The US of A is a freewheeling, rollicking sort of land, one where rule-breakers and scofflaws are mythologized and individual freedom weighs far heavier than the commonweal. In Rule Makers Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the World, cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand helps explain why we are so loose—and why there is a current rush, by some, to tighten up.
Because we were vast, spacious, and buffered by oceans, we were relatively safe from the encroachments and surprise attacks of conventional warfare. We made it fashionable to question authority and reject hierarchy. Other countries, squeezed tight and facing constant threats, developed rigid sets of rules and norms that kept their population cohesive and, well, safe.
A global pandemic shows the differences quite clearly, and our societal “looseness” goes a long way toward explaining our shockingly high COVID mortality rates. But a plague is not the only threat, and a general fear of change and chaos explains the appeal of Donald Trump, of far-right platforms, of White nationalism, of all sorts of recent developments I have found otherwise inexplicable. We are a loose country filled with scared, nervous people who want to do some tightening. Many states, or large chunks within states, are responding, while others are fighting a holding action. Often the tightening states are those that have experienced “the most disasters and pathogen prevalence,” Gelfand points out.
This is not irrational, she adds; tight nations often fare better in disaster. And as we sense more and more disaster in the offing, people will continue to seek a rigidity that is predictable, consistent, and durable, in place of the creative laissez-faire spirit that made us ingenious and fun in our heyday.
Norms guide human behavior at all levels, Gelfand notes. Families can be strict or permissive; individual personalities can be rigid or bohemian. But national norms are our goldfish bowl, and we rarely pay attention to their effect on us. The continuum between tight and loose is where a lot of clashes take place, though, and until we understand the tugs left or right, we will brand them as mindless or partisan or necessary, measured against our own opinions.
In one of her studies, participants were given false information about terrorist incidents, overpopulation, pathogen outbreaks, and natural disasters. Within minutes, “their minds tightened. They wanted stronger rules and punishments.” In her surveys, people who felt threatened by ISIS or North Korea or immigration also felt that the United States was too loose and needed stronger rules—and that predicted support for Trump. (Who then exaggerated the threats to magnify the support.)
By personal inclination, I guess I would be characterized as loose. But the pros and cons weigh evenly: tight cultures are more orderly, more ethnocentric, and more resistant to change. Their citizens have more self-control because the rules require it. Loose cultures are more open and creative, but they “have a lot more problems with self-control since this muscle doesn’t get as much practice.”
Which explains a lot.
The goal (as always) is balance. A little more cohesion, but not at the expense of freedom. I cannot even imagine what that would look like at the national level, but it is easy to picture for an organization: if it is too loose, add a little structure; if it is too rigid, insert a little flexibility. We do this instinctively with one another, teasing a friend who is rigid about their routines into spontaneity or helping a flighty friend get a little more organized. “Once you realize that tight-loose is negotiable,” Gelfand says, “it opens up a lot of creative potential in any social setting.”
Her framework has all sorts of applications. “Women and minorities live in tighter worlds—they have less latitude and are punished more severely for violations,” she says. Why? Because any gain in their power feels like a huge threat to the status quo.
As for Trump, and the dizzying cognitive dissonance of watching moralistic conservatives align with someone who violates norms for the hell of it, Gelfant suspects they “feel so threatened by societal disruptions that they are willing to tolerate his bad behavior if they feel he will return them to the tight social order that they so desperately want.” Which is a finer distinction than the usual explanation that he is their henchman.
She also uses tightness to explain the resentment of blue-collar workers who were so locked into their way of life, they had trouble adapting or learning a new trade when the economy shifted.
We are not the country we were at the start. We are denser, more crowded, more diverse, more fractious. Modern warfare and biological threats respect no boundaries. The Wild West’s renegades cannot hold their own against international drug cartels. Seldom is it possible to go, as our economic system still promises, from rags to riches. We might be our own brand, but real self-invention is rare. In short, the looseness we treasured at the start (and moved away from in the fifties, after the shock of World War II) is in many ways already gone.
So how are we to preserve the freedoms that seem under daily attack?
The respectful politeness that countries like Japan developed in order to coexist would be useful, if we could extricate it from coerced conformity. Instead, we are trying to coerce a certain lifestyle and worldview and leaving civility by the wayside. Somehow we got the idea that social conformity and homogeneity would keep us safe as the environment wreaked havoc and the global economy pulled us off course. But we may be tightening the wrong screws, damaging the human rights, laws, and democratic institutions that, with a few more civics lessons and stronger allegiance, could have held us together.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.