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.

Playing Tight And Loose

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From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. It all started at a live fish and meat market in Wuhan, a city in central China. No one knows exactly how or when, but one day late last year, a coronavirus leaped from an animal into a human. Before long, people all around Wuhan started getting sick. We know what happened next. To curb the spread of this coronavirus, China announced a draconian lockdown of more than 11 million people in Wuhan.


NOEL KING, BYLINE: Authorities there say they are in a state of war to keep it from spreading. They've stopped all public transportation within the city. And they've canceled flights and trains that are leaving the city. Eleven million people live in Wuhan, so this might seem extreme, but more than 600 people are now infected. And 17 have died.

VEDANTAM: No one in. No one out.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What we're seeing and hearing on the Internet is police in hazmat suits going door to door, taking people away who either have a fever or are rumored to have been in contact with someone who did. Containment is the goal here and using whatever means is necessary.

VEDANTAM: By the time China had set up these containment measures, the virus had slipped outside of Wuhan. It began spreading to other places across the globe, from South Korea...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Two patients may have contracted the disease from someone who was infected here in the nation.

VEDANTAM: ...To Italy.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Italian).

VEDANTAM: Northern Italy emerged as an early hotspot for that nation. Near the end of February, the Italian government began imposing travel restrictions on residents of the Lombardy region. But it was too late. On March 8, with the virus spreading wildly, the government locked down some 16 million people in Lombardy and 14 neighboring provinces.


BEN WEDEMAN: In theory, it means that people are not supposed to leave those areas. But in fact, the authorities simply haven't had the time and perhaps not even the resources to make this a reality.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: In Milan and in other areas affected by the lockdown, people race to train stations trying to get out before it's too late.

VEDANTAM: Many of those people fleeing Lombardy brought the virus with them to other parts of Italy. Very soon, the death toll in Italy versus the death toll in China told its own story.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: It feels like a hole that Italy just can't plug - the daily loss of hundreds of lives. Coronavirus fatalities in this country of 60 million people now higher than in China with a population of 1 1/2 billion. It's brought one of the world's best health care systems to its knees.

VEDANTAM: The story of the coronavirus outbreak is still being written. We don't yet know all the lessons that will be drawn from the pandemic. There are still details that have not been fully divulged, including whether the Chinese government has revealed the true scope of the outbreak. That said, are there early lessons we can draw from the outbreak and how nations have responded?

This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we're going to look at how nations and individuals think about rules both in moments of crisis and in everyday interactions. Cultural attitudes about rule following and rule breaking shape our lives in all kinds of ways, from the tidiness of our homes to our political preferences to our approach to stopping the spread of a pandemic.

Michele Gelfand is a psychologist at the University of Maryland. She studies how organizations, communities and nations are shaped by their cultures. She's the author of the book "Rule Makers, Rule Breakers." Where others might see only policy differences between nations in how they respond to a pandemic, Michele Gelfand sees the hidden hand of culture. It shapes choices, decisions and outcomes. Michele Gelfand, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

MICHELE GELFAND: Great to be here.

VEDANTAM: A lot of your work involves paying attention to things that are familiar and seeing them with fresh eyes. I want to look at a few of these examples. You talk early in the book about a pedestrian in Berlin standing at a traffic intersection at 11 o'clock in the night. There isn't a car in sight. Does she cross the road?

GELFAND: (Laughter) She crosses the road when the light turns green but stays put, even if there's no cars around.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, a continent away in Boston, we don't see the same thing happening, even though it's rush hour, and there might be a sign saying don't walk.

GELFAND: That's right. In Boston and New York, my hometown originally, you'll see jaywalkers incessantly crossing the street, even with kids in tow.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, all of us have seen this as we have gone to different cities and different countries. We sort of notice that people behave differently. The interesting thing is that we don't actually stop to marvel at how consistent those differences are across places.

GELFAND: That's right. It's really a puzzle because culture is omnipresent. It's all around us. But it's invisible. We really take it for granted, even though it's shaping our behavior from morning until night. And often, it's only the case when you get outside of your culture that you realize you've been so profoundly shaped by your own socialization and norm following or norm breaking.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, there's the old joke about the fish in the water, isn't it?

GELFAND: That's right. Two fish are swimming around. And then they pass by another fish who says to them, hey, boys, how's the water? And they swim on. And one turns the other and says, what the heck is water?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GELFAND: And it's really funny because this illustrates a profound point, which is that, sometimes, it's the most important realities around us that we don't really see. And for fish, that's water. But for humans, that's culture.

VEDANTAM: So you have lots of examples in the book that talk about this. I understand the Swiss bank UBS has a dress code that's actually written down?

GELFAND: That's right. It had been for many years, like, 30-some-odd pages of dress codes. And you can see that the strictness of rules is found in so many different places. In Singapore, for example, you're not allowed to bring in large quantities of gum. And for people who do that, they can get fined pretty seriously, including things like littering or spitting on the street. These things can be strictly punished in Singapore. In fact, even if you're walking around your house naked in front of the curtains with them open, this can get you a hefty fine in Singapore. It's called the fine nation because it's known for having a lot of punishments for seemingly minor offenses.

VEDANTAM: I'm guessing that these rules wouldn't go down so well in Sao Paulo.

GELFAND: (Laughter) That's right. We could see that, you know, there's much more permissiveness in places like Brazil and New Zealand and the United States, to some extent, where you find a slew of norm violations every day, whether it's, you know, people walking barefoot in banks in New Zealand and decorating their fences with thousands of bras and burning couches on university campuses or showing up to work, you know, really super late. It's astonishing the sort of differences around the world in terms of people who are making the rules or breaking them.

VEDANTAM: I love the example you give in the book that Brazilians actually have a phrase for when they plan to be on time for a meeting. They call it com pontualidade britanica?

GELFAND: That's right. That's really follow the rules like they do in Britain (laughter). When they want to make sure that people are on time, they have to remind themselves that they have their own culture, their own norms of basically not really having a whole lot of rules around time. So when you're working, obviously, across cultures, you can see this would be pretty frustrating where people have differences in their rules around basic things like time and how organized they are, how synchronized they are, how much punishment they give for even seemingly minor things.

VEDANTAM: You know, I remember visiting Rio de Janeiro many years ago. And I attended a soccer match at Maracana stadium. And there were these plastic seats that we were all sitting on. And at one point, the fan sitting next to me was very upset with a player who had made a mistake. And so he got up and started screaming at this player. And he called him - how shall I put this? - he called the player the illegitimate child of a sex worker. Let me just put it that way. And he kicked the plastic seat in front of him so that it flew over the heads of the fans in the next three rows. And what was amazing to me was not just that he did this but that absolutely no one paid him any attention.

GELFAND: Yeah, it's interesting. There's stories of people who are visiting Brazil, including Japanese players and fans during the World Cup, that had very different types of behaviors.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Well, if you're from Japan or Senegal, apparently, you do your part to clean up your mess?



GELFAND: After the World Cup, the Japanese were cleaning up the stadium.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GELFAND: And it was astonishing to people to see this kind of organized action among Japanese in these Brazilian contexts where you see a whole host of disorderly behavior that people don't even notice because it's so typical.

VEDANTAM: We are so familiar with these differences between groups that we have movies and television shows that are built around these themes. These differences also show up in our domestic lives and in workplaces.

GELFAND: You can think about how strict or permissive we are from many different perspectives - from national perspective, from organizations, even our own households. In the book, I talk about how we all have our own preference for the kind of Muppet we want to be. Some people are order Muppets.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Kermit the Frog) Hello, this is Kermit the Frog.

GELFAND: Think about Kermit the Frog.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Kermit the Frog) And I am here today to offer to you...

GELFAND: They really like rules. They manage their impulses. And they really like a lot of order and structure. And then on the flip side, some people are chaos Muppets.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cookie Monster) Hello. Cookie Monster here.

GELFAND: Think Cookie Monster. They tend to not really notice rules. They are more risk taking and impulsive. And they're more tolerant of ambiguity.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Cookie Monster) Cookie, cookie.

GELFAND: It causes a lot of conflict between people. Think about parents who are trying to raise kids, and they have different ideas in terms of how strict they should be or finances. Or even how you load the dishwasher, I found in my household, can get you a little flak. So I think it's important to really look at this as a aspect of culture that affects us all the time, from our nations to our households.

VEDANTAM: I have to ask you about the dishwasher. What's the conflict in your household?

GELFAND: (Laughter) Well, I tend to lean looser. My husband, who's a lawyer, leans tighter for good reasons. He's an occupation where there's a lot of accountability, a lot of standards and monitoring. And I tend to be a little bit on the looser side. And so he finds it really unbelievably disturbing when I load the dishwasher because I don't really pay attention to, you know, how organized it is. Or if I leave towels on the bed, I get a little bit of feedback (laughter). We've come to really try to negotiate these differences by trying to think about, what domains do we need to be tight in, and what domains can we be looser in? And we even talk about it with the kids. And we try to think about, what's our priorities? You know, what's really important to each of us as we try to organize on the strength of rules in the house?

VEDANTAM: Because as you point out, there might be domains where, actually, it's perfectly fine to have fairly lackadaisical rules and other domains where it's actually catastrophic to have lackadaisical rules.

GELFAND: Yeah, that's exactly the point. So in our house, just to give you a sense of the negotiation and how it played out, we finally did agree that some domains, like our health and how much we work in terms of studying hard for the kids for school, are really important to be strict about. But other things, like your bedtime or how messy you are - that was a tough negotiation because the house is kind of a mess and drives Todd (ph) crazy - but those are domains that could be much looser. We have to give some domains where people can have freedom to just do what they want. But we need to know, which are the priority domains to be more strict in?

VEDANTAM: Especially in a country like the United States, which is built around the idea of freedom, rules can seem onerous. Why can't we just pick and choose the rules that work best for us? Michele says we might not like rules, but we would probably like a country with no rules even less.

GELFAND: Imagine a world without any kind of rules. Just do a thought experiment where you go outside, and people are driving on whatever side of the road they feel like. And they're ignoring traffic lights. Or think about going to your favorite restaurant, and people are chewing with their mouths wide open. And they're stealing food off of people's plates. That sounds like my New York family, actually.


GELFAND: Or imagine that you board a crowded elevator, and you find people facing backwards and shaking their umbrellas all over the place. I encourage the listeners to see what happens if you do something like that. What kind of responses do you get? Or imagine a world where people are having sex all over the place - on buses, airplanes and movie theaters. This is a world without social norms or any agreed upon standards for behavior. And luckily we have invented these kinds of rules to avoid these scenarios. In a way, you can think about it as societies would cease to function without these kinds of rules. They're the glue that bind us together.

VEDANTAM: What Michele is talking about is not just the rules we have but the rules we have about following the rules. Are we exacting about our preferences for order and structure? Or do we prefer to have wiggle room? When we come back, we dig into Michele's framework for understanding these preferences.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. I'm speaking with cross-cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand at the University of Maryland.

Michele, you talk at some length in the book about countries like Japan or New Zealand that are very different in terms of how much they care about following the rules. You also suggest in some ways that the history of these countries play some role in how people come to think about the rules. What do you mean by that?

GELFAND: Yeah, you know, I think that it's important to recognize that culture evolves for good reasons. And if you look at places like Japan, you can see that they've been faced with chronic threat in their histories. I mean, think about Mother Nature's fury, the constant natural disasters and famine that has been faced by the Japanese for centuries or how many times they've been potentially involved in conflict on their own soil. Contrast that with New Zealand, where there's been very little history of these kinds of threats on New Zealand's territory. So it may not be that surprising that they develop very different mindsets over the course of their histories. And we need to understand those ecological and historical factors to really make sense of cultural differences.

VEDANTAM: So you would call a country like Japan culturally tight and a country like New Zealand culturally loose. What do you mean by those terms, Michele?

GELFAND: So I mentioned earlier that all groups have social norms - these agreed upon standards of behavior. And we needed these norms to basically coordinate and predict each other's behaviors. They're the glue that bind us together. But what I've discovered is that that glue is stronger in some context than others. Some cultures are tight, by which I mean that they have strict norms and punishments for people that are deviating from those norms. And other groups are loose. They have weaker norms. And they're much more permissive. And it's something that we can think about - this terminology tight and loose - that can help us understand nations and states and organizations and even our own households.

VEDANTAM: And so tightness and looseness is not about whether you have rules. But it's really about how much you follow the rules, how much you care about the rules, how important the rules are to you?

GELFAND: Tight cultures have a lot of rules. And they're very strict about the enforcement of those rules. Loose cultures have fewer rules that are actually much more ambiguous. And they're much more permissive. They afford a wider range of behavior as permissible, even in the same situation. Think about a library, which many of us, as soon as we get into libraries, we know this is a tight situation. You're not going to start singing and dancing and start, you know, playing your radio really loudly. And around the world libraries, are pretty strict everywhere. But what's remarkable - and this is what we can see in research - is that even in loose contexts, people are doing all sorts of weird things in libraries, compared to in tight cultures in the same situation.

Or take a city park, where it's much looser. There's a wider range of behavior that's permissible. We can see that in places like Pakistan, yeah, there's much more behavior that's permissible in this context, but it's still stricter in public parks than in the United States. So we all have a normative radar thinking about which situations are tight and loose. And we amazingly go through our days without even realizing it, that we're shifting our normative mindsets in these contexts. But nevertheless, we see wide variation in how people act in the same exact situations - libraries, public parks, elevators, even - around the world.

VEDANTAM: So if you look at a country like Japan for a second, Michele, you argue in the book that one of the drivers of the evolution of these tight cultures has to do with the experience of threat and historical threat. Talk about that in the context of Japan.

GELFAND: Yeah, so in this study that we did on tightness and looseness that was published in Science some years ago, we set out to study, can we measure tightness and looseness around the world? Recognizing that all cultures have tight and loose elements, we wanted to see, can we classify countries, like Japan and New Zealand and Greece and the Netherlands, on a continuum of tightness and looseness? And that's what we did. We could see that. We can measure this construct. And then we can say, well, why - what's explaining this variation? And I had a hunch that it might be related to the degree to which people need to coordinate their social action in the face of threat.

Now, not all tight cultures have threat, and not all loose cultures lack it. But there seemed to be in our research a pretty significant connection between threats and tightness. So as I was collecting data around the world for this study, I was gathering data on the ecologies and the histories of these nations. I got data on population density, for example, as far back as 1500. And I studied how many times a nation was potentially invaded on their own soil, not how much conflict they've been involved in around the world. The U.S., for example, has been involved in a lot of conflict but with some exceptions. We haven't had chronic invasions from Mexico and Canada, for example, across our history. And what we were able to show in this study is that the countries that had a lot of threat tend to be tighter, like Japan and Germany and Austria, as compared to countries like New Zealand and Greece and Brazil, that tend to have less threat.

VEDANTAM: And at a certain level, that makes perfect sense - doesn't it? - that if you've been through a lot of tough times, you sort of learn in some ways over time that it's important to hang together.

GELFAND: That's right. I mean, it makes a lot of sense. When you have collective threat, you can't solve this on your own. You need to really rely on other people in these situations to not defect, to not be egocentric, to coordinate at a scale to deal with a threat for survival. And actually, we've seen in some of our computational models the same exact logic. As threat increases in our mathematical models, we see that groups tend to evolve to be tighter. So there seems to be something that may make evolutionary sense that under a lot of threat, that we tend to tighten up.


VEDANTAM: You once ran a study at the University of Maryland where you manipulated people's attitudes or sense of threat by giving them a sense of overcrowding or a lack of overcrowding. Tell me about that experiment and what you found, Michele.

GELFAND: Yeah, so we basically had two conditions in this experiment. In one condition, people were told that the University of Maryland had the highest or of the highest population density of campuses in the United States. We showed them charts that showed this, accompanying with quotes about how hard it was to find a seat in classrooms and to get lunch at the union. In another condition, we said the exact opposite. We showed them pictures that showed that Maryland was very low population density. And it was really sometimes hard to even see people around. But what we found was striking. In the high population density condition, when we asked people how bothered they were by norm violations, we found that they were much more upset when people were violating norms as compared to the low population density condition. That suggests that we as humans can quickly tighten up in contexts where we think it makes sense. And we could see that in other studies where we prime terrorism threats or natural disaster threats. And we even see this in neuroscience studies.

VEDANTAM: If threat is a driver of cultural tightness, Michele finds that ethnic diversity is often a driver of cultural looseness. When people from different backgrounds come together, they have to find ways to adapt to one another. And that's tough to do if you're very rigid about the rules. Michele conducted a survey of some 7,000 people from more than 30 countries. I asked her what she found about which countries were rule followers and which ones were rule breakers.

GELFAND: In this study, we found that tight-loose was a continuum. Countries like Japan, Singapore, Germany and Austria tended to veer tight. And countries like New Zealand, Brazil, the Netherlands and Greece tended to veer loose. And, of course, all countries have tight and loose elements. In Japan, for example, even though it's pretty strict, there's designated times to kind of have fun and get drunk with your supervisors. And, you know, even in other contexts, like New Zealand, which veers loose in our data - where you see people walking barefoot in banks around the country, for example, there's also domains that are pretty tight in New Zealand that manifest itself when people are trying to stand out. They call them tall poppies. New Zealand's a place that's high on egalitarianism, so standing out is really violating that strong value. And that's why that's a domain that's pretty tight in New Zealand. My theory would be that any domain that's really super important in a country evolves to be tight. And so in New Zealand, we can see that when you break the rules of being egalitarian, you can get some serious negative feedback, whereas in many other domains, it's pretty loose.

VEDANTAM: So I'm wondering if what you said just now actually explains why if you look at countries like Pakistan or India, which were among the tightest nations in your sample, you can also see a significant amount of rule breaking. So, you know, if anyone's driven a car in India or Pakistan, they would not say that these are countries that are hell-bent on following the rules.

GELFAND: Yeah, well, I think that that's a really great example that there can be domains that every country has that are tight or loose. In Pakistan and India, you see that kind of public behavior of driving. Egypt is another example. I've spent a lot of time in Egypt, and I just close my eyes when I'm in a taxi (laughter) and just hope for the best. But in other domains, in terms of, like, gender and authority and religion, they evolve to be very tight. So it's really important to kind of take that microscope and then zoom in and try to understand in any country, in any context, what domains are tight and what domains are loose.

VEDANTAM: Michele has also analyzed how different states within the U.S. demonstrate strong rule-following versus weak rule-following.

GELFAND: Yeah. Well, I was really interested to see, you know, can we move beyond red versus blue, this kind of superficial type of taxonomy, to understand whether we could see differences in tightness and looseness around the country? And does it follow the same logic as differences at the national level? And that's exactly what we showed.

We can rank order the U.S. states and see that places in the South and in some part the Midwest, like Kansas, tend to veer tight. And places on the coasts, like New York and Massachusetts and California, tend to veer looser. It was really interesting because what we found was that some of the same predictors at the national level also explain tightness-looseness differences at the state level. Tight states tended to have more natural disasters across their histories, and they also had more pathogen prevalence and food insecurity. And loose states had more diversity in our data.

VEDANTAM: When you look at the states that you put on the spectrum - and I looked at the data. It looks like Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, South Carolina and North Carolina are the 10 tightest states. And the looser states in your sample were California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Vermont and Alaska. Now, every one of the top 10 tightest states is reliably Republican in presidential elections, and nine out of the 10 looser states is reliably Democratic. So what's the connection between tight and loose and conservative and liberal? And are they actually proxies for one another?

GELFAND: Yeah, they're really related, but they're distinct. You can think about Republican-Democrat preferences at the individual level and tightness and looseness really more at the social community level, but they really reinforce each other. So when people really have tight mindsets - which we would suggest is more among Republicans in general, not in all domains - then they tend to create contexts that have a lot of rules. And likewise, liberals might actually be happier in contexts where there's more permissiveness. So they kind of mutually reinforce each other. But you can also envision people who are Republican or Democrat living in tight and loose environments that are mismatched with their orientation as well.

VEDANTAM: To be sure, there is room for nuance in these definitions. Some red states, for example, may prefer tight cultural attitudes but offer a looser approach when it comes to regulations. By contrast, a culturally loose state like California can be tighter when it comes to workplace or environmental regulations. But the tight-loose framework gives us a way of thinking about the underlying preferences that shape the way we respond to the world. Coming up, understanding how nations coordinate or fail to work together when it comes to a global pandemic like the coronavirus outbreak.

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Michele Gelfand is a psychologist at the University of Maryland. She studies how culture shapes organizations, communities and nations.

Michele, given the large differences between nations and between communities within nations, I want to talk about what happens when different cultural attitudes collide with one another. In 1994 an American teenager was caught vandalizing some cars in Singapore. I want you to listen to a news clip about the story.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: No one knew when it would take place, but after serving five weeks of his four-month prison sentence, high school student Michael Fay was flogged with a rattan cane soaked in antiseptic - four lashes, not six. The reduced punishment was the result of President Clinton's appeal for clemency to the Singapore government.

VEDANTAM: Tell me what happened, Michele.

GELFAND: Yeah. Singapore veers really tight, and they corner the market on order. They have very little crime. They have a lot of police per capita. And in the U.S., we're much more open. We have more crime, and we have less order. And in this particular case, Michael Fay was caught vandalizing various property in Singapore. And he got the typical punishment, which was a fine and imprisonment. But also, he was caned, which is a typical punishment in Singapore.

And this set off really a big conflict between the U.S. and Singapore, including even Bill Clinton trying to get involved to get the Singapore government to be more lenient. And they did eventually become a little more lenient, but they were also saying to us, hey; we have our own ideas about how to organize our country. And don't try to tell us how to be looser. Look at your own New York City streets at the time to see how much disorder you have. Leave us alone, and let us manage our own country how we like. And this is a good example of - differences in emphasis on order and openness really collide at the national level when it comes to how we organize cultural groups.


VEDANTAM: You have an example of cultures colliding in your own life. You're a native New Yorker. And one time, you and your boyfriend were driving on Interstate 95 in South Carolina when a driver cut you off. Tell me the story of what happened next, Michele.

GELFAND: Yeah, this was a pretty scary situation in the early '90s. I was driving in South Carolina with my then-boyfriend, now-husband. And I come from New York, where, you know, it's a pretty loose place. And the South tends to be pretty tight. It was founded by people who came from cultures of honor where rules are really important. And so there's a lot of things that you need to be attended to in the South in terms of rules. And one of them is not flipping people off on the road, which is really a strong norm violation. And what happened to us was that we were driving along and I guess what happened was that this car cut off our car. And so Todd just naturally just flipped him off. And this turned into a pretty dangerous situation, a kind of road rage, where we were being followed by this car. We finally figured out a way to get off the road. And we sort of took a quick exit. But the car followed us off the road. And I tried to get Todd to apologize to this person. And he did. And it ended well. But it just suggests that, you know, when we're even in our own country, there's different places that have strict rules that we need to abide by or you're going to get yourself into some serious trouble. And in other contexts, you can be much more loose.

VEDANTAM: So the interesting thing, of course, is that in that moment, you have this - what feels like a cultural altercation. And no one's actually thinking at that point, well, of course, everyone flips everyone off in New York. It's what you do. It's an act of love, I mean...


GELFAND: I was going to say it's - that's right.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, in the South, that would be a complete no-no.

GELFAND: That's right. And in fact, when I went to Champaign Urbana to get my Ph.D., I was flipping people off a lot in Champaign Urbana.


GELFAND: And I think, you know, people kind of realized, like, she's really coming from another planet. And, you know, after five years there, I really kind of toned it down. But that's right. I think that that behavior is seen as really acceptable in the context of New York. We find some pretty interesting, also, other differences that I report on the book that, you know, the tight states are really very polite. Like, actually the correlation between tightness scores and politeness scores is pretty strong. And so loose states are seen as pretty rude actually. New York is ranked as the No. 1 rudest state in the union - my beloved New York. But loose states in our research are much more fun, according to indications of how many recreational activities there are, how many artists there are per capita.

So you could see this kind of tightness tradeoff, what I call the order versus openness tradeoff. And it's important to realize that each culture has its strengths. And it's really important to recognize and see that they both really have strengths and liabilities.

VEDANTAM: Can you talk about the strengths of each for a moment? When you look at tight cultures, you mentioned a second ago that, you know, they're rule followers. They're very polite. But you also find correlations with things like conscientiousness and how much people help one another. So talk a little bit about the strengths of tight cultures. And then we'll talk in a second about the strengths of loose cultures.

GELFAND: Sure. I think that tight cultures corner the market on order. So they have less crime. They have more law enforcement per capita. And they're much more synchronized. So we find that people are more likely to dress the same and drive more similar cars. Even financial markets, research is showing, are more synchronized in tight cultures in terms of buying and selling stocks. And another advantage of tight cultures are they have more self-control. So in a context where there's a lot of social control, people are taught from a very early age to manage their impulses. And so that means that they're more self-regulated. In many different types of domains, in terms of how much they eat, we find that tight cultures have lower obesity. They have lower debt. And they also have lower alcoholism. Actually in research for the book, I found that even pets tend to be skinnier in tight cultures.


GELFAND: And I can relate to that because my dog Pepper is pretty big. And my colleague at Maryland - and I always laugh - my German collaborator - I always laugh - that he says that German dogs are much skinnier than American dogs. But this just raised an important point that tight cultures corner the market on order and loose cultures struggle with order. They have more crime. They're less synchronized. And they have a host of self-regulation problems. But as you mentioned, they also have their strengths.

VEDANTAM: And so what are some of those strengths? I mean, you talked a second ago about creativity and a greater per capita number of artists. But just talk about it. What happens in places that have these looser norms that allows them to really succeed?

GELFAND: Yeah, so I was really interested in how people react to people who were stigmatized, who look different, in different cultures. And so I did this study where I trained people from different cultures to go back to their countries. And I bought them fake facial warts. You can buy them on the Internet - pretty easy.


GELFAND: And in one condition, they were wearing fake facial warts on their face. And then another condition, they were wearing tattoos and nose rings and purple hair. And then another condition, they were just wearing their plain face. And I had a simple experiment where we had them go around the world and ask for help on city streets or ask for help in stores. And what was interesting is that when people were wearing their normal face, there was no difference in whether people were likely to help them or not around the world in terms of giving them directions or giving them help in stores. But when they were wearing these weird facial warts or tattoos, we found that people in loose cultures were much more likely to help them as compared to tight cultures. So we can see that there's a big difference in how people react to the stigmatized around the world. And this is not just in city streets. It's on surveys. It's with implicit attitudes. So loose cultures corner the market on openness.

VEDANTAM: And so if you look at something like xenophobia, for example, you're likely to see far less xenophobia in a loose culture than in a tight culture.

GELFAND: That's right. So people are much more open to people of different races, religions, of immigrants, people with disabilities and many different other stigmas. And tight cultures struggle with openness.

VEDANTAM: When you look at the tension between these different attitudes, Michele, the looseness-tightness tension, how does this play out within organizations, which obviously, you know, hire people from both tight and loose cultures?

GELFAND: Yeah, actually you could see that the same principle, that culture's invisible in organizations, applies even when companies are merging. Often it's the case they choose each other based on strategic advantages. But they don't tend to see the deep cultural iceberg of tightness and looseness that's really beneath the surface. So I think back to a great example of tight-loose conflict happened in the Daimler-Chrysler merger, where these two companies - coming from the U.S., Chrysler, and Daimler from Germany - at first glance, it seemed like a match made in heaven. And a lot of people thought this was going to be a great marriage. But in fact, their cultural differences in tightness and looseness seemed to really rear their ugly head, such that sometime after they're merged, we see that they actually experienced a lot of cultural conflict. And they divorced, as people would say. And it makes sense.

The people, the practices and the leadership is profoundly different in tight and loose organizations. And when they come to collide, we see that actually it could be very costly. In a recent study, we actually studied thousands of cross-border acquisitions. And we could see that differences in tightness and looseness between them was costly, even as much as $250 million when you see big differences in tight-loose.

VEDANTAM: And I imagine the same thing also happens within organizations that are not merging with other organizations. You know, you're hiring someone from New York. And you're hiring someone from Kansas. They're working next to one another. And they have potentially different attitudes.

GELFAND: Yeah, that's exactly right. And in fact, a lot of organizations - within organizations, there's lots of differences in tightness and looseness. Think about sales versus R&D versus accounting. It makes sense that these groups would veer differently on tightness and looseness. And in fact, the people who are attracted to those kinds of jobs likely have tight and loose mindsets that really cause a lot of conflict when they interact with each other. Sometimes organizations who want to loosen up - for example, I interviewed people in manufacturing firms who said, hey, we want to become more innovative. We're going to hire groups to help us do that that are much looser. But what we found was that they actually had so much cultural conflict. When you're used a lot of order and efficiency and then you hire a group that's much more creative and may miss some deadlines, this causes a lot of cultural conflict. And so I think if we can think about tightness and looseness as it relates to mergers, we can anticipate these conflicts better and negotiate them ahead of time.

VEDANTAM: How do you prevent this work from becoming, you know, a form of, you know, essentialism, if you will, where you basically say all right, now I'm seeing that there's a risk when you have a German company merging with an American company? And so I'm oversimplifying these findings and say, OK, all American companies should never look to German companies to form a merger. Or you should never put a New Yorker in the same room as someone from Kansas. And then you have, you know, some of the problems that you have with personality tests, where you have basically these general tendencies amplified to a point where people are taking them perhaps a little too seriously.

GELFAND: Yeah, I think this is a really important point because you know, this construct, we can apply it across different levels and certain occupations and certain industries in the U.S. veer tighter - the military, airlines, nuclear power plants, hospitals. They need stronger rules. Other occupations and industries are much looser. So even in the U.S., we don't have one organizational culture, clearly. And again, at the individual level, we all need tight or loose for good reasons. But there are certain domains that we might be tighter or looser in.

So the more important point is to diagnose the levels of tight and loose in contexts where we're merging and figure out where our strengths are and where our liabilities are and talk about them, have cultural conversations, have conversations about culture. Negotiate culture ahead of time. But the important thing is to really understand that culture is driving a lot of the conflict in the first place.

VEDANTAM: So when you look at the U.S. as a whole, you also find that the degree of tightness within the U.S. has changed over time. Talk about that. How has it changed, in what direction, and what are the drivers?

GELFAND: Yeah, it's a great question. What we found was striking, is that over the last 200 years, we've become much looser. And what we can see is that it's associated with this exact order and openness tradeoff I was mentioning. So looseness has really caused much more creativity - patents, trademarks and so forth. But it's also produced less order - more debt, for example. And so we can see that the U.S. has changed, has become more loose. And it has the same associated tradeoffs. Of course, we can also see that during times of threat, we tend to tighten up. And so we can also see this as a dynamic construct that it's not as though the world's becoming looser. When we have collective threats, we can also see shifts to tightness.

VEDANTAM: So when you are speaking about collective threats, it makes me think of course of the coronavirus outbreak that we are experiencing right now in 2020. And when you look at how different countries in the world are coping with the coronavirus outbreak, do you see the same hand of culture at play?

GELFAND: Yeah, I think that it's really important to think about the spread of corona not just from a medical point of view but also from a cultural point of view. And we see striking differences around the world the response to corona. You know, tight societies, like Singapore and Hong Kong, for example, have demonstrated a really effective, quick, swift response. Singapore has had very few deaths. And the United States, the response so far echoes our loose cultural programming. It's been conflicted. It's been unstandardized. It's been uncoordinated. And I think that, you know, this is a cultural issue because loose cultures who have tended to have less threat haven't had the kind of contexts where they've realized the importance of sacrificing liberty and autonomy and freedom for constraint and rules. And we have kind of an ambivalence about tightness in United States in general. And here's where we see that this is a real liability that we do see in our data analyses that loose cultures have had higher spread of the disease, different trajectories than tighter cultures. And that's not to say that we should give up our creative, loose spirit. It just means that we need to tighten up to fight the disease. And we need to use our loose spirit to create technologies that can help us to fight it as well.

VEDANTAM: So if you look at countries like Spain and Italy, for example, presumably these are looser cultures, they seem to have very different trajectories of the coronavirus outbreak than countries like South Korea.

GELFAND: Yeah, that's right. I think that Italy in our research was also veered loose and Spain as well. And you could see that - and of course it's multiple determined. It's not just determined by tightness-looseness. But it is - you can see that the response in Italy is something that we see here in the U.S. as well, that even people had harder time obeying the rules. Even under the quarantines early on, people were trying to leave their communities, which was also causing further spread. And I think that if we think about the meaning of rules, it would help us to tighten up more quickly.

So I think if we think about rules are important to keep us safe that maybe we'd be more amenable to social distancing and handwashing. But 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.

VEDANTAM: So the interesting thing, of course, is that because most of us don't think about these underlying systems that drive whether we are rule followers or rule breakers, we just assume that the way we are is the way the world ought to be. It becomes quite difficult when you have a situation that suddenly calls for you to exercise a completely different system, right? So if you are part of a tight culture and you're hearing an authoritarian government tell you, you know, everyone stays put and everyone follows the rules, really easy for you to do.

But if you come from a loose culture and you suddenly have a government play the heavy and basically say everyone stays home, businesses shut down, there's a part of you that sort of says hang on, why should I do that? And I think the point that I'm trying to make is that it's one thing to say that we should judiciously decide when to be tight and when to be loose. But I think the paradox here is that because we're not even aware of being tight or loose, we just assume the way we are is the way we ought to be. It's very difficult to change on a dime when the situation around us changes.

GELFAND: Yeah, I think that's precisely right. And I think these are cultural matters of life and death, in my point of view. I think that if we think about this as a temporary shift, that in context of threat we know from research that we need strong rules to coordinate to survive - you can see this approach in China. They tightened up very quickly in a massive way. They had clearly huge quarantines. They were - citizens were on watch for people that might be showing symptoms. They had thermometers checking people's temperature, people knocking on people's door to check this all in the spirit of trying to control the disease. As it's gotten controlled, there's obviously much less restriction now in Wuhan and other areas. So we can think about this as temporarily tightening up to flatten the curve. And I think that we need strong leadership to tell us that this is the appropriate response in this situation. And research suggests that that's the case.


VEDANTAM: So I understand that people always ask you which is better, tight or loose. What do you tell them, Michele?

GELFAND: You know, this is something that we've been thinking about, philosophers have been talking about for centuries. You're going to have people like Plato and Confucius and Hobbes say no, we need tightness. We need constraint. Hobbes, in particular, had a pretty negative view of human nature. And then you had people like John Stuart Mill and Freud. Freud, in particular, thought rules make you neurotic. And so what's the answer? Is it tight or loose? I had the hunch that maybe it's neither. Groups clearly need to veer tight or loose for good reasons based on their degree of threat. But what I found is that the groups that get too extreme in either direction really are dysfunctional. So extreme tightness or extreme looseness produces higher suicide and less happiness. And this is what I call the Goldilocks principle of tight-loose, that we need some kind of cultural balance. Really, I think we need to be ambidextrous, like, using the right and the left hand when it comes to tight-loose. And we need leadership to help us deploy tightness under the right circumstances and looseness under others.

VEDANTAM: Michele Gelfand is a psychologist at the University of Maryland. She studies how culture shapes organizations, communities and nations. She's the author of the book "Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight And Loose Cultures Wire Our World." Michele, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

GELFAND: Thanks for having me.


VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Thomas Lu. It was edited by Tara Boyle and Jenny Schmidt. Our team includes Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel, Cat Schuknecht and Lushik Wahba. Our unsung heroes this week are the members of Michele Gelfand's family. With our team working remotely, we are learning to adjust to the new normal of recording guests from their homes. For our interview, which needed two phones, Michele's husband Todd lent her his phone. And their daughters, Jeanette (ph) and Hannah (ph), helped create a quiet space. Oh, thanks also to their birds, Bonnie and Clyde, and dog Pepper for keeping their conversations to a minimum. We appreciate all the help. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter. If you liked today's show, please remember to share it with one friend. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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