You could say countries have personalities just like people do. Researchers set out to define those differences using a scale that measures how tight the social rules and standards are. The results are published in Science magazine, and it finds that cultural rules as simple as when and where it's appropriate to kiss are often shaped by a nation's experience with war, disease and other challenges. And there are some surprises as well. NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: The idea for this study really dates back to the 1960s. Back then, an anthropologist decided to evaluate a few dozen obscure, in fact dead, cultures and see if he could rank them on a scale from tight to loose.

He defined tight cultures as having lots of rules, which people violate at their peril. Loose cultures are more relaxed in their expectations, and more forgiving of people who deviate.

Fast-forward now to Michele Gelfand, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland.

Professor MICHELE GELFAND (University of Maryland): This research that we did, across 33 nations, was the first to show the distinction applies to modern nations.

HARRIS: She and a large group of international colleagues developed a survey that they asked nearly 7,000 people worldwide to answer.

Prof. GELFAND: So for example, you might have been asked, you know, how appropriate is it to curse in the bank or kiss in a public park or eat or read a newspaper in a classroom? And we were able to derive scores of how constrained in general situations are versus how much they have latitude in different countries.

HARRIS: They developed a measure for the 33 countries they studied and then cross-checked their findings with expert opinions and other methods. Most of them matched pretty well with common experience.

Prof. GELFAND: Some of the cultures that are quite tight in our sample include places like Singapore, Japan, Pakistan. Whereas many loose societies include countries like New Zealand, the Netherlands, the United States.

HARRIS: The researchers then dug in to see if they could figure out why nations are relatively tight or relatively loose. And history was a pretty good guide. Embattled countries tended to have tighter social rules. So did nations dealing with disease and a history of crowding.

Prof. GELFAND: In fact, the data show that population density in the year 1500 predicts tightness today.

HARRIS: That makes sense. Cultures all squeezed together, like in Japan, have a strong incentive to be cooperative.

Curiously enough, wealth doesn't seem to matter. Well-off Norway, for instance, ranks as relatively tight not so off from India, which is much poorer.

And not all countries are true to type. Gelfand was surprised to find that Israel - which is under threat from its neighbors and its desert environment -is still culturally loose. Gelfand suspects that's in part because lots of Israelis came from relatively loose cultures in Eastern Europe.

Prof. GELFAND: It's also a culture of argumentation, debate, dissent, that really is very much consistent with Judaism. And these things all promote looseness.

HARRIS: Now, these results raised all sorts of questions. The biggest one being what's cause and what's effect.

Professor ARA NORENZAYAN (University of British Columbia): That's the million-dollar question. At this point, we can't be sure.

HARRIS: Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia says there's a lively debate about the extent to which cultures are shaped by the environment, how much they are shaped by our genes, and how much cultures are simply passed down from one generation to the next.

While academics wrestle with those issues, Norenzayan says the results from Michele Gelfand's study can be useful for people struggling to solve the world's problems collectively.

Prof. NORENZAYAN: For example, coming into some kind of agreement on how to combat global warming involves coordination of dozens of countries.

HARRIS: And it helps to understand each country's cultural perspective when seeking common ground.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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