Michele Gelfand | Rule Makers and Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World

Michele Gelfand | Rule Makers and Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World

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With that, please enjoy this week’s episode. What’s up, everybody? My episode today is
with Michele Gelfand. Michele is a cross-cultural psychologist and a professor of psychology
at the University of Maryland, College Park. She’s also the author of a recently published
book titled “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers,” which looks at cultures from the perspective
of how tightly or loosely members of that culture adhere to their own social norms,
how readily they deviate from them, how significant or insignificant norm violations are within
a particular culture and also looking at what types of distributions along the spectrum
of tightness are optimal or ideal both for promoting particular outcomes within a culture,
but also for the stability, the macrostability of the culture itself, the society which adopts
the norms of that culture. We’ve already done a few episodes dealing
with similar subjects. Our episode with Safi Bahcall on phase transitions comes most readily
to mind, but also our episodes with Jonathan Haidt and Robby Soave are, in a sense, predicated
on the existence of cultural norms and how human beings cope with changes in what is
considered appropriate or inappropriate behavior. It seems to me that this is becoming increasingly
relevant today. By this, I mean this landscape of changing
social norms within national boundaries. A lot of it seems to be, if not driven by, then
certainly complicated by these new mediums of communications and the values that are
enforced by many of these large Silicon Valley tech companies that mediate so much of the
national conversation around gun rights, women’s rights issues, white supremacy, nationalism,
trade, immigration. You name it. Many people in the country, myself included, feel increasingly
at odds with each other on issues that we either previously agreed upon or in which
we could at least find common ground. To that effect, I’ve invited two great writers
onto the program. One for The New Yorker, Andrew Marantz, and the other for the Financial
Times, Rana Foroohar, both of whom who will be out with new books this month and early
next dealing with exactly this issue. Andrew more from the social, cultural side and Rana
from the side of surveillance capitalism to discuss different aspects of this phenomenon.
So, I’m very excited to have those conversations and to share them with you as well. Before I hand it off, I want to thank those
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With that, please enjoy my conversation with cultural psychologist and author, Michele
Gelfand. Michele Gelfand, welcome to Hidden Forces. Great to be here. Yeah. You got here and I didn’t even have
to run you over to get you in the seat. We were talking for a little bit before we started.
Well, you’re originally from New York but you live here? No. I live in Washington DC just outside of
DC. Right, so you teach down in Maryland? University of Maryland, that’s right. That’s right. That’s right. How long you been
down there for? About 23 years. I taught at NYU before I went
down to Maryland. Then, I’ve been “DC-ite” since then. How do you like DC? I love DC. It’s kind of a great balance between
having a lot of options but feeling like you know it and it’s not too overwhelming in terms
of the choices you have. That’s interesting. I lived in DC for a short
period of time about two years between 2011, 2013. Talking about culture! A very different
culture than New York, right? Oh, yeah. It’s very much focused on power
versus finance and it’s- And who you know. And who you know. And who you know. And it’s also really mobile
city, which has its benefits and its detriments and people coming, going, all the time, so
there’s a real sense of openness. Very transient. Yeah. A sense of openness, like you don’t
have this kind of neighborhoods that have existed with people there like Boston or New
York so you have a lot of openness but then you also have the mobility. Yeah. The transience is … I mean, because
New York’s also impermanent. It’s changing constantly. Businesses are shutting and opening,
but DC has its transience I think is more of a permanent feature of the city and it
also hits you so hard because of the election cycle, right? That’s right and you have a totally different
population coming into town. Also, it’s really a lot of academia. It’s
a lot of government. There’s not a ton of industries and you can’t build above the Washington
Monument so it has a really beautiful skyline and a sense of elegance. Almost European-like. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. It is romantic
in a sense. I mean, especially those long walks around the Washington Monument at night. But the other thing about DC that’s super
interesting is that I used to describe it this way because in New York, whatever you
want, you can get it whenever you want. That’s right. In DC, it just felt like there was an overwhelming
amount of demand and insufficient supply, right? Yeah. Especially on the weekends. That’s right.
Things kind of closed down in DC. Also, the great thing about DC is that most
things are free like the museums and the zoo. I mean, when I go to Philadelphia, I always
can’t believe I have to pay $100 to go to the zoo and see nice, little animals. So,
it really is a phenomenal place, it’s a great place to raise kids and it’s great to be close
to New York because I come here all the time. Now, these are coming to me now that we’re
talking but it wasn’t intended, but it just really strikes me thinking about DC because
DC, it has its own culture, right? Yeah. It has its people that are native people from
DC. But those people have really clashed big time, especially since September 11th, when
the government grew substantially and so many more people came to DC, right? Yeah. Although, I have to say that rarely
do I meet people who are from DC. I think it’s just a really mobile place. Yeah. Yeah. So, let’s figure out how you got
into this mess. How did you get started in your career? So, I’m a cross-cultural psychologist, which
just is a way of saying that I get to study human behavior all around the world and within
our country. Though was not always interested in culture. I was pre-med. I went to Colgate
University, and I had that kind of classic New Yorker view of the world where there’s
New York. We acknowledge there’s New Jersey. That’s a big deal but there’s a bunch of rocks
and the rest of the world. And I had that view for a very long time as a kid from Long
Island. Then, I took a semester trip to London and
I just remember being totally full of lots of culture shock from the food, the jokes,
how you drive on the street and even I was perplexed by people just going from London
to Paris for the weekend or the Netherlands. I remember calling my father, who’s from Brooklyn,
and he said something really important to me. He said, “Well, imagine like it’s going
from New York to Pennsylvania.” Is that how your dad talks? Yeah. “New York to Pennsylvania.” I said,
“Wow, dad. That’s an awesome metaphor.” This is a true story. The next day, I booked a
trip to Egypt. My dad wasn’t too happy and I’m like, “Dad. That’s like going from here
to California. Don’t worry about it.” That’s how I really started in my adventures and
journey in understanding culture because I felt like I really know nothing about it and
I was really pretty shocked how much culture affects so many things and it’s so omnipresent
but invisible. It’s funny, when you were talking about New
Jersey and everything else, connecting that with your time at NYU, I mentioned that I
was a student at NYU from 2000 to 2004. I remember in our first day when we had … I
don’t know what is it called, like orientation. Orientation. Yeah. And the president of the school. What
was his name then? I’m not sure. He was a guy that came and turned around and
spent a lot of money. He said that New Jersey’s like a parking lot for New York City,- I’m sure that did not set well. … which is even worse. And actually, New Jersey, being from Long
Island, I have to say I think it’s actually much nicer but as a kid, you’re always having
this big rivalry. Yeah. It depends also where you are. I mean,
it sounds like you grew up in a nice area of Long Island from what you were telling
me before. So, you went to London. Interesting place.
Speaks the same language but very culturally different. So, I mean, before you even decided
to fly from New York to California, the equivalent in- To Egypt. Which is going to Africa, what was your experience
like of the English? Yeah. I thought, it just seemed, to me, everything
seemed different. I think when you go to another culture and you never been abroad and you
have that New Yorker view of the world, you’re just shocked that you have not even thought
about not just kind of the culture and norms and values of another country but also, it
starts making you think, “Whoa. I had no idea how much my own culture has affected by behavior.”
That was really the turning point for me to think about, “Can I make a career out of this.
Can I study culture systematically using the tools of science?” That’s really what I did. I went back to Colgate.
I took a human development class that was about culture. I was astonished to learn that
even things like visual illusions that we become victim to are really culturally variable,
like basic visual perception. I lucked out because I was trying to figure out what to
do with this. I was looking into anthropology, international relations, psychology. I had
this fortuitous conversation with a cross-cultural trainer. He said, “Look. If you can get into
work with Harry Triandis, who’s founded this field of cross-cultural ecology, then go work
in Champaign-Urbana with him.” That’s what I did. I packed my bags for the
Twin Cities of Champaign-Urbana to work with Harry Triandis, fellow Greek. Awesome guy.
Harry had great advice for his students, tripartite advice. One was be passionate about what you
do, which is easy for many of us. The other is don’t be afraid to be controversial. A
little bit harder, but the third thing- Mm-hmm (affirmative). Especially today. Yeah. That’s right. Especially today. That’s right. And the third thing, which is
even more hard, is not to take yourself too seriously. And that was his advice. I try
to really practice that with my life and my students and my kids. Three makes two a lot easier, especially in
this world today. That’s right. Not attachment. It’s a Buddhist
philosophy. So, that’s super interesting. So, you were
in London in the 80s? Yeah. Mid 80s. What’s really interesting about that, when
did Margaret Thatcher leave? I’m not sure but it- Was she in office when you were there? That’s a good question. What’s really interesting about the transatlantic
relationship is in terms of politically, if you compare the 80s with you have similar
types of movements happening, right? Yeah. Pro-free market movements in both the United
States under Reagan- And Thatcher. … and in England under Thatcher. Now, you
have something very similar with Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, right? Yeah. It’s kind of strange mimicry, right? Yeah. It’s interesting. It’s also interesting
to compare the differences, you know what I mean? Yeah. So, sticking with Europe a little bit, another
thing that I was thinking about when I was reading your book and actually, this story,
I don’t even think is in your book, is it or have you mentioned it a lot of times in
interviews. I can’t remember where I read it or heard it. The story about going to Egypt.
You talk about it. Okay. It’s in the end of my book, actually, where
I thank people. Right, right, right. But I’m Greek, I mentioned.
I’m a native Greek speaker. I’m a Greek citizen but I’m also an American citizen. I also lived
in Italy. I always found that Europeans to be more culturally intelligent than Americans
because of the fact that they live … Now, I think that’s kind of changed with the European
Union and the fact that globalization is kind of … Backfiring. Yeah, well, that’s true but what I’m trying
to capture is the fact- [inaudible 00:13:06]. Yeah. … that it has homogenized. So, talk to me
a little bit about that. I’m curious what role you think globalization has had on this
and has that made us less culturally intelligent? Yeah. This is a great question. By the way,
just FYI, cultural intelligence is actually a construct that psychologists investigate.
We can measure cultural intelligence. It’s difference than IQ. It’s different from emotional
intelligence or EQ. I’ve done research that shows, in intercultural negotiations, that
it’s CQ or cultural intelligence that really predicts effectiveness, and in fact, I- Like diplomacy or something? Yeah. I mean, in this case laboratory experiments
of negotiation, which is what I do, but when I got into this field, I was really kind of
losing sleep thinking about Americans going and negotiating in the Middle East or elsewhere
without this kind of cultural intelligence. So, I remember there was a story about Baker
and Aziz, who were negotiating during the Kuwaiti situation. Jim Baker. Yeah. Jim Baker. Apparently Baker went in
very kind of stoic. He had a certain communication style, which was, “We’re very serious. We
will invade you if you do this.” The word on the cross-cultural psychology
street was that Aziz went back to Hussein and said, “They’re not serious, these Americans,
because if they were, they would be slamming their hands on the table and …” I mean that’s
not, obviously, what caused the whole breakdown in communication and the war but it’s one
element. Culture’s a really important element that’s ignored in foreign policy and in diplomacy. So, I went to Champaign-Urbana to work with
Harry to study but not only how can you define and measure different aspects of culture like
you could for personality but also how does it affect things like negotiation conflict,
revenge, forgiveness, these kinds of basic things that we need to do across cultures? So, but anyway, your question about globalization’s
really super interesting. I want to mention that Herodotus, your great,- My great-grandfather. … awesome historian who wrote the- I’m pretty sure we’ve talked about him before,
yeah. … histories, which is the first cross-cultural
psychology text, in my opinion. He argued that all humans are ethnocentric. That just
means that not just view the world through our lens but we think it’s correct. I think that I would say that many people
around the world, whether they’re in Europe or US, that’s just how they think about the
world, that they might recognize that there are cultural differences but they still think
they’re correct. It’s people who get over that are much more culturally intelligent
who understand why do cultural difference evolve in the first place? Why might they
make sense? That’s what I studied. That’s why I wrote
this book on rule makers, rule breakers to just talk about why we should, in understanding
cultures, think about what are the origins of cultural differences. Not every difference
makes sense but some of them evolve for good reasons, and tight and loose, how strictly
we adhere to social norms, certainly has some evolutionary basis. Once we can understand
why cultures evolve the way they do, we can be less ethnocentric and we can actually hopefully
get along a little bit better because we start realizing we have some limitations in our
own culture that maybe are offset in others and vice versa. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Was it Herodotus who
wrote about the cannibalism of dead family members? Yeah. He was arguing that people in his … By
the way, he has been also accused of being ethnocentric. It’s a big controversy over
him, too, but he saw people just really, very just disgusted by other people’s traditions. The more modern version of this is Rick Shweder,
who was really did some excellent work in India. He asked people in India, he said to
some Brahman Hindu populations, he asked them about widows eating fish. Then, he said, “Is
this wrong?” They said, “Yes, it’s definitely wrong.” He said, “Is it immoral?” They said,
“Yes, it’s immoral.” Americans allow their widows to eat fish. They change their practice.
They said, “Absolutely. That’s terrible.” He said, “What if everyone in India wanted
to change the practice?” They said, “No. They can’t do that.” Americans, when asked the
same question went like, “What? Why can’t widows eat fish? The world would be a better
place.” Turns out this is the rationale for this that
fish is an aphrodisiac apparently, but I didn’t know that. Don’t your whole audience don’t
start eating a lot of fish. The ideology was that if your widow starts eating a lot of
fish, she might be tempted to break the eternal bond with their husband. That’s so interesting. And so the point is that we can step back
and think, “Why do people think this way and why does it make sense on their cultural turf
that can help us become less ethnocentric?” Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, how do you measure
this stuff? Yeah. I started kind of just observing around
the world differences in the strictness of rules. Singapore, known as the fine country,
where you can get fined for chewing gum or not flushing toilets in public settings, which
obviously is not a problem in New York. You can get a bunch of lashes for- Yeah. Get a bunch of lashes for graffiti like
in the Michael Fay case. Then, you go to New Zealand, you see people walking barefoot in
banks and you see them lighting couches on fire in campuses. Other kind of really puzzling
differences in Germany, for example, many people do still stay put on the street corners
even though there’s no cars around, even late at night but in New York City, they go- What do they do on the street corners? They wait patiently, even though there’s no
cars around. You’re saying, waiting to cross the street. Yeah. To cross the street. That’s 100% true. Yeah. Yeah. In New York, people jaywalk all the
time. So, anecdotally, it seemed to be some differences
around the world but I wanted to measure this. One of the things I really thought was fascinating
is that norms are these unwritten rules of behavior that sometimes become more formalized
in laws. We could talk about later. They’re really invisible but they’re critical for
us as human beings. All groups need norms. You can’t imagine a world without norms. We
would never be able to predict each other’s behavior or coordinate. So, we come here.
I’m wearing clothes and so are you. I’m just letting your audience know. We drive on the
right or the left depending on where we live. I do these naked normally, but I didn’t want
to upset you because usually we have men in the studio. Yeah. I mean, these are things that we just
take for granted. We walk into elevators and we stand forwards. We don’t face backwards.
Try doing that sometimes. Go into an elevator and just face backwards. See how people react
to you. We constantly follow norms but what I started to- It’s like a Monty Python skit. I mean, listen. Once you start thinking about
norms, you can’t stop thinking about them and you want to violate them. I was in Germany
and I just kind of wanted to ask someone, “Can I just have some of your food on your
plate,” in a restaurant but that sounds like my Jewish New York family, just stealing food
off each other’s plates. People that you know, not random strangers,
right? No. I wanted to do it with random strangers.
I mean, again, we’re just following these rules. Oh, you were just messing around. Just messing around. That’s interesting. Do you have a police escort
with you, just in case? I mean, it’s interesting. I mean, I did a
study also where I asked my students to go back to their home countries, of 20 countries
wearing fake facial warts on their face or wearing tattoos and nose rings, like looking
pretty deviant. I was looking to see how much help they got on city streets. We talk about
this later, loose cultures are really open to people who are very deviant and tight cultures
are much more disturbed by people who are threatening the social order. But what was
fascinating in this study is that, one by one, the tightest of the countries that I
had in this study were dropping out of the study because they just couldn’t bring themselves
to where these ridiculous warts or- Interesting. … facial things in public, even though it
was legal but in any event. That’s so interesting. I wouldn’t want to
wear a wart in public. Yeah, but in any rate, so you can sort of
step back and look at your world every day and imagine a world without social norms.
We really need social norms to predict [inaudible] behavior but what I started out to look at
was, just like you can look at different personality dimensions like extroversion/introversion,
neuroticism, all the dimensions, can we also place countries on a metric and states on
a metric and even organizations and social class or our own household on how strictly
people abide by social norms? That’s what we measure. We publish the results of this
study in science journal, into different journal, and we were able to classify countries based
on survey measures that we had that we validated. We saw, for example, that Japan and Singapore,
to some extent, Germany, Austria veered tighter, even though all cultures have tight and loose
domains. Places like Greece in our data, Brazil, the Netherlands, the US to some extent but
we can talk about the variation in US, too, veered looser. The important thing for our point of view
is that that this was distinct from GDP, it was distinct from other cultural dimensions
like collectivism, individualism. Also, we wanted to know why do these differences evolve
and what consequences do they confer to human groups. So, that was the first entry into
this research area. Mm-hmm (affirmative). And what advantages
perhaps do they confer disadvantages? I’m curious because I did see that list. Where
did Argentina fall on that list? Well, we didn’t have data from Argentina. Because Argentina’s super loose and what a
mess. I mean, like I said, I’m Greek. When I went to Argentina, I never felt more at
home. You want to talk about not following protocol. Yeah. Actually, in our data, though, Venezuela,
we had data from Venezuela and they came out in our data as extraordinarily loose when
we collected this data. Interesting. Yeah. There’s a continuum like super loose,
almost unpredictable. Moderately loose, moderately tight, and super tight. We could talk about
this later. It turns out the extremes have a lot of problems because when you’re having
an extremely loose context, it’s really chaotic and it’s really disorderly and you can’t predict
each other’s behavior. Same with organizations. Organizations that get too loose or households
that get too loose have a lot of problems. On the flip side, really super tight cultures
that are really repressive also have a lot of problems. We showed this in a research study we published
that the extremes in our data was predicting suicide, blood pressure, unhappiness, and
a lot of unrest. So, we have to really think about these extremes because the big picture
is that when you’re in a really super loose context, like extraordinarily loose, people
start craving a lot of order. It’s just a natural human tendency. This happened in Egypt
after Mubarak was taken out. So, you can imagine that these things go through
pendulum shifts. So, when people say to me, “Which is better, tight or loose?” I mean,
I can say, “Look. They definitely each have advantages in terms of order versus openness,”
but it’s really critical to realize that the extremes become really problematic. Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s so interesting.
Two things come to mind. One, staying with Argentina. Argentina’s a country not only
of extreme weather but of extreme politics and so they go through these extreme political
cycles, right? That’s right. Of right wing to left wing and they swing
back and forth, which I think is super interesting. I’m curious if you have any further thoughts
about that. Then, Italy, I mentioned, I lived in Italy
and one of the things that I found fascinating was I could always tell where I was in Italy,
how far north or how far south, based on how punctual the buses were. We used to joke around
that if you went south enough, the 4:00 would come before the 3:30. It’s like Amtrak today when I was coming from
DC. It’s interesting that, well, you just intuited
one of the big strengths of tightness, which is order and synchrony. Just as a sort of
building on that in some of my work, I looked at how similar clocks are on city streets.
You can measure clocks in city streets all around the world and see how much are they
aligned. In tight cultures, they say almost identical time. In loose cultures, you’re
not entirely sure what time it is, because the clocks actually say something totally
different. Even now with global positioning? I was just in Italy, actually,- That’s so fascinating. … and I was having a hard time figuring
out and also in terms of trains. There’s also much more uniformity in tight cultures. We
measured the cars that people drive, in terms of their make and color. You start seeing
a lot of uniformity. Cars, you start thinking, “I’m getting into a tighter environment,”
or the close that people wear. In Japan, it’s remarkable the kind of subtleties
in differences in what people wear. They also have a lot more self-control type cultures,
meaning that people are worried about punishments so they’re regulating their behavior more.
There’s less debt, there’s less alcoholism, less recreational drug abuse, there’s even
less obesity, controlling for lots of factors in tight cultures. Actually, when I researched for the book,
I found out that 60% of dogs in the US are overweight including my own beloved Portuguese
Water Dog, Pepper. So, loose cultures, they struggle with order but they have the market
on openness. That’s what I mentioned earlier. Loose culture have less synchrony, less coordination,
less uniformity and they also have a host of self-regulation failures but they are much
more tolerant of people from all sorts of races, religions, immigrant, stigmatized individuals
and they’re more creative and they’re more open-minded to change. Those are the kinds
of criterion that tight cultures struggle with. So that’s kind of the big picture. We looked
at that at the national level, at the state level. You can see the same exact differences,
when we rank order the US 50 states on tight/loose. You see the same signature even in the brain
when we publish work using neuroscience techniques looking at how people react to norm violations. So that’s just the kind of general big picture
following up on your really interesting observation around synchrony in buses. I’m frantically scribbling. I have thoughts
that I’m trying to make- Organize that. So, a couple other thoughts. I’m going to
do them in pairs and see how many we can get. One had to do with this observation you made
it and I thought about it, which has to do with authoritarian societies and self-censorship,
right? That’s right. And then I matched that, I correlated that
with your data from Eastern European countries being looser. I wonder, is there some correlation
between countries that used to be under repressive authoritarian regimes but then opened up and
let’s say there was a swing of the pendulum in the other direction. Then, the other thing I wanted to … Actually,
let’s talk about that first and then we’ll go to the other one. Okay. You got it. So, I mean, it’s a really
interesting observation that some of the countries that were extraordinarily loose in our data
that were collected in the early 2000s like Ukraine or Poland or Hungary where countries
that were under very serious repression and had the pendulum shift to extreme looseness.
So that’s one predictor in our data. Another really strong predictor of tightness
and looseness, it’s interesting. There’s no common tradition or religion or language that
unites tight cultures and loose cultures, but one thing that I was putting my money
on or actually National Science Foundation’s money on was one pretty simple idea, which
is that cultures that have a lot of threat, whether it’s from Mother Nature, things like
constant natural disasters like Japan’s where you’re tending with their famine or whether
it’s from human nature. Over the last 100 years how many times has your country been
potentially invaded by its neighbors? Actually, my daughter, when she was five asked me, “Are
we worried about Canada and Mexico invading us?” Now, some people think that. Who thinks that? But it’s- That’s crazy. … a really remarkable fact that the United
States, as a young nation, we have threats in different areas of our country and we certainly
had our own share of conflict but we’re separated by two oceans from other- Ridiculous. … continents. We have that sense. The idea is this and we showed this with some
data in various different studies that when you have a lot of threat that’s collective
threat, you can’t handle this on your own. You need strong rules to coordinate to survive.
That’s really what we found. We found that both at the national level, at the state level,
we develop artificial models. We work with evolutionary game theorists to show that threat
actually relates to as threat increases, it affects the need for cooperation and punishment. So that’s kind of one simple principle. There’s
other predictors of tight/loose also that we can get into including diversity, mobility,
and other factors. It’s not a one-to-one relationship. There’s certainly countries that are loose
that have a lot of threat. Israel is a good example of that. That is an interesting- And I can tell you of my hypothesis. That is interesting. Yeah. But also, there’s countries that are tight
mainly because they’re highly religious. When you think about religiosity, religion is another
form of monitoring and accountability that keeps you behaving themselves. Whether it’s
god or government, when you have people watching you, it makes you behave better. This is what
my colleague, Ira Norenzayan said, “Watched people are good people,” in the sense that
they’re abiding by norms.” So, that’s to say that in any study, it’s
not a one-to-one relationship but we can try to figure out are there any kind of commonalities
between these countries. Singapore’s a really good example, by the
way. Lee Kuan Yew, very top-down form of tightness. I read his autobiography and the dude was
basically a cross-cultural psychologist even though he was never trained in it because
he kind of looked at Singapore, very tiny, little place, extremely high population density,
like 20,000 people per square mile, compared to New Zealand that has 50 people per square
mile and more sheep per capita than people. It’s a couple of different ethnic groups there,
a lot of potential conflict. They have not a lot of arable land clearly. Lots of threats. He said, “Guys, we got to have a lot of rules
here.” And that includes chewing gum. Americans look at this idea that you can’t bring in
gum into the country as it’s totally preposterous but apparently, in the late 80s, people are
chewing gum. I don’t chew gum but a lot of people chew gum and they put it on the street.
It was causing this massive problem in Singapore because it was clogging up sensors by metros
and elevators. So, Lee Kuan Yew said, “Guys, we’re just going
to have to, in this land where there’s so many mouths per capita, we’re going to have
to ban this tasty treat.” I think, for a little while, probably people were not too happy
about it but when you’re in a context with a threat, you’re willing to sacrifice liberty
for security. You literally just have your own individual rights for having collective
order. We, as Americans, don’t always get that. And again, we’re coming from a quasi- Frontier country. Frontier country. … low-threat context that we don’t quite
understand that some countries need strong rules and, again, Goldilocks is operative
here. We’re getting two extreme directions of problem but all groups evolve to be tight
or loose for reasonable factors. So, we need to kind of start looking at this
when we’re informing foreign policy, when we’re trying to understand these bizarre events
around the world. I think the lens of tight/loose can help. There’s other lens, of course, as
well but it’s one of several that can help us understand culture and become less ethnocentric. It feels like there’s also something about
being loose, which is compatible with making mistakes. You’re free to make mistakes versus
if you’re in an environment that’s very threatening, you can’t afford to make mistakes so you got
to keep your shit together. There’s also something else that I was thinking
about when you were talking about tight and loose because you were tightening up and then
you were loosening up, like your arms, right? Yeah. And I was just thinking about how very much
it is tied to a physical sensation. Yeah. Interesting. Yeah. We haven’t actually
looked at that. I mean, I think that this study of sort of culture- People have tight asses. There are people
that are tight. You know what I mean? We call them tight asses because they’re so uptight. Yeah. Yeah. Well, as an example of this, when
we did some cultural neuroscience work, which is looking at the brain across different cultures.
We asked people to just respond how appropriate, inappropriate are certain behaviors. Michele
is in the library, she’s shouting or Michele is in the library and she’s studying. That’s
normal. Michele is in the museum and she’s dancing. That’s weird, except if you’re here
in New York. We simply measured brain activity, to your
point about physiology and what’s happening in your body. It was really clear that in
all cultures people notice these things. They’re incongruencies when you kind of violating
norms but in China, the frontal area, which is really evolved later and it’s about punishment
and theory of mind was really, really strongly activated. We can see very big differences- When, what? What was happening? … when they’re witnessing norm violations. Oh, really? Yeah. So, really super hyper brain activity. Wow! And this is published in the Proceedings of
the National Academy of Science. We were showing that, when people really notice norm violations,
they have more self-control but they are also less creative. So, we give them these tasks
in the lab where we ask them to come up with ideas for a paper clip or a brick. You can’t
imagine the weird responses you get but these are kind of tasks we use. And people who notice
things really very acutely in the brain when they’re witnessing people violate norms tend
to not want to go outside the box on other tasks like creativity tasks. Just one other example of this crazy kind
of stuff that we do. We also recently did a study that was published in a journal called
SCAN where we are activating threat among two people. We’re giving people newspaper
articles to read about, this is in China, about Japan as a threat or, in another condition,
they were reading about Ethiopia and Eritrea and the threat there. Same exact article but
just switching the names. Another condition, it was just about China but no threat. Then,
we actually were measuring with hyper EEG, two EEG caps, how quickly people became synchronized
when they’re trying to coordinate their behavior and the brain synchrony that they had on really
waves of fear, this is called gamma synchrony in the brain. So, we cannot just look at physiological reactions
inside the brain. We can look at what’s happening across people when they’re under threat. It
turns out when people feel under threat, especially in group threat, they’re able to coordinate
their actions more because they are synchronized more on brain waves of fear. So, at any rate, that’s just long answer to
your question that there is some evidence that there’s some physiologic reactions. I’m
going to mention one thing that I haven’t measured yet but I’m real excited to do this,
which is handwriting. So, I veer moderately loose. My husband, he’s
a lawyer. He has to be veer tighter. He’s in a context where there’s a lot of accountability
and where you can’t screw up, like you were saying, and his handwriting is impeccable,
absolutely gorgeous. He chooses his words very carefully. Yeah. He constantly rips on me for mixing
metaphors. I said, “Don’t bite the bird who feeds you.” He’s like, “Do you really want
to say that?” My handwriting is so bad that when my kids go to high school and bring a
note from me, they’re like, “Did you forge this note?” They’re like, “No. My mom just
has really bad handwriting.” That’s so cute. I want to try to analyze this because I think
it also affects lots of things in our daily life including our physiology but also how
we kind of communicate with the world. So, we were talking about clock synchronization.
I don’t want to talk about this yet, the stock synchronization but I do so I want to just
throw it out there. Go for it. Because, again, like I said, scribbling furiously
here. The other thing I’m thinking about is in our politics. I mean, in your study, you
rank the United States as being a loose country. Moderately loose. Yeah, moderate. But we’re a very large country
so there are parts where they’re tighter than others but I also think and maybe you can
help us with this, that we often think about tight as being Republican and loose as being
Democrat. What I have observed, I think, is that, in
fact, what we’re seeing is tightness across both spectrums. We clearly have a framework
for understanding what tightness means on the right but I think that one area where
we’re clearly seeing that on the left and we don’t really have a framework for it has
to do with this norm violation sensitivity on the left when it comes to people violating
… They’re intolerant of diverse opinions on the left. The left is far more intolerant
of diverse opinions. The right seems to be more intolerant, let’s say, of individual
differences, let’s say. Actually, it’s a really interesting observation.
I mean, I wanted to mention that clearly, there’s an overlap in the US at least between
conservative and tight but they’re really at different levels of analysis. One is about
your attitude toward change and your political orientation. The other’s about the level of
social reality, the strength of the norms in your context, so you can have Republicans
in loose states. You can have Democrats in tight states and so forth. That’s an interesting
mismatch. Also, in the US, just before I get into that
brilliant observation, we see the same pattern. The tight states, which tend to be in the
South and the Midwest, parts of the Midwest have a lot more threat. They have more natural
disasters. They have more pathogens. Also, in the book, I have a whole chapter
on the founding people in different areas of the US. They brought a lot of their cultural
norms from different places that set the stage for tight and loose in the US many, many years
ago, including diversity. As early as the mid-1800s, New York and parts of the East
Coast and the West Coast were really super diverse. Having diversity makes it hard to
agree on any one particular norm and fosters a lot of tolerance. Now, with that said, what I think was interesting
about your observation is that every culture has tight and loose elements. The question
is what domains evolve to be tight? I think even in loose cultures that the domains that
are really important become highly normatized. So, for example, the idea that we want to
be tolerant becomes really strict. Jesus! I know. It’s crazy. What a paradox. It’s a paradox. I don’t think the same punishments
are applied in that context than in Saudi Arabia, where in a tight domain but I think
they’re qualitatively different. But within the United States, I mean, I’d
have to sit and think about it a bit more but there has clearly developed a wide range
of behaviors by people who are critical of others who hold views that are not illegal
but they’re views. Maybe if you were to do something with those views, maybe but even
if you did something with those views where the backlash against holding those views is
so strong that it scared the crap out of a lot of the population. I think it’s impacted
the politics as well. Yeah. I have to say that I think it’s also
another lens on this is that Democratic Party has gotten so loose and disorganized that
it feels a lot of threat, understandably in this content, because of the Trump administration
and because of what shocked everyone. It was a total shock that election. Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think for, let’s say,
maybe folks like you and me who live- Yeah. That’s right. But I know a lot of people that were not shocked
whatsoever. Yeah. I mean, I think that in general, though,
there’s been a lot of kind of, just … Even for example with the Women’s March, it was
really so many different opinions that the thing almost didn’t happen in Washington because
there were just so many opinion and such diversity that- Yeah. The freaking Oscars decided not to have a
host next year because they freaked out by making the wrong decision, which I think,
just to say, just to really bring it back to that point about the fear of messing up.
You can’t afford to screw anything up. That, to me, is extremely tight. I think that arguably, because Democratic
Party feels so threatened, that also started to tighten up in that sense, so that’s a perfectly
reasonable hypotheses. But it is important to recognize that even in countries like,
let’s say, New Zealand that’s super loose, they have domains where they’re pretty tight. One example of this how, it’s a very egalitarian
country. So, if you try to stand out, you get shot down. It’s a strong norm not to seem
like you’re better than other people. That’s not an American thing. We’re very vertical
in our individualism. So, in New Zealand, it’s just super loose place. People doing
all sorts of crazy things. The range of variation is really wide but there’s some domains that
are held to be so important like egalitarianism that those become the strong norms around
them. So, it’s exciting to find those contexts where you start seeing tightness. Every culture, even Japan it’s super tight,
has domains where they let go and vice versa. So, it’s important to kind of zoom into a
context. Israel’s a great example also. Israel’s pretty loose in our data. There’s a whole
bunch of reasons I can say for why I think that’s the case, although there’s areas that
are tighter, but one domain that’s super tight in Israel is having large families. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Still. Still, and it’s butting against sustainability,
as Alon Tal talked about in his book This Land is Full. I just met with him and had
a workshop with him in Israel last year. What’s fascinating is that this is a norm that developed
for good reasons but now it’s really butting heads with the population density and with
sustainability. My understanding is, if you don’t have kids in Israel, it’s really a stigma.
It’s not like in many other places where you choose whether you want to have kids and when
you have kids. So, that’s a tight domain and makes sense. We can start analyzing, Okay,
you can see Israel has a lot of loose norms but there’s certainly context that evolved
to be tight. I want to talk a little bit more about Israel
to really understand how it is that a country that is under so much physical external threat
has such loose norms. Mm-hmm (affirmative). I can nominate three
Family Feud reasons why that’s the case, for those of you that remember the Family Feud. Go ahead. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And one is, I mean, by the way, there’s only
data on one of these three but I’m just going to say them anyway but one is that my colleagues
would say that Jews learn not to follow the rules for good reasons after the Holocaust,
that there’s a real questioning of rules given the historical context. The other, which has a little bit more data
on it, is that Israel is very diverse as a culture. Diversity, as I mentioned, pushes
groups towards looseness but the one that I would nominate as a top Family Feud reason,
being a Jew myself, is that Judaism is a religion of debate and dissent. There’s this idea that
there’s three Jews in the room, there’s 10 opinions. When you’re in any Jewish holiday, there’s
so much debate about even one word in the Torah or in the Talmud. Actually, as an example
of this, my daughter, who’s bat mitzvahed recently was reading her speech but her Torah
portion. I didn’t have anything to do with this. She starts disagreeing with it. I said,
“Sweetie, why are you disagreeing with the Torah portion?” She said, “Well, mom. The
Rabbi told me to.” You’re trained to really think outside of the box. I think that, to
me, is one of the ways in which threat becomes overridden by diversity. And they’re more entrepreneurial. They’re
also probably suffer on the macro level, I guess the same issues that, let’s say, start-ups
face when they try to transition to corporate. That’s right. Precisely. In the Start-up Nation,
which is a fantastic book, they also talk about Israel is super creative, like this
is the benefit of diversity and of looseness. But innovation and this is work that we’re
doing more recently, involves both creativity, coming up with new ideas, but you have to
be able to together up in order to implement them. You got to be able to actually have
a lot of coordination. So, the nations and the organizations that
are the most innovative are able to balance tight and loose. That’s a whole other chapter
in the book where I talk about this. Singapore’s a good example of a place that really can
scale up. They argue about this in the Start-up Nation but it doesn’t necessarily always have,
like Israel, these incredibly awesome innovative ideas. Actually, when I was interviewing people for
the book that start-uppers, they were telling me that when they get bought out, which is
the goal, they often can’t deal with the increases in regulation and tightness that goes along
with the coordination needs of a large organization. So, they wind up leaving and they become serial
start-uppers. Something else that … Definitely the diversity
observation resonates. What also resonates is I think there’s also a lot of similarities.
I’ve met a lot of Israelis on vacation in Greece on the islands, especially in the early
2000s when I would go party a bit more. In Mykonos? Sure. Yeah. Mykonos, Ios, a lot of Israelis
would go to Ios and party after they got out of the military. I saw how much we had in
common. I wondered how much of that really was the fact that we straddled the line between
the Judeo-Christian world and the Islamic word,- Interesting. … between the European and the Orient. And
Arab/Middle Eastern cultures have a very … You can feel a lot of that in Israeli Jews. A
lot of that is in them. Greeks had that much more before their integration to Europe. Greeks
are not really European. I know that even the word Europe comes from Greek mythology
but Greeks are Greek. They’re kind of very different. In some sense, Jews in Israel are
very different, you know what I mean? Yeah. They’re not Arabs. They’re not Europeans and
they’re not … That’s right. I think that has a lot to do with it. But I want to go back to America for a second
because you’re talking and I’m just thinking about how screwed up we are. I mean that in
part to be funny but I also mean it because I feel like in America and I think we have
… An example of this is the food fads. Gary Taubes I think wrote about this in his book
Good Calories, Bad Calories. We don’t have a kind of food culture the way a lot of other
societies do. I think in that sense, it creates a struggle and I think in general, America,
because it’s so interesting. America I think was the first victim of consumerism, of global
consumer culture, this leviathan that now has gone into places like Greece and infected
their cultures and really taken a lot away. I think maybe there’s a propensity for America
to exhibit symptoms that derive from not having strong enough norms. Yeah. I think that it’s a trade-off. Like
I said. I mean, I actually just published a paper that looked at the loosening of American
norms over the last 200 or so years. We can develop linguistic measures to look at this
in newspapers and books and so forth. We can clearly see a trend with some exceptions when
tightness was increasing. What we see is that it has the same trade-off. When you’re loosening
up, you can become more creative, think outside of the box, have more patents, more trademarks.
People become more unique. There’s more unique baby names out there. Israel has, the number of patents there are
off the charts, right? Oh, Yeah. It’s like some record. Yeah. This is kind of a bastion of looseness,
but what you see when you start loosening up as the trade-off on order, that we have
much more debt. We have more teenage pregnancy. We have other indications that people are
losing self-control. Right. We were on the frontier of using credit
cards, plastic. That’s right. That’s right. It’s fascinating
to look at context where people still use cash. Debt is really associated with looseness.
Actually, I remember back when the Euro crisis was happening, when Greece was being basically
reprimanded by Germany, that it was almost like this, “Hey, we’re the tight ones.” Merkel
would come in. There was a big backlash in Greece because Greece has its own advantages.
There was this struggle between order and openness in that context I think. That’s a
good example of a culture clash around this issue. It’s so interesting because Greece is a really
interesting example because their issue, of occurs, is not private sector debt like it
was, let’s say, in some other countries. The issue was public sector debt. So, much of
that had to do with the results of entering Europe and then have the interest rates drop
on your bonds and your ability to borrow but you couldn’t print the money because the Greeks
couldn’t print the money. But talk about culture, norm clashes. Europe!
Europe is ground zero for this? That’s right. And the shit just hit the fan- In Brexit. … In Brexit, right, with Boris Johnson? Yeah. Well, I want to say that I think a lot
of times, we look at these trends and we’re kind of puzzled by them and we think they’re
kind of unique to this time or these personalities and they’re really not. I talk a lot about
the kind of shifting axis of tight/loose in terms of rural manufacturing areas like you
see in the UK and the cosmopolitan cities are very diverse. The same in the US that
actually people, in those context, in those rural manufacturing areas arguably feel really
threatened and they are really threatened. They’re threatened by AI. Their lifestyles,
their communities that are really collapsing. Absolutely. In the US, we don’t actually necessarily help
out those communities as much as in other countries like in Germany where there’s more
of a safety net for the working class. I talk about this in the book. So, people are feeling really threatened.
In our research, we could see that people who feel threatened before the Trump election,
before the Le Pen election, they felt the place was too disorderly and loose. That’s
what was in part driving their vote for Trump or La Pen or in this case, a Brexit, I would
say the same thing. Until we deal with these threats, until we try to help those, some
of them are real and some of them are imagined. I’m not going to say it’s all real throughout
but there’s certainly a component of it that’s really real. Absolutely. And there’s some of it that’s imagined. In
some recent research that we’ve been doing, we could see that people have these dramatic
misperceptions of immigration, about legal immigration and people who really misestimate
this are really in large support of Trump. They feel the US is loosening too much. Part
of it is calibrating a threat we feel around the world and getting facts. We all know that
the collapse of facts and the collapse of expertise is a real issue that we’re dealing
with. But my broader point is that some of these
trends in Brexit or in Poland, these leaders, this is not a modern phenomena. For centuries,
leaders use the psychology of tightness to get elected. They target groups that are really
threatened and they amplify those threats. Most of the Democrats are doing that, also,
right? Well, I think it’s still- Yeah. They’re doing it for what they consider to
be marginalized groups. What’s really funny about the Democrats is they’re doing it right
now to immigrants. I’m not a political expert so this is, I’m kind of talking out of both
sides of my mouth, but they seem to think that they can get immigrants to vote for them
by basically saying, “Donald Trump’s a racist.” What they don’t get is a lot of these immigrants
come to this country is they’re trying to get away from a lot of politicians been trying
to tell them that they want to raise their taxes or they want to regulate this or they
want to regulate that. A lot of immigrants coming from South America are like, “Oh, I
just want to work, put my head down. I don’t want to get involved in any of this garbage.”
If I- Yeah. Many come from, tell you- I know a lot of Muslims have voted for Donald
Trump. This is a lot of what I learned after the election. Muslims and- Religious Latinas. I’m not surprised at all that there are many
Latino. I’m not surprised about that at all. Yeah. I think that many immigrants are actually
more rule-abiding than locals. Yeah. Conservative, too. Actually know that. Exactly. So, I think the
key that we’re- Sorry. Just one more thing. Yeah. Sure. I mean, to make it in America as an immigrant,
you got to have your shit together. Yeah. Well, that’s right. And you teach your kids that. You tell them,
“I remember when I was a kid.” Yeah. “You live in a tighter world,” is how
I would say it. A much tighter world. One of the criticisms
that my teachers gave my mother was that he needs to learn how to have fun. No. I think it’s fascinating. We know from
our work that low-power groups, whether they’re women, minorities, immigrants, live in tighter
worlds and they are subject to stronger punishments for the same kind of behavior. We know this
for example that, if you ask bank managers and research we publish about Latisha or Jamaal
doing something versus Lauren or Brad, it’s when you looking at women and minorities and
they’re doing certain deviant behaviors, they’re judged much more strictly and it’s sort of
the white majority that lets other white majority off the hook. This is a classic kind of finding
that we have. It’s, like to your point. Immigrants, their
parents are trying to figure out how can I get my kid to be successful here and following
rules is one of the- He’s got so many obstacles to overcome already. It’s a smart strategy. He can’t afford to screw up. That’s right. This is a- Can’t afford to make a mistake. By the way, the working class in our data
show the same pattern. The working class are worried about falling into hard living or
poverty. They’re worried about their kids getting injured in occupations and I’m worried
about their kids being safe in the neighborhood. So, rules are really important in this context. Inner city kids, so many of them talk about
having really strong mothers who kept them- That’s right. That’s right. … in line. Right. Isn’t that fascinating? They need to and it’s interesting. “They need discipline,” as Arnold Schwarzenegger
said in Kindergarten Cop. In one study, we looked at this with three
year olds. So, we brought three year olds into our laboratory from the working class
or the upper class. You can’t exactly ask three year olds, “What do you think of rules?”
But what we did was we used Michael Tomasello developmental psychologist methods, a cruel
method. You’re bringing them in. You’re playing with a puppet and they’re learning new rules
of this game and are hanging out with this puppet. Yeah. What was the name of that puppet again? Max. Max the puppet. Max the norm-violating puppet. Well, he becomes a norm-violating puppet.
The dude’s just breaking all the rules in the middle of the experiment. Sounds like something dirty. And we just simply videotaped the kids and
see how they react to max the norm violator. What’s fascinating is by age three, the working-class
kids are much more likely to berate Max. “Stop that. Don’t do that.” Rules are functional
in this context and it’s the upper-class kids kind of laughing there. They still think Max
is weird but they let him off the hook a little bit more. So, these definitely just come up,
to your point about when you were a kid early. So it is true that rich kids play by a different
set of rules. Well, I have to say that there’s some cool
data out of UC Berkeley where they had their RAs hiding in bushes. The resident assistants in college? Yeah. They’re research assistants. Oh, research. I see. And they were hiding in bushes and they were
measuring whether cars basically violating traffic rules and where they were cutting
off pedestrians. It was the BMWs and the upper-class cars that were doing this much more than the
plumber vans. It’s so interesting. So, the fact is that I would say that obviously,
there’s also differences when you get to the super rich, like Victorian era was really
tight. And also the super poor, I would argue, like really inner city deep poverty poor is
very loose, almost anomie, Durkheim would call it, normlessness. That’s what the working
class is avoiding becoming. So, it’s kind of non-linear. We don’t have
data to support those extremes but I can say that clearly there are data with the working
and upper class that we see the differences. The other thing I was thinking about while
reading your book and preparing for the interview then while we were in this conversation and
I mentioned it right before we started the work of E. O. Wilson, the eugenics movement
in the United States and in Europe and in Germany, the backlash as a result of that
eugenics movement in the United States. That’s right. And the rise of post-modernism and relativism
and the shunning of biological explanations for outcomes, right? Yeah. And I’ll add to that. Even anthropology
went through a huge crisis in can we even compare countries and cultures in groups?
I’ve run conferences with anthropologists and psychologists where it’s really a mess
because the idea is that no, that’s really ethnocentric to even just characterize cultures
on certain dimensions. I disagree with that, of course. So, it’s not just even the biology
of it. It’s also even the labeling of groups and that’s really become problematic in some
disciplines, where power politics and so forth is much more focused. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. And so I think
I was actually reflecting upon this while I was writing the answer to my why do I care
question. Is a funny back story that maybe we can get to the overtime miscommunication,
but I was thinking about how your book sort of feels kind of not out of place but in a
sense out of place but not in a negative way. Sort of at least in the world that I’ve been
focusing on, I veg out sometimes on guys like Joe Rogan. I’ve experienced that backlash
against the left and against what I felt to be policing and political correctness of language
and deplatforming and all that kind of stuff we talked about with Jonathan Haidt. I have
been focusing much more on that kind of biological explanations, not because I’m particularly
care but it just kind of is more the junk food that I consume. I just thought, “You
know, at least in my new bubble, I don’t talk much about culture.” So that sort of stuck
out to me. Yeah. There’s a huge- Do you feel like you’re one of the only people
talking about culture right now? Not at all. Not at all. Oh, interesting. I think that actually, my field is a huge
revolution of cultural science. Psychology’s gone through its own crisis, both replication
crisis but also, we know for many, many years,- That’s a big deal. … that our whole discipline is based on
Americans. How can you actually look at a … You can look at a textbook on psychology- College students, too, right? … and college students. And college students. As cross-cultural psychologist for 25 years,
I’ve been complaining about this. I’m kind of nuisance factor in psychology because I
know that human behavior’s much broader than that and our job as psychologists is to test
what’s universal, what’s culture-specific, how do we get ideas from other cultures that
we’ve been ignoring because we don’t have the variation in our culture? That’s the kind
of work we do. We try to actually expand the science of psychology by having global perspectives.
That’s what my work is but I think that there’s a ton of work going on now. In fact, we just started a new society for
the study of cultural evolution and it involves not just psychologists and some anthropologists
but also biologists. It involves computer scientists. It involves evolutionary psychologists.
It’s incredibly broad. The question in the society is how do we understand the evolution
of culture and its consequences and then how do we use that knowledge to help build a better
world? You can argue that social norms. I mean, it’s such a profound, important point
in evolution of culture that we have norms. So, in my view to ignore the science of culture
and worry about the distinctions you were talking about is throwing a lot out. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be sensitive.
I try to say, “Look. I’m not saying that there’s not tight or loose domains in all cultures
and individuals also adapt to social norms all the time.” But you can measure these things
and you can look at the consequences and their evolutionary pressures. There’s a huge field, I just ran a workshop
in Tennessee on just the inter-perspectives on social norms. It’s a humongous field that
we’re just trying to bring together people from different disciplines. That’s really
the best of science because, I mean, it’s just so exciting place to be. I think you might have mentioned Jared Diamond
in your book. Did you? Yeah. And also The Revenge of Geography is
another really interesting … Interesting. Actually, Greece was featured in that book. The Revenge of Geography? Geography and it was all about … Actually,
some of the examples had to do with Greece like Greece was not … Iraq by comparison
with Greece was the kind of place where many groups that passed through. Oh, 100%. Yeah. Greece was kind of left alone for a while,
relatively speaking. The Revenge of Geography was not exactly about what I study of how
do you kind of understand and test theories around the evolution of culture but it was
trying to say, “Geography matters a lot.” And it’s just what we try to do is try to
unpack that. What about the geography, and, in my case, this has to do with threat. But, in any event, I’m a generalist and I
think becoming too extreme in one’s view is a problem. So, there’s room for all those
perspectives that you were talking about in the world of intellectual study of the world. I’m writing again furiously here, Michele.
I mentioned Jared Diamond. I do want to ask you about him because Guns, Germs and Steel
was a formative book for me though I’m sure it got many things wrong but I wanted to ask
about him and about something in that book in particular. But something else came into my mind now,
which is how is Sam Huntington’s work viewed in your field? No. I mean, maybe you can tell
our audience what … I think psychologists don’t necessarily … I
mean it’s a … Yeah. His theory about the clash of civilizations
was a popular thesis after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That’s right. That’s right. I mean, I disagree
with a bunch of stuff with Huntington, but one thing he did do was debunk this idea that
we’re all becoming so similar because the argument is that, wait, aren’t we all just
becoming all Western and we see people wearing jeans and eating Big Macs and drinking Starbucks
around the world? Actually, what people misperceive about that
and he talked about the Magna Mac versus the Magna Carta and these kind of deeper levels
of culture that we misunderstand that we might look more similar or we might have more access
to interact with people through the internet but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have deep-seated
cultural values that we want to basically hold onto. In fact, Huntington made the prediction
that, as cultures become more interdependent, that there’ll be kind of a backlash, like
I want to hold onto my culture. That’s what we’re seeing all around the world. So, he did actually have a lot of interesting
insight into cultural dynamics that is studied in my field. Well, we kind of touched on this a little
bit when we’re talking about Iraq and that anecdote you put out there. And I remember
the second Iraq invasion. You were talking about the First Persian Gulf War but the Second
Gulf War, 2003, there was obviously a huge cultural gap, not surprising. It’s quite shocking
that a lot of people didn’t seem to see that but that was during a time where I was reading
the work of Edward Said and comparing his work to, I think the other guy’s name was
Bernays, can’t remember now. He was another Middle Eastern scholar. Said was, he wrote
the book Orientalism. He was actually a Palestinian versus Bernays, who was an American. Yeah. And Said spent some time in the US and
was just disgusted by what I would say is looseness. Who? Said? Yeah. Yeah, he was over at Columbia. Yeah. I think when you read his stuff, you
can see that he thinks that the place is just morally corrupt. It’s interesting because
we all have really extreme stereotypes of each other. What I’ve done some research that’s
coming out in a journal. Well, let me just actually clarify what I
mean, though. The reason that I mention that is because I think and I try not to do this.
You mentioned our coverage on Hong Kong. I sort of went out of my way trying to find
people that were from there, whether it was Ho-Fung Hung or whether it was Joshua Wong
from … Or even David Webb, who’s half-Hong Kong by blood and half-English because I feel
like a lot of, and this was something that I learned from the experience of the Second
Gulf War in the early 2000s. I found that all these experts. America is the biggest
culprit in this regard. Americans are so ethnocentric. I mean, you’ve traveled abroad. This was true
for a long time. I’m not sure how true it is anymore but Americans used to be the most
oblivious tourists in the world. They just assume that everyone spoke English and that
everyone was going to understand them. They presupposed that sort of stuff. One of the things that I think we suffered
from during that period when we were actively engaged in nation building is that we would
parade all these American experts around the media telling us all about the Middle East. So, that was my point about bringing up Said
versus Bernays, which is that I try, you know how they say, “Believe half of what you hear,”
whatever it is? I really don’t take much seriously from people that aren’t representatives of
particular cultures. Yeah. I think this is a great point. We have
to listen to the voices about people from other cultures. Often we have kind of an arrogance
and also an impatience to really learn about other cultures. de Tocqueville argues Americans
are really patient centuries ago. Tocqueville? Also, all cultures are victim to this. We
meet in the media. A good example of this is some research we did in Pakistan and the
US where Pakistanis, they feel Americans, our interviewed showed us, being not just
loose but half-naked all the time. They just assume we’re waking up drinking beer and- They must be really conservative in Pakistan. … calling police on our parents. They just
see this in the media. They don’t have any cultural experts telling them that, “No, Americans
are kind of serious in a lot of cases.” But on the flip side, Americans, if they know
where Pakistan is, they don’t imagine Pakistanis playing sports or reading poetry. They think
they’re locked in mosques all the time. And what we did in this recent study is we just
said and this is to your point about getting to know other people’s perspectives, we gather
daily diaries from Americans and Pakistanis every day for seven days. We ask them what
are you doing now five times across the day? Then, we basically randomly assign people
in Pakistan for a week to read every day an American diary unedited, so they’re still
waking up with their girlfriends and doing all sorts of weird stuff but they were also
in a lot of situations that were really serious and they were with their parents and they
were expressing their emotions, their anxieties. Then, the flip side, Americans were either
assigned to Pakistani diaries or American diaries. And it was remarkable the cultural
change that we could see with this daily diary technique. They just got this window into
each other’s lives that they said, “Look. We see we’re different. There’s no question
that one group is tighter and has less, more constraint,” but they saw so much more about
each other’s lives and they changed their attitudes. They reduced their sense of cultural
distance dramatically over this week period. Did you ever get assigned a pen pal when you
were in elementary school? I don’t know if I did but I know that- So, I have a really cute story from my friends,
Ismaris and Nicola. They’ve been together since, I guess in high school or earlier,
writing each other. I met them when I lived and worked in Italy and we worked together.
At least, Ismaris who is now … They’re married and they have a beautiful daughter. She moved
to Italy to be with him until he could come to the US and he did his PhD at NYU, I think.
He finished his PhD. They were pen pals because the teacher assigned them. The first question he asked her was and I
won’t do it in his accent but it was, “Is it true that there are alligators in the sewers
in New York?” Now, isn’t that fascinating? He thought that New York City was full of
alligators. Another thing that persists to this day among foreigners is that New York
is unsafe. Another non-truth. Yeah. And Washington, too. All that. Yeah. And then I’ll bring it back to your
point about the media. So, I’m sure in Pakistan, the media outlets are taking these stories
of kids calling their parents in order to teach the Pakistanis- What not to do. … what not to do- Exactly. … to reinforce their norms, right? That’s right. And fascinating. It’s totally fascinating because- It’s just one giant- Misunderstanding. How do you even extract the thread and make
sense of this? Well, that’s why what we try to do is actually
then try to intervene by giving real diaries with the real people. They were told the purpose
of this study is about social memory to figure out how much they can remember. They weren’t
told this is about intercultural understanding. But I think this daily diary technique can
be really useful to gain a window into someone’s actual world whether you’re refugees and natives,
we’re starting to do some studies on this in Germany to try to bridge cultural divides
between this groups, between Republicans and Democrats, immigrants and natives. I mean,
we need to find a way to have some meaningful contact. It’s hard to do that even if we’re
more connected. We stay in our eco chambers. We know that. So, diaries are one way to get
a window into someone’s world. I mean, I had a really strange comment from
a reviewer that said, “But, people can use this diary technique and they can make up
diaries to try to persuade their population that this group is evil.” I said, “Dude, you
have a really warped view of the world,” but it’s true. We wrote a caveat about this. We
used real diaries. We targeted real people and there’s no question any technique can
be usurped for malevolent reasons but I still think that it’s helpful for us because people
misunderstand, back to your Huntington question, that we’re more connected so therefore we
get along better but actually it’s not the case because we’re connected to people who
are very similar to ours and we don’t get outside of those eco chambers. So, once we
do, we sort of start seeing, “Whoa. We have a lot of similarities.” You talk about being pre-med. I was pre-med,
too. I was pre everything. I went through so many different things. I ended up with
two majors and a minor. I minored in psychology and I remember how, when I was trying to do
some of these control studies, I’m like, “Man, these subjects are the worst. This is the
opposite of working with bacteria.” Yeah. I mean, it’s very messy. No question
about it. So, I’m going to switch us to the overtime.
I want to prioritize a separate set of questions, not the Jared Diamond thing, but the point
about Jared Diamond and we’ll see if we can get to it in the overtime is why do we see
these distinctions between north and south and culture? Now, of course, Diamond talked
about it in terms of climate differences and things like that, if I remember correctly.
Oh, no. Sorry. It wasn’t climactic differences from Diamond. It was actually because people
that were in the same climate, same sort of habitable zones can share technology. Okay. So, what I do want to get to in the
overtime, Michele, is I want to talk about business applications in your work. I also
want to talk about financial market applications. I mentioned to you by email the lipstick indicator,
the hemline indicator. We know that cultures become tighter. I think we know. I say anecdotally. They do. But I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it with financial
indicators. I’ve seen it in fashion trends. There’s a great, beautiful book called Beauty
in the Age of Crisis, which is a history of fashion in the 1930s, just connecting stock
markets and bull markets to tightness and looseness. I’d be interested to discuss that. There’s a bunch of other stuff in your book
about the differences between tight and loose organizations, startups, I mean loose startups
and tight corporations and maybe think a bit about Safi Bahcall and the episode we did
on phase transitions in physics to transitions in culture. I can’t believe I’m managing to
get all this out. I thought we’d be able to get through everything. We have hardly gotten
through anything. I know. That’s the kind of mark of a great
podcast organizer like you. Like you’re just so broad in your expertise. I think using
the lens of tight/loose to understand all these things, to me is useful. That’s why
I wrote the book because that it’s a new vocabulary to think about whether it’s populism or organizational
mergers and acquisitions. We’ve recently been looking at organizations through this lens
and I guess I could just kind of chime in a little bit on that. Well, yeah. No, we’ll get into that in the
overtime. We’ll get into the overtime. So, for our regular listeners, you know the
drill. If you’re new to the program, head over to Patreon.com/hiddenforces and you can
subscribe to our Audiophile, Autodidact, or Super Nerd tiers. This week’s episode is a
13-page gorgeous rundown full of pictures of cannibals, partying hippies at Burning
Man and all sorts of charts from Michele’s book. It’s a great rundown and it’ll really
be helpful as all the rundowns are for you guys to follow along with the episode. Remember
also, I don’t take sponsors so this is how I keep the show afloat and I need your support
in order to continue to make that happen. Michele, thank you so much for coming on the
program and stick around. We’ll be right back. Great to be here. Today’s episode of Hidden Forces was recorded
at Creative Media Design studio in New York City. For more information about this week’s
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3 thoughts on “Michele Gelfand | Rule Makers and Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World

  1. Very interesting. Does tight-loose correspond to or correlate with any of Geert Hofstede's "cultural dimensions?" Perhaps the individualism-collectivism continuum, or high to low uncertainty avoidance? I wish the guest had been asked about this.

  2. Loose and tight cultures. BS. Other researches have identified 5-6 dimensions so why collapse them to two? Clearly to simplify to the extreme. When she is talking about Germany and Singapore she is very condescending. She does not know what she is talking about.

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