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COVID-19: Why Have Some Countries Fared Better than Others?

Societies with 'tight' cultural norms have fewer cases and fewer deaths.

Key points

  • There are striking differences between countries in terms of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
  • Social norms are more tightly enforced in culturally 'tight' vs. 'loose' societies.
  • As predicted, culturally tight societies have much lower rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
  • Cultural tightness may have evolved to help societies deal with collective threats.
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A familiar message (but a varied response)
Source: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

COVID-19 has attracted an unprecedented level of research attention—and no wonder. As the virus sweeps across the globe in multiple waves, researchers in the life sciences have studied the molecular structure of the virus, how it transmits, its various effects on the human body, how best to treat the plethora of symptoms that follow from these effects, and how to develop effective vaccines. Globalized travel certainly helped to spread the virus. Now, globalized communication has made it obvious to everyone that some societies are doing much better than others. Why would this be? This is a question for cultural psychologists.

COVID-19 across Societies

Michele Gelfand and her colleagues have risen to the challenge. Their paper, “ The relationship between cultural tightness-looseness and COVID-19 cases and deaths: A global analysis ,” has recently been published in Lancet Planetary Health.

The pressing nature of the research question is clarified by the authors’ opening remarks:

“As of Oct 16, 2020, nearly 39 million cases and over 1 million deaths worldwide had been reported. Certain countries had far more success than others in slowing the rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Singapore and Taiwan effectively contained the virus, with 9865 cases (five deaths) per million in Singapore and 22 cases (0·3 deaths) per million in Taiwan, whereas Brazil and the USA each had more than 24 000 cases and approximately 700 deaths per million by October, 2020.” (p. e135)

These are startling differences. Gelfand and colleagues hypothesized that cultural-tightness looseness’—a way in which societies differ from one another—might be responsible. But first: what is cultural tightness-looseness?

Cultural Tightness-Looseness

That cultural contexts have different social norms has been well-documented by social scientists over the past several decades. In recent years, Gelfand and her team have argued that cross-cultural variation in the strictness with which these norms are enforced is also important. In relatively tight cultural contexts, norms are more restrictive and more consistently enforced, with harsher punishments for deviance. By contrast, in relatively loose cultural contexts, norms are more relaxed and less consistently enforced, with lighter punishments for deviance. Enforcement and punishment are not limited to the formal legal system. Here we are primarily talking about the ways in which people socially monitor one another in daily life.

The authors note that both cultural tightness and cultural looseness offer advantages. Previous research has shown that relatively tight cultural contexts tend to be orderly, with less crime; relatively loose cultural contexts tend to be less coordinated, but more tolerant and creative ( Gelfand et al., 2011 ). Rather than one approach being consistently better than the other, it appears that these different cultural strategies emerge from history: societies with a more extensive history of social and ecological threat tend to be tighter. The coordination offered by tight rules may be especially useful when confronted with collective threats ( Roos et al., 2015 ).

COVID-19 Cases and Deaths

For perhaps the first time in human history, societies across the planet are attempting to cope with the same collective threat: COVID-19. Using publicly-available data, Gelfand and colleagues gathered the best estimate of cases-per-million and deaths-per-million from 57 countries as of October 16, 2020. They then compared these estimates to previously collected data on ‘cultural tightness-looseness’ in these 57 countries.

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Wearing protective masks in the half-empty streets of Macau, China
Source: Macau Photo Agency/Unsplash

As hypothesized, cultural tightness-looseness was associated with COVID-19 cases, with tighter societies having fewer cases. Also as hypothesized, cultural tightness-looseness was associated with deaths attributed to COVID-19, again with tighter societies having fewer deaths. These effects remained even after controlling for a number of demographic variables that could impact the number of cases, including economic development, inequality, population density, median age, World Bank ratings of government efficiency, and percent migrants. When examining COVID-19 deaths, the authors also controlled for all-cause mortality using World Bank data from 2018, and this effect remained.

As well, these effects remained after controlling for cultural values associated with tightness-looseness—power distance and collectivism—as well as degree of authoritarianism. They remained after using several methods to control for potential under-reporting of cases; in one analysis, the authors dropped Russia and China due to concerns about COVID-19 reporting practices in these countries. Finally, they remained after controlling for number of days that elapsed before the first lockdown and the extent of non-pharmaceutical government interventions. Particularly loose countries were estimated to have experienced 5 times the cases and well over 8 times the deaths of particularly tight countries.

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A colorful anti-lockdown protest in London, England
Source: Mark Jones/Unsplash

The Evolution of Tightness-Looseness

Lancet articles are prestigious but they tend to be short. In an extensive appendix , the authors push further on a number of analyses and provide substantial amounts of additional information. The most innovative contribution here is a test of a formal evolutionary theory using an approach called ‘agent-based modeling.’ In brief, the authors build the model based on assumptions grounded in theory and prior research, then run the model—in effect, to see what happens. One can then re-run the model in different scenarios (e.g., what happens in a very tight or very loose cultural context). The participants here are neither countries nor people, but rather simplified simulations of people ‘interacting’ in groups.

Results of these simulations were consistent with the idea that, under conditions of threat, tight groups move to cooperative strategies more rapidly and have higher survival rates than do loose groups. Again, this is not to say that cultural tightness is always best. There are costs to a tight cultural strategy. Some of these costs might even be borne during a threat. But the cross-cultural data and simulation results, taken together, suggest that tight norms reduce harms during a collective threat, such as COVID-19. Now that vaccines are being distributed in many countries, at strikingly different rates, we might wonder about the role of cultural tightness-looseness here as well. Future research may be in a position to give us an answer. Taken together, all this information could help us think more carefully about future collective threats.


Gelfand, M. J., Jackson, J. C., Pan, X., Nau, D., Pieper, D., Denison, E., ... & Wang, M. (2021). The relationship between cultural tightness–looseness and COVID-19 cases and deaths: a global analysis. Lancet Planetary Health, 5(3), e135-e144.

Gelfand, M. J., Raver, J. L., Nishii, L., Leslie, L. M., Lun, J., Lim, B. C., ... & Yamaguchi, S. (2011). Differences between tight and loose cultures: A 33-nation study. Science, 332(6033), 1100-1104.

Roos, P., Gelfand, M., Nau, D., & Lun, J. (2015). Societal threat and cultural variation in the strength of social norms: An evolutionary basis. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 129, 14-23.