Following The Rules During A Crisis | Hidden Brain We all know people who prefer to follow the rules, and others who prefer to flout them. Psychologist Michele Gelfand defines these two ways of being as "tight" and "loose." She says the tight/loose framework can help us to better understand individuals, businesses, and even nations. This week, we look at the core traits of tight and loose worldviews, and how they may shape our lives — from interactions with our spouses to global efforts to fight the coronavirus.
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Playing Tight And Loose: How Rules Shape Our Lives

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Playing Tight And Loose: How Rules Shape Our Lives

Playing Tight And Loose: How Rules Shape Our Lives

Playing Tight And Loose: How Rules Shape Our Lives

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/828257385/828283767" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Red S-shaped rope being tugged by three different knots. Each knot is a different color — blue, orange, and green. Yellow background. Richard Drury/Getty Images hide caption

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Richard Drury/Getty Images

Red S-shaped rope being tugged by three different knots. Each knot is a different color — blue, orange, and green. Yellow background.

Richard Drury/Getty Images

At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Japanese soccer fans did something striking: they started going through the stadium, cleaning up the trash that was left behind.

A lot of people were baffled by this behavior, but Michele Gelfand, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, sees their actions in the frame of what she refers to as "tight" and "loose" cultures. Tight cultures, she says, are more rules-oriented. Loose cultures are more permissive.

"Countries like Japan, Singapore, Germany, and Austria tend to veer tight," she says. "And countries like New Zealand, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Greece tended to veer loose. And of course, all countries have tight and loose elements."

Gelfand studies how individuals, organizations, communities, and nations are shaped by their cultures. Recently, she has looked at the coronavirus pandemic through the lens of tight and loose cultures. The U.S., she says, is a loose culture with ambivalence toward measures that erode our autonomy and liberty.

"The [coronavirus] response so far echoes our loose cultural programming. It's been conflicted. It's been unstandardized, it's been uncoordinated," she says.

"We really do need to change our cultural programming in this context. The problem is that ... it's hard for us to give up liberty for constraint. But it's critical for our safety."

Additional Resources:

Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight And Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele Gelfand, 2018

"Differences Between Tight And Loose Cultures: A 33-nation Study," by Michele Gelfand et al., Cornell University, ILR School, 2011

"To Survive The Coronavirus, The United States Must Tighten Up," by Michele Gelfand, The Boston Globe, 2020