag when it comes to trying to get people to change their behavior
Like for example, if people are just told that COVID’s really threatening, unless they feel that they have some kind of efficacy to deal with it, they might withdraw completely and it might backfire. A lot of research in psychology will suggest that. So I think when we use threat as a messaging technique, particularly to deal with a collective threat, we need to really couple it with strong sense of empowerment that we can do this. That said, I think it’s a fascinating area.
I just wrote a paper on tight-loose and consumer behavior. Some of the things we talked about for example were that brands in tight cultures that have a lot of threat might have more stability, tradition, reliability, formal types of themes whereas cultures that veer looser might have more risk-taking, creative, informal types of themes. Anecdotally, we can see some of this even in the same industry. Like Harley Davidson is like, “Oh, let’s screw it. Let’s ride.” Real loose kind of mentality. Whereas Suzuki is more about performance. Performance above all. Even in the banking industry, I’ve seen, anecdotally again, we don’t have a lot of research on this, but I’d put some money on this, that, no pun intended, but American banks like Chase, they emphasize innovative banking features. You look at places like in India, India Core Bank, it’s more about safety, security.
So I think that branding also is something that really reflects these cultural codes. We probably expect to see much more variability in loose cultures in the kinds of brands that people try and see if they work and try to differentiate ourselves from our competitors with different types of brands where I think you’d see a lot more homogeneity in branding in tighter cultures. That’s my speculation. I say we put some money on it and get some research done on this because I think it’s a really important topic and I’m fascinated by it. The paper, Tight-Loose and Consumer Behavior, is on my website for anyone that’s interested in it.
Oh, yeah. For sure. We’ll link to it in the show notes for this podcast.
So this idea that in the US, unlike other cultures, we don’t have very strong parenting norms so oftentimes parents feel very lost. I, as a parent myself, have experienced this firsthand. It seems to have created massive room for industries that teach you how parent and some of the most lucrative portions of that industry are based on threat stories. When I think of baby-safe foods, baby-safe clothes, baby-safe toys, nontoxic. Things that I’ve spent a fortune on because it is a very, like you said, primal cultural reflex. I mean, this might just be a primal human reflex, trying to keep your children safe. But do you feel that loose cultures like ours specifically do create these kinds of branding opportunities? I see branding opportunities where businesses and organizations are stepping in where the culture can’t answer a problem.
Yeah, it’s such a fascinating question because in tighter cultures, we know that there’s just stronger situations in the sense that people are co-oriented to what’s the right way to do things, have a shared reality around things. Think about the military. That’s a tight organization where people are socialized. They have strong socialization so that people co-orient to the same reality. That’s really helpful during collective threat. Loose cultures have much more variability in how we train people to think and what we value. So that creates a space for lots of different narratives to fill and way more variability on what’s the right or wrong way to do things that, in tighter cultures, there’s a much more restricted range of how we think about things like parenting.
I would say that I’ve seen it on both ends of the spectrum. Some of the branding’s all around tightness for parenting, like you mentioned. The kind of expensive schools that all these kinds of threatening toxins and… Basically helicopter-like parenting. Ultra tight types of parenting. But you also see the flip side, which is more of the kind of movement around no, no, no, let’s have laissez-faire parenting. That’s the way to go. We have too many rules for kids and kids need to experience life. You have a whole other movement that’s on that end of the spectrum.
I think it raised another interesting question, what you’re mentioning, which is that that just suggests that parents are going to have a lot more conflict on what’s the right or wrong answer if we have so much variability. I don’t think we think about this when we marry someone. We don’t think about, well, how tight or loose is that person’s mindset? On my website, I have a tight-loose mindset quiz that’s based on our data. People who tend to veer tighter, they like more structure, they’re more focused on not making mistakes. They have higher impulse control. On the flip side, you have people who veer looser. They’re less attentive to rules. They’re more risk-taking.
Again, to the extent that we don’t really think about who we’re marrying, you can imagine you get into a marital situation where your partner veers very differently in their parenting philosophy and you really realize that and then you’re in a predicament. You got to negotiate these differences. I, for one, can say that’s the case. I veer on the looser mindset. My husband, who’s a lawyer, veers tighter. He’s kind of mortified by my dishwasher loading behavior and other markers of looseness. But the thing is that these things aren’t destiny. We can negotiate culture in the household. I’ll just mention one more thing about this. Research does suggest that either too strict parents or too laissez-faire parents produce maladaptive kids.
Just like your country chart in the book. Super tight or super loose cultures tend to be the ones that suffer the most, but finding that right balance is the difficult piece. When you look at places like Singapore, which you mentioned earlier, and Thailand, they’re tight culture, but they’re working hard to bring in tourism dollars and oftentimes those tourism dollars come from very loose countries. What happens there? When these tight cultures need to attract loose dollars and they meet on their home turf, is there tension? Is there risk? What happens?
Yeah, I think it’s a great question. It just gets to this broader issue of the importance of being culturally intelligent. CQ, or cultural intelligence, is really becoming more and more important in the context of globalization. In particular, when it comes to tight-loose, the idea of knowing your audience, knowing where they’re coming from in terms of their level of tightness and looseness, I think, is enormously important. Often, we ignore it in business, international business. At our peril, we tend to focus on strategy and other types of things. But we often miss that kind of cultural iceberg.
I studied this actually when it comes to ex-patriots and found that it’s a lot harder to go to tight cultures. Much more difficulty adjusting. But also what was really interesting was that people coming from tight cultures going elsewhere were more adaptable. It might be because they’re used to reading the situation and then following the rules that go along with that. So really, it’s quite possible that the context of Singapore, that it’s really on the mindset of we need to be ambidextrous. We need to deploy tight advertising in contexts where it works and need to loosen up and be more attentive to, like I mentioned, ads that might focus on risk-taking and creativity and informality that wouldn’t work necessarily in tight cultures, but that might work in looser contexts.
So I think anywhere, what we need to do is first and foremost understand tight and loose and where it comes from, and then be strategic about being ambidextrous when we are operating in other cultures. I can mention also, in a study that we’ve recently done, we talked about it in a Harvard Business Review paper, we know that this is really difficult to do. It’s not easy. Devil’s in the details. We studied cross-border mergers and acquisitions across many, many different companies and across years. We found that countries that had big differences in tight and loose suffered a lot in terms of their performance and these mergers. That was particularly the case in contexts where they were in creative types of industries where people had to actually deal with each other versus manufacturing
But the point gets back to this issue of negotiating. It’s really understanding where we’re coming from and then negotiating what domains should be tight, what domains should be loose, which branding should be tight, which should be loose depending on the context. The more we recognize this invisible force and start really drilling down to why it exists, I think the better off we’ll be able to adapt in these marketing contexts
I really feel like you have this secret formula for understanding everything in the world. Something I forgot to mention earlier, that your tight-loose framework predicted the Trump election over 40 times better than even the most mainstream predictive tools out there. Is that correct?
Yeah, I think it’s one of the tools. I never want to totally say it’s the… Clearly it’s not the only construct that’s important in predicting human behavior. But I think that it’s useful to think about why it would affect things like national elections because here we have this issue of threat. As I mentioned, threat can be real and it can be misperceived and it can be manipulated. We don’t tend to focus on these kinds of things. I was just actually listening to a webinar, trying to understand the rise of autocracy. Obviously there’s a bunch of factors, but culture matters for this. I don’t think it’s something that just applies to Trump. These leaders will come and go, but what won’t come and go, what’s a cultural mainstay, is the perception of threat
So I see two different tensions. One is that misperceiving a real threat and not tightening enough, that’s what we found in COVID. That’s one kind of mismatch that we have to really deal with. On the flip side, what we’re talking about now is what happens when actually there’s misperceived fake threat and that’s causing tightening when it shouldn’t happen. When that happens, it, of course, deals with this trade-off of order versus openness. The tighter that we tend to move in general, we tend to sacrifice openness and creativity and vice versa. So I think that one of the most important challenges that we face is trying to calibrate in terms of the level of threat we have and be ambidextrous. We need to do this in the US. We need to prepare ourselves for the next major threat. How can we really come together to tighten temporarily?
Let’s talk about some of the cultural shorthand or clues that you observed in your research. Something I want to mention too is you don’t just do research in a lab. You go into countries and do serious observations and large scale research with populations. What I loved was some of the more quirky things that you noticed, like how public clocks are more accurate in tight cultures or there are more left-handed people in loose cultures. What are some of the more interesting signals that you’ve seen around the world?
Yeah. In the book, we have a chart that looks at how synchronized clocks are in city streets. We got this data from a colleague of ours. It’s amazing. In some cities, clocks say almost the same exact thing, like in Switzerland and Japan and Austria. In other places, clocks are off by a lot, like in Brazil and Greece, and you’re not totally sure that time it is. I think it’s profoundly interesting that this is another expression of coordination. So whenever I go places, I look to see, okay, how aligned are the clocks? When they’re not so aligned, I’m like, okay, I’m getting into a loose context.
Other things that remind me that I’m getting into a tighter context include things like the level of uniformity or people tending to look more similar in terms of what they wear, what they drive. I look at even how people park in parking lots. Actually, I’m really guilty of this, where I really bad parker. Like I park out of the lines. I think that’s another thing. When you start seeing that kind of levels of norm violations, trash in city streets or graffiti, when you see a lot of variability, you start getting into looser contexts. When you see people wearing different types of clothing and wearing tattoos and all sorts of other… things like even wearing pajamas, I’ve seen that in my own classrooms by the way, people wearing PJs, that you start thinking that you’re getting to a more loose environment.
Yeah. A couple more that I liked. You said there’s more synchronicity in the stock markets of tight cultures.
Also, loose cultures have a great problem with self-regulation with things like food or alcohol.
That’s right. Also, debt and even weight. We analyzed, controlling for lots of factors across tight and loose cultures, and sure enough, loose cultures have people who weigh more. When you live in a context where there’s stricter regulation, when there’s punishments that are real and chronic, you learn to manage your impulses more from a young age because you want to avoid those punishments. So that leads to differences in self-control and it has ripple effects on things like alcoholism, drug abuse, and debt. Loose cultures struggle a lot with self-regulation and failures, but what you’ll find on the flip side is that in contexts where there’s less accountability, people can be more creative.
Actually, we did one study where we looked at this even in the brain. We looked at how do people respond in the brain when they’re witnessing norm violations like Michele singing in the library or dancing in the art museum or Jasmine yelling in a bank or kissing someone in a crowded elevator. These are all sorts of things that you could study. What we found, when they were in these EEG caps as they were witnessing these kinds of norm violations, and afterwards, we gave people a creativity task where we just asked people to come up with different uses for a brick or for a paperclip. Like creative uses. What we found is really interesting.
First of all, we found that in our Chinese sample, they had far more brain activity in the frontal area of the brain, which is responsible for punishment decisions and thinking about behavior. Far more activity witnessing these same violations as Americans. We also found though that people that had a lot of brain activity witnessing these violations were less creative. So that suggests that when you’re really concerned and disturbed by norm violations, even at the level of the neuron, it actually makes you see creative acts to be more dangerous too. So there’s this direct order versus openness trade-off that goes along with tight and loose.
People try to ask me, “Which is better?” It’s like, well, they both have their liabilities. There really is, in the best of both worlds, we should be trying to maximize order and openness. I’ll just mention I was asked what city might have the best Goldilocks order and openness in the world. I nominated Toronto as the place that might actually maximize this.
Because it’s a context where there’s a lot of diversity and a lot of tolerance, but also quite a bit of order, less crime than other cities.
Yeah. Toronto does feel a bit like a utopia when I go there, so I totally get that. Okay. I want to try something. I would like to just do a quick fire round of cultures, subcultures, countries, groups, whatever, and you tell me if they’re tight or loose.
Okay. Let’s go for it.
All right. Let’s start with an easy one. France.
Well, yeah, France in our data veers on the looser side. Clearly, there are tight domains in all cultures. I think French society is very tight on the language. You go into France and you’re trying to speak French and you’re going to get some serious feedback when it’s not very good. Also, other cherished values in France like food, wine, these things also tend to be pretty tight. Like in Germany, which also veers tight, in general… You look at beer, something like beer in the US, I mean, crazy amounts of different types of beers you find in the US. In Germany, I’ve been told that there’s really very strict regulations on the kinds of ingredients that can go in beer. On the other hand, there are domains in Germany that are looser also. You’re more likely to see people, for example, sunbathing nude in Germany than you would in the United States. But in general, you can see that there is a restricted range of behavior in general in both contexts.
Yeah, the language thing in France, it makes me think of the academy that they have to project the French language from aberrations or-
… from English words. When a new word comes out like Wi-Fi or internet, they create the French counterpart for it.
Okay. Silicon Valley.
I would say it veers quite loose. The kind of framework of break it and then… I forget the exact phrase, but it’s a-
Move fast and break things.
Yeah, move, that’s right. It’s really a place that… In a loose context, California is a loose state in our data, which is really interesting. They do suffer some threat, but it’s a place that’s extraordinarily diverse and it has been for over a century in our data. A lot of people that went to California were risk-takers. The people that were attracted to go there and schlep out there had looser mindsets, we would say, in our language. I think some might argue that Silicon Valley needs to tighten up in some contexts, that it gets to be too extreme in terms of the looseness. I had talked to some people who were starting up companies and it’s fascinating because when you have a loose mindset and you’re starting up a company, often it’s the case you get bought out by tighter, larger organizations. I think a lot of starter uppers don’t really like those cultures. They struggle and they wind up leaving and starting up another company as these serial start uppers.
I think what’s fascinating to me though is in order to innovate, you nearly need both tight and loose. You need looseness to help create ideas, but you need tightness to scale it up and to coordinate. So I think that at some point, any company, even as loose as it started, needs to insert some structure. I call this structured looseness in the book because you want to allow for that creativity and that idea generation, but you also need people and practices that help to structure interaction to have accountability. On the flip side, you have some contexts that are much more tight like airlines and the military, and they should veer tight. You don’t want people making all sorts of weird decisions in these contexts. They have a lot of threat, a lot of coordination needs. But these places also sometimes can use the alternative cultural code of looseness. We call this flexible tightness. How do you insert some discretion into those systems, some looseness into some non-safety domains? It’s something I’m working with the Navy with right now.
Okay. What about the NFL?
would say that the NFL veers tight compared to basketball. Because there’s set plays that you have that you’re orchestrating. There’s much more focus on sticking with those plays as compared to, I would imagine, in basketball where there’s a lot more room for improvisation. So I think it’s fascinating to analyze sports through a tight and loose lens and looking at other sports like baseball or golf or tennis. Another thing I’ll mention that I’m interested in within the context of sports is whether or not female sports are tighter than male sports. I’ve often had the working hypothesis that lower status groups live in tighter worlds, meaning that they are subject to stricter punishments. I have to say, from my n of one experience watching lacrosse games, my daughters were crazy lacrosse players, it just looks to me like there’s a lot more penalties, a lot more calling of rule violations, a lot more tightness that they’re subject to, including what kind of equipment. So I think it’s fascinating to look at. Not all sports in all contexts are equally tight. They might be tighter or looser depending on your status.
Yeah. Okay. So let’s move to a more gendered territory. What about SoulCycle?
I’ve been to SoulCycle with my brother, who is a crazy SoulCyclist. I don’t have a tremendous amount of familiarity, but I would probably venture to say it’s pretty tight. I think it’s a pretty strong brand whereby there is a certain kind of way of being, the appropriate SoulCycle operation. That would be my hunch. What do you think?
You know what I have trouble with SoulCycle is I can see where the threat comes in with women’s sports, the threat of not excelling or not be taken seriously, whatever, or the threat of football, which actually is kind of dangerous. SoulCycle, maybe there’s a social threat there that creates more of a tight culture.
It’s possible. I think it’s also could be just based on the founders. We know in organizations that the leader’s tight and loose mindsets, for whatever reason, help to set the stage for how the organization develops. I read recently a paper in the management literature on how people who have a tight mindset, leaders, the organizations they create, they continue even after they leave, the level of tightness. So that’s possible.
Very interesting. Okay. Two more. I want to ask about Israel because you talked about this in the book. But Israel has a huge startup economy, but also a very threatened region. So where does it fall?
Yeah, Israel’s a really interesting anomaly when it comes to the theory because it’s obviously a place that has high density, it has a lot of conflict. It’s a place that should arguably be tight. But in our data that we collected in early 2000s and then more recently replicated this again, Israel comes out as quite loose, a place where people feel like the rules are negotiable. Of course, there is lots of variation in terms of secular versus orthodox, which is another way to think about tight-loose in religions, and also regionally in Israel, Jerusalem versus Tel Aviv. But in general, our data suggests that Israel is quite loose.
There is a couple of reasons that the threat instinct might be overridden in Israel. One of which is diversity. Diversity in any context tends to push groups to have more looseness because it’s harder to agree upon any particular norm up to a point. When there’s extreme heterogeneity like in Pakistan, stricter rules start evolving because that’s could be very chaotic. But in general, diversity pushes groups to be loose. The other thing about Israel that’s really interesting is that the religion itself promotes a lot of debate and debate pushes groups towards looseness. So if anyone goes to a Jewish service or reads the Torah, sees that no one can agree on anything. There’s constantly just incredible amount of debate and disagreement about basic things. It’s really part of the culture.
I want to mention though, like I’ve talked about, in all cultures, even that are loose, there are some very tight domains. Israel certainly has some of those. So one domain that’s really pretty tight in Israel is having children. It’s really like I’ve heard that if you don’t have children, you’re practically a criminal in Israel. It’s really a very, very strict rule to have families, to have big families. That in itself suggests some kind of survival mechanism to deal with threat. Incidentally, that norm is now butting heads with environmental collapse in terms of population density and resource scarcity and things like that.
Even just the fact that I think Israel… If I’m remembering correctly, it has experienced a lot of migration out of the country. A lot of young people moving out, studying abroad, staying abroad. So I’d imagine it maybe even created added tightness to that topic. Okay. Last one. 4chan.
Oh, yeah. I would say famously normless. Extremely loose. Like we see on the web, it’s a really big challenge in terms of the new world that we live in that tends to be pretty normless. The main reason is really about accountability I think. If you really think about it, the places like 4chan that veer extraordinarily loose are places where there’s a lot of anonymity. You don’t have to make a profile, username. You’re assigned a number for posts. It makes it pretty much impossible to enforce any consequences or to form any meaningful relationship with other people. The other thing about 4chan that’s really interesting when it comes to accountability is that your posts can disappear after a certain amount of time. This impermanence of things can really add to the normlessness.
So I think when we think about the web, and we’re doing some research on this now, I talk about it in the last chapter of the book, how do we harness the power of culture to create spaces that have more of the Goldilocks. Like we want, of course, social media to have a lot of latitude and it’s a really great context for idea generation, for connectivity, but we also want to have some accountability in the system. We want to be in a place where we don’t experience a lot of normlessness. We know that that’s extremely stressful to people in our data. It’s not the amount of time you spend online, it’s the perceived normlessness that’s really a big problem.
So I think part of what we’re trying to figure out in our research is what are the structural features in these different platforms that lend themselves to having more or less accountability and then how can we tweak them so that we can have places that balance autonomy and freedom with some levels of accountability to make them civil, livable places? That’s not 4chan.
Right, right. It’s so interesting. I just want to pause on it for a moment, the fact that it’s not the amount of time you spend online, it’s the perceived normlessness that creates stress in people. Wow. That kind of blows my mind. Okay. What can people do as individuals in their own lives to make sure that they’re responding to threats, perceived threats, the stress of normlessness appropriately and not having a skewed response or responding to things that are engineered to make them respond or whatever? How do you have a healthy relationship to this kind of stuff?
It’s a great question. I think cultural intelligence get back to knowing yourself. Where do you veer, tight or loose, and why might that be the case? Are you what we call an order Muppet? Using Dahlia Lithwick’s famous metaphor. The order Muppet’s like Kermit the Frog and Ernie, basically loving order and noticing rules. Or are you a chaos Muppet? These are kind of rough distinctions like Cookie Monster and Animal. These are Muppets that like disorder, or at least, they tolerate disorder and they like openness. They don’t necessarily notice rules. On their website, they mentioned you can think about where you fall on this continuum and why that might be the case. Then I think we can think about, okay, wait, if we really veer very tight, where might we loosen up a little bit?
Same when we start thinking about other people in our lives, whether they’re our spouses, our kids, our colleagues, our friends. We have to try to understand why people might veer very differently than us, what might have caused that in their own lives, try to empathize with those differences. Then, as I’ve mentioned a couple times, then try to negotiate them. Try to understand, for people who veer tight, it’s really scary to give up that rule orientation, that it feels unsafe. How can we help them take baby steps in that direction? On the flip side, for people who veer loose, losing the autonomy feels very frustrating. How can we convince people who veer loose that when we have threat, it’s important to temporarily tighten, that it’s temporary? Let’s try to activate a mentality that says we can do this and then it will be done with.
I can say that it’s really important to recognize that. It’s those very basic psychological approaches that need to be negotiated. They can happen. I mean, I teach negotiation. I love the study of negotiation. We developed norms. We can negotiate them. I’ll just give one example. I mentioned that I veer looser, Todd veers tighter. We said, okay, what domains really need to be tight in our household? Your health behavior, your schoolwork, how we treat each other with respect. That’s pretty tight. But what can we give up a little bit of slack on? Maybe how clean their rooms are. Just close your door. I’m not going to look. Maybe your bedtime. That’s a little looser. Or your curfew.
There’s ways to think about how we can give up our low priority domains. That’s really what negotiation’s about, to settle on a win-win agreement. It takes time. It takes some effort. It’s a little cheesy. But we can negotiate culture in our daily lives and that’s an exciting thing.
You’ve been in this world for so many years, just completely immersed in the subtext of culture. I wonder, has it changed the way that you form relationships with people?
Wow. It’s an interesting question. Well, I’m a generalist, so I think when it comes to be a scientist, my approach has been to try to have a big, large tent. I mean, I’ve also learned this very much from Harry Triandis, my advisor, the founder of the field of cross-cultural psychology, or one of the founders. Devoted the book to him and to my dad, Marty from Brooklyn.
Marty from Brooklyn.
Getting back to that phone call that started this whole process. I think that my approach has been to try to bring in as many people to study this stuff as possible from different disciplinary perspectives. I love to bring in computer scientists to our group and neuroscientists, political scientist. All sorts of people. Then like you mention, I try to interact with people who are in other spaces who have a lot of knowledge about something that I want to know about, but also that we can add culture to their equation. So it’s very mutually beneficial to partner with people to study culture that really have really different, very, very different vantage points.
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Interesting Links & More Reading
- Rule Makers, Rule Breakers (Amazon)
- Tightness–looseness: A new framework to understand consumer behavior (Wiley)
- Why countries with ‘loose’, rule-breaking cultures have been hit harder by Covid (Guardian
- One Reason Mergers Fail: The Two Cultures Aren’t Compatible (Harvard Business Review)
- Mindset Quiz: How Tight or Loose Are You? (MicheleGelfand.com)