Our story starts at 11 pm and a green traffic light. Except for one pedestrian, the streets are empty. There are no cars, no other people.
In Berlin, the individual crosses the street when the light turns red. In Boston, no one waits. Explaining the different behaviors, a psychologist from the University of Maryland says one culture is tight and the other is loose.
Where are we going? To how tight and loose social norms affect behavior.
Tight and Loose Social Norms
At home you could be someone who likes order. You load the dishwasher with the forks next to each other, the knives, next and then the spoons. But your mate does not.
On a national level, the parallel could be the Japanese World Cup fans who did some clean-up after the game because their culture tends to be more orderly. Their Brazilian hosts did not.
According to psychologist Michele Gelfand, our rules about rules vary. In a tighter culture, there are more rules and people are expected to observe them. Meanwhile, looser cultures not only have fewer rules but the boundaries are more ambiguous. Essentially we are looking at the power of social norms.
Dr. Gelfand suggests that national threats generate stronger social norms. The list could include invasions, natural disasters, diseases–wherever survival required coordinated behavior. Meanwhile, the countries or even communities that faced fewer existential challenges had less of a need for societal coordination. If you imagine a continuum, then Japan, Germany, Singapore, and South Korea are among the countries on the tight end while the other pole includes New Zealand, Greece, the Netherlands, and Brazil.
In the United States, states vary. On that scale, Dr. Gelfand says the tighter cultures are located in the South and some parts of the Midwest. They include Mississippi, South and North Carolina, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Meanwhile, some of the states that “veer looser” are New York, California, Oregon, Maine, and Massachusetts.
Our Bottom Line: Tradeoffs
As economists, we can focus on the tradeoff between order and openness. We can look at our investing habits, at corporate merger cultures, and even at our political preferences. Tighter cultures tend to have less obesity, less debt, and less alcoholism. Even pets are skinnier in Germany (I wonder if Dr. Gelfand has those stats.). Meanwhile, looser cultures have more creativity and tolerate differences. Explaining the response to COVID-19, Dr. Gelfand believes that tighter cultures have had more success containing the spread of the virus.
So perhaps we can say that late night behavior at a traffic signal could provide a clue about the strategies for fighting a pandemic.
My sources and more: Yesterday, this Hidden Brain podcast on tight and loose cultures made a long walk seem much shorter. From there, I looked at this Science article to see how 33 countries varied. But if you read just one article, do look at Dr. Gelfand’s comments on the spread of the coronavirus in the Boston Globe. Finally though, you could have some fun (as did I) taking her tight/loose quiz to quantify your own mindset.
Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.