On April 18, 2022, Professor Michele Gelfand of the Stanford Graduate School of Business presented her Think Better talk, "Tight and Loose Cultures: Unlocking the Hidden Code of Social Norms." This hybrid event was held in-person at the Gleacher Center and streamed via Zoom. 

Gelfand began with the story of how she first took interest in the idea of culture in college. During her study abroad, Gelfand found herself bewildered in a place so different than her native Long Island. She quickly turned this culture shock to culture obsession, booking a trip to Egypt and leaving her pre-med path to study social norms. 

Gelfand first addressed the reason for why we have social norms. They are key for enhancing coordination and predictability while acting a social glue for us. Gelfand is interested in how different cultures abide by these social norms, and she classifies the strength of them in a “tight-loose” model. Tight cultures have strict social norms, while “loose” cultures are more permissive. In a tight culture like Singapore, someone could be heavily fined for chewing gum in public, while in a loose culture like New York, people freely jaywalk. Gelfand investigates the effects of this tightness in different societal scopes, from international communities down to households. 

Michele Gelfand presenting at a podium

Tight and Loose Countries

Addressing her international research, Gelfand conducted a study across 6 continents, 22 languages, 33 nations, and 6,823 participants. Countries like Greece and the U.S. were on the loose end of the spectrum, while Japan and Austria were tight. Gelfand saw that tighter countries showed lower rates of alcoholism, obesity, crime, and debt. Meanwhile, looser counties demonstrated more tolerance and creativity. Interestingly, tightness and looseness had no bearing on a country’s GDP. Religion, language, and geographic location did not correlate with social norms. However, a society’s exposure to threat did: countries more exposure to natural disasters, famine, territorial conflict, and high population density had tighter cultures. 

Tight and Loose States

Gelfand continued about her findings within the United States. Classifying each state, Gelfand looked at factors like the percentage of dry counties and the rates of teacher corporal punishment. Her research revealed that tighter states are associated with more law enforcement, less drug abuse, less debt, less homelessness, and less divorces. Looser states demonstrated their propensity for creativity through more patents and fine artists; and their greater equality manifested in fewer discrimination claims and more minority-owned businesses. 

Audience members smile watching Michele Gelfand's talk

How Class Influences Tight-Loose Dynamics

Exposed to greater instability, working class communities tend to be tighter cultures. Even children as young as three years old demonstrated this propensity: In one study, children were faced with a rule-breaking puppet. Working-class kids were more likely to speak up to admonish the puppet. Meanwhile, traffic violation studies show that wealthier people are more likely to break the rules, as BMWs and Mercedes Benzes accounted for more infringements, on average. 

Workplaces and the Home

Gelfand applies her findings to smaller scale organizations. Analyzing Glassdoor reviews, Gelfand found that tight businesses with many rules made people feel like they were walking on eggshells. Loose businesses made people feel their job was unpredictable. Gelfand even applies this to parenting: helicopter parents may instill their children with anxiety and depression, while children of loose parents may struggle with academics and risky behavior. 

An audience member with a mask asks a question

Tight-Loose Ambidexterity

Given the pros and cons of tight and loose cultures, which approach is better? Gelfand finds the best option is somewhere in between. On both extremes, Gelfand finds higher rates of suicide and depression.

Gelfand helps organizations frame their issues in terms of tightness and looseness. For tight cultures like the Navy, she uses the EASE model: examine if a rule is necessary, allow for exploration and unstructured time, shift to a decentralized structure, and encourage pushback. For loose cultures like Silicon Valley companies, she recommends the SECURE model: set clear benchmarks, establish structure, centralize, uphold oversight, reinforce reliability, and enforce the rules.

Nick Epley speaks at a podium and Michele Gelfand laughs

Implications for COVID-19

How can we use tight-loose models to unpack the pandemic? Gelfand thinks that we need to tighten our societies to crack down on the virus. Threats make cultures tighter, but the virus is an invisible enemy. We need to make COVID-19 a more concrete threat through clear messaging. The faster we tighten our norms, the faster we reduce the threat, and the sooner we can enjoy the benefits of returning to looseness. 

Want to see how tight or loose your tendencies are? Click here to take the Tight-Loose Quiz mentioned during the talk. 

Credits: Recap written by Frances Schaeffler