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"Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our Worlds" by Michele Gelfand

If you walk outside and do something weird, will anyone mind? India’s panchayats would certainly express disapproval and punish deviation. Such cultures are ‘tight’. The rules are known, conformity is widespread and subversion is abhorred. But head to São Paulo and no one will care. Go to Israel and brace yourself for fiery debate. ‘Loose’ cultures like these are relatively tolerant and open-minded.

Why do some societies strictly police norms, while others turn a blind eye? Why are demands for conformity so much higher in the US South?

“Rule Makers, Rule Breakers” by Professor Michele Gelfand is brilliant. This is a review of her phenomenal research and how it inspires new questions about the drivers of patriarchy.

Global cultural heterogeneity: tight and loose

Gelfand and co-authors’ international survey (spanning 33 countries across 5 continents) reveals a spectrum of 'tight and loose cultures. People in tight cultures show greater self-control, conscientiousness, less littering, lower crime, more synchrony, stronger prejudice against outsiders, low immigration, low ethnic diversity, and more restrictions on public speech. Loose cultures are typically more open, tolerant, creative and over-weight.

Neither extreme is superior; Gelfand is quite emphatic about trade-offs:

Tight-loose trade-off, Gelfand 2019

These cultural differences are so vast, they can even scupper international mergers. When firms merge over international boundaries, between culturally incongruous countries, they can suffer financial setbacks. Tracking M&A deals from 1980 to 2013, Gelfand finds that huge disparities caused losses of over $100 million.

Within the US, there’s great cultural heterogeneity. Southern states have far higher rates of corporal punishment, executions and alcohol restrictions. In Texas in 2011, 28,000 school students were paddled or spanked. Alabama still criminalises the sale of sex toys. Tight states like these strongly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. What explains this variation?

Tightness is exacerbated by threats

War, pathogens and population density trigger fear and anxiety. Existential threats like these motivate the cultural adaptation of tightness. Fearful people want their group to be strong and united in solidarity. They rally in support of authoritarian leaders and strictly punish norm violators.

Strengthening internal order may have also enabled groups to survive against the odds. Japan has long been ravaged by earthquakes and tsunamis. People have mitigated devastation by coming together, in mutual support. After the Great Hanshin earthquake, a million people volunteered to help.

Gelfand and co-authors test this cross-nationally, within the US, and over time. Countries that had conflicts within their borders after 1918 have tighter cultures today. This holds controlling for wealth. Population density is also correlated with tightness.

Within the US, states ransacked by more tornadoes, hurricanes, and severe floods tend to be culturally tighter. The US South tops the charts for both cultural tightness and exposure to ecological threats. [One question though, if Louisiana is so tight, how come homicides are so high?]

Fears are also socially constructed, such as through white supremacist ideological persuasion. States that had more slave owning families in 1860 are now culturally tighter. From Reconstruction to Desegregation to Rush Limbaugh, charismatic leaders have exacerbated people’s fears and compounded desire for cultural tightness. Illegal immigrants are “taking our jobs, killing us at the border”.

Tightness is thus dynamic. Fears of communism motivated McCarthyist witch-hunts. When Americans feel under threat, they want cultural tightness. Trump gained more support from voters who felt America was under threat.

Conflict triggers support for authoritarians worldwide. After rampant criminality, many Filipinos supported Duterte because he promised stability. The post-communist surge in lawlessness, instability and joblessness in Russia similarly spiked demand for order.

Institutions and rituals reinforce cultural tightness

Norm adherence isn’t just a function of self-regulation. Gelfand also emphasises institutions. Tight cultures tend to have more police per capita and security personnel. In Singapore, there are harsh punishments for littering, drug possession and even importing chewing gum. In some Chinese classrooms, webcams broadcast children’s behaviour, relaying footage to parents and school officials.

Mandatory calisthenics in Beijing. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian, 2010

Pro-sociality may be also enforced through group rituals, like singing. A Chinese child’s school day may start with carefully coordinated group exercise. Synchronisation promotes unity and cooperation.

Tightness can also be intentionally engineered. Teenage drinking used to be a major problem in Iceland. Legislators then toughened up the laws, promoted social surveillance and teens cleaned up their act.

Culture is thus quite malleable for Gelfand. Humans are adaptive; they respond to the expectations set by their communities, institutions, as well as threats and mass media.

Working class Americans seek cultural tightness

Working class Americans - who often work in dangerous jobs, worry about making the rent, and have little social security - tend to extol obedience and authoritarianism

% of participants who chose a minority/majority pen. Research by Nicole Stevens

“If I got in a car accident, I’d be homelesss. If I get laid off from any of my jobs, my kids will end up going hungry” - explained Karen, a teacher and bartender. This extreme precarity, argues Gelfand, motivates demand for conformity.

When given a choice of pens (4 green, 1 orange), 72% of working class participants chose the majority colour. They valued conformity.

Diversity encourages open-minded tolerance

New York and California have long thrived as markets, attracting traders and entrepreneurs from all over the world. Gelfand argues (and I don’t think anyone will disagree) that diversity promotes open-minded tolerance.

With little ethnic diversity, Norway remains comparatively tight. To quote a Bemba proverb, “the child who doesn’t travel praises their mother’s cooking’.

Looseness can also be collectively celebrated and reaffirmed through cultural events, like rock concerts.

Let me make three complementary points:

  • Job-creating economic growth is fundamental. This is what creates demand for immigrants and sustains appreciation of ethnic diversity (as we see in Toronto).

  • Cities have long attracted skilled workers, enabled diversity and fostered collaborative creativity. Gelfand’s subnational analysis is at the level of states. I suspect a lot of the variation is actually liberal cities versus conservative small town (where people are typically poorer, with weaker state institutions, and heightened vulnerability to ecological devastation.

  • Diversity is clearly not sufficient for tolerance. What matters is whether diverse groups are seen as equally competent and deserving of status. Gelfand is right that New Orleans is incredibly diverse, but it’s also one of the US’s most segregated regions.

What about kinship and religion?

Gelfand’s book is masterful. But it omits two crucial mechanisms, kinship and religion.

Indians have mitigated uncertainty by building strong institutions of mutual insurance and solidarity. Jati panchayats then enforce cultural tightness. Assemblies of older men built trust in caste networks by overseeing women's sexuality and reproduction. If a woman rejected her arranged marriage, the caste panchayat might severely fine her family or even outcast them: prohibiting future marriages, cutting off their social networks, and sources of mutual insurance. An entire lineage could be alienated and expelled from the village because of one daughter's misdeeds. Religosity is often triggered by threats, and then sustains cultural tightness. After the 1980s farm crisis, Americans turned to God. War also seems to increase religosity. In Uganda, Sierra Leone and Tajikistan, individuals who had born the brunt of intense conflict were much more likely to join religious groups and rituals. Religious rituals and fear of eternal damnation then motivate cultural tightness. Punitive gods actually substitute for strong institutions: they preserve order and lower cheating. In sum, “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers” is amazing, but for the omission of kinship and religion. Having reading Gelfand’s book, I perused her more recent work.

What did I find?

A raft of research on supernatural punishment!

Territorial and ecological threats motivate belief in God as punitive

When people feel under siege, they seek strength through unity, want norm violators to be punished and gravitate towards supernatural punishment! Gelfand and co-authors demonstrate this through lab experiments, cross-sectional analyses and panel data.

When people’s fears are primed through experimental manipulation, they are more likely to express punitive religious beliefs. Comparing across the US, states with high ecological threats likewise have more punitive religious beliefs. Conflict also seem to change people’s conceptions of God, they are more likely to see him as punitive. So while Gelfand’s book neglects religion, her latest research reveals its importance!

Caluori et al 2020

Does theology shape culture or vice versa?

In a recent paper on culture, Acemoglu and Robinson argue that some religions are ‘stickier’ and slower to change because they are hardwired with multiple, specific rules. They think that theological proscriptions inhibit deviation. Gelfand spins it the other way around. Ecological and territorial threats stimulate demand for norm policing, strict theology and punitive gods!

Research Questions

  • The Middle East and North Africa accounted for 49% of 21st century deaths from terrorism. Does chronic instability explain near universal belief in Hell? (see figure below)

  • Has Afghanistan’s long history of conflict amplified support for Sharia law?

  • Will climate breakdown encourage support for authoritarianism and normative policing? New research by Max Winkler similarly suggests that conflicts, epidemics, natural and economic disasters motivate demand for norm adherence and social cooperation - especially where states are weak.

  • If automation causes unemployment, will culture tighten?

  • Does Western Europe’s peace, stability and security help explain why its people remain exceptionally strong supporters of democracy?

Democracy is declining worldwide, except in Western Europe and North America. V-dem 2022

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