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Playing Tight And Loose: How Rules Shape Our Lives

Red S-shaped rope being tugged by three different knots. Each knot is a different color — blue, orange, and green. Yellow background.
Red S-shaped rope being tugged by three different knots. Each knot is a different color — blue, orange, and green. Yellow background.

At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Japanese soccer fans did something striking: they started going through the stadium, cleaning up the trash that was left behind.

A lot of people were baffled by this behavior, but Michele Gelfand, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, sees their actions in the frame of what she refers to as "tight" and "loose" cultures. Tight cultures, she says, are more rules-oriented. Loose cultures are more permissive.

"Countries like Japan, Singapore, Germany, and Austria tend to veer tight," she says. "And countries like New Zealand, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Greece tended to veer loose. And of course, all countries have tight and loose elements."

Gelfand studies how individuals, organizations, communities, and nations are shaped by their cultures. Recently, she has looked at the coronavirus pandemic through the lens of tight and loose cultures. The U.S., she says, is a loose culture with ambivalence toward measures that erode our autonomy and liberty.

"The [coronavirus] response so far echoes our loose cultural programming. It's been conflicted. It's been unstandardized, it's been uncoordinated," she says.

"We really do need to change our cultural programming in this context. The problem is that ... it's hard for us to give up liberty for constraint. But it's critical for our safety."

Additional Resources:

Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight And Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele Gelfand, 2018

"Differences Between Tight And Loose Cultures: A 33-nation Study," by Michele Gelfand et al., Cornell University, ILR School, 2011

" To Survive The Coronavirus, The United States Must Tighten Up," by Michele Gelfand, The Boston Globe, 2020

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