Michele Gelfand in The Guardian:
My research across hundreds of communities suggests that the fundamental driver of difference is not ideological, financial or geographical – it’s cultural. Behaviour, it turns out, depends a lot on whether the culture in which we live is a “tight” or “loose” one.
This is simply a way of describing the strength of social norms and the strictness with which those norms are enforced. All cultures have norms – rules for acceptable behaviour – that we take for granted. As children, we learn hundreds of them: to not grab things out of other people’s hands, to put on clothes each day. We continue to absorb new norms throughout our lives: what to wear to a funeral; how to behave at a rock concert versus a symphony; and the proper way to perform rituals from weddings to worship. Social norms are the glue that holds groups together; they give us our identity, and they help us coordinate in unprecedented ways. Yet cultures vary in the strength of their social glue, with profound consequences for our worldviews, our environments and our brains.
Tight cultures have strong norms and little tolerance for deviance, while loose cultures are the opposite. In the US, a relatively loose culture, a person can’t get far down their street without witnessing a slew of casual norm violations, from littering to jaywalking to arguing loudly on the street. By contrast, in Singapore, gum is banned, streets are pristine and jaywalkers are rare. Or consider Brazil, a relatively loose culture, where arriving late for business meetings is more the rule than the exception. In fact, if you want to be sure someone will arrive on time in Brazil, you say com pontualidade britânica, which means “with British punctuality”. Meanwhile, in Japan, a tight country, there’s a huge emphasis on punctuality – trains almost never arrive late. On the rare days that delays do occur, some train companies will hand out cards to passengers that they can submit to their bosses to excuse a tardy arrival.
A discovery I and my team published in Science is that the strength of a culture’s norms isn’t random. Though they were separated by miles, and in some cases centuries, tight cultures as diverse as Sparta and Singapore have something in common: each faced (or faces) a high degree of threat, whether from Mother Nature – disasters, diseases, and food scarcity – or human nature – the chaos caused by invasions and internal conflicts. Strong norms are needed in these contexts to help groups survive. And when we look at loose cultures, from classical Athens to modern New Zealand, we see the opposite pattern: they enjoy the luxury of facing far fewer threats. This safety is used to explore new ideas, accept newcomers, and tolerate a wide range of behaviour. In contexts where there are fewer threats and thus less of a need for coordination, strong norms don’t materialise.