Research Brief: How “Tight” and “Loose” Cultures are Shaped

Building a global workforce means understanding how some cultures can be rigid and others more relaxed
Sign posts and flags of multiple nations

WHAT DID THE STUDY LOOK AT?

You would be hard-pressed to find another study that examines a society’s tolerance of kissing in parks alongside its historical response to the threats of war and hurricanes. These and many other cultural attitudes and social adaptations in more than 30 countries were studied to give researchers an empirical measure of the differences between “tight” and “loose” cultures. The tighter the culture, the more rigid its codes of behaviour and social structures and the less forgiving it is of those who go against these norms. Loose cultures feature relaxed social norms and are more tolerant of those who deviate from them. 

HOW WAS THE STUDY DESIGNED?

In this expansive study of 33 nations and 6,823 individuals, participants rated the tightness versus looseness of their nations, along with the appropriateness of 12 different behaviours in 15 separate situations. This involved evaluating behaviour-setting combinations such as arguing, laughing, or eating on a bus, or crying at a funeral, in a bedroom, or at a job interview. Participants also answered questions about their psychological adaptations to tightness or looseness. Researchers drew on a host of established databases for information on social institutions and environmental and historical hazards, and compared these data to the way individuals conduct themselves and how their behaviours are shaped by their societies. 

WHAT DID THE STUDY FIND?

  • Societal tightness emerged in nations with ecological and man-made threats such as natural disasters and historical aggression from other cultures. In many cases, the strict enforcement of social systems and rules appears to be a survival mechanism.
  • In addition to natural disasters and war, tight nations are more likely to have had to cope with a high prevalence of communicable diseases and higher infant mortality. They also have greater population density and lack natural resources.
  • Tight nations are more likely to be ruled autocratically and to provide fewer civil rights, and they impose more rules and more tightly control the media. They tend to have more police per capita and lower murder rates.
  • Citizens in tight cultures are much more likely to believe in God. While a higher percentage of them attend weekly religious services, fewer are willing to attend any form of public demonstration or protest.
  • Both institutions and citizens reinforce high or low social regulation. Individuals are usually psychologically adjusted to the demands of their society; those in tight cultures are more cautious, prefer structure, and self-monitor to ensure compliance with the constraints placed on them.
  • There is high “within-nation agreement” in each country: the attitudes of individuals and practices of governing organizations that decide “tight” or “loose” are shared across a culture.

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW?

The study provides a valuable assessment of many of the fundamental differences among numerous nations. The researchers note that individuals in all countries typically believe that their own way of living makes the most, or only, sense — functionally, morally, politically — to the point that cross-cultural conflict is an ever-present danger in many regions. “Understanding tight and loose cultures,” say the researchers, “is critical for fostering cross-cultural coordination in a world of increasing global interdependence.” These findings may also have implications for multinational corporations with global workforces.

Title: Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study

Authors: Michele J. Gelfand (University of Maryland) and Jana L. Raver (Queen's School of Business) et al

Published: Science (vol. 332, 1100). Available for download at www.bsos.umd.edu/psyc/gelfand/science.pdf

Nick Walker

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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