Some Like It Tight, Some Like It Loose

Nations differ in the strength of their social norms.

Posted Jun 21, 2013

Social scientists are fond of characterizing societies and cultures in terms of particular dimensions.  The dimension of collectivism-individualism, for example, is well known and much studied.  Other dimensions that have been investigated include power distance (i.e., the degree to which societies emphasize hierarchy in social relations), masculinity-femininity, and emotional expressiveness.

In 1968, anthropologist Pertti Pelto studied 21 traditional societies and concluded that some were “tight” and some were “loose.”  Tight societies are formal and disciplined, have clearly stated social norms, and rebuke individuals who stray from the norm.  Loose societies are informal, have weak or ambiguous norms, and tolerate deviant behavior.  Pelto identified the Hutterites, who are similar to the Amish, as an especially tight traditional society.  Among the loosest in his sample were the !Kung, who hunt and forage in the Kalahari Desert, and Skolt Lapps, who herd reindeer in northern Finland.

Any group or organization can be characterized in terms of its tightness or looseness.  Military forces, for example, are usually very tight in that they are rigorously formal and highly disciplined.  If you break the rules in the military, you pay for it.  (The U.S. military’s failure to prosecute sexual assault cases is disturbing, in part because we expect a higher level of internal discipline from a notoriously tight organization.)

In many ways, a hippie commune is the prototypical example of a loose group.  No formality, no discipline, ill-defined norms, and a high tolerance for deviant behavior.  It’s all about hanging loose and not getting uptight.

Little was known about tightness (T) and looseness (L) in modern societies until psychologist Michele Gelfand at the University of Maryland organized an international team of social scientists.  Together, they surveyed nearly 7,000 people in 33 different nations, asking them how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like “There are many social norms that people are supposed to abide by in this country” and “If someone acts in an inappropriate way, others will strongly disapprove.”

The results?  People generally agreed about the level of tightness or looseness in their nation, and their ratings generally coincided with other measures of T-L, like the accuracy of clocks and percentage of left-handed writers in their country.

The 33 nations in the study varied widely in their tightness and looseness.  The tightest nations were Pakistan, Malaysia, India, and Singapore.  The loosest were the Ukraine, Estonia, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Brazil.  T nations were more likely to have autocratic governments and more police per capita.  L nations were more likely to have openness in the media and higher crime rates.

Amazingly, one of the best predictors of a nation’s tightness was high population density—in the year 1500!  In an effort to understand why some nations are tight and others are loose, Gelfand and her colleagues examined ecological threats such as food supply, lack of natural resources, vulnerability to natural disasters, and prevalence of disease.  They found that nations with historically high levels of threat are tighter today than nations with historically low levels of threat.  The imposition and maintenance of strong social norms may be a culture’s way of protecting its members from dangers in the natural world.

Gelfand and her colleagues also discovered that people living in T nations have different psychological profiles than people living in L nations.  Individuals in T nations are constantly aware that their actions are being evaluated, so they are more cautious and dutiful.  They also exhibit more impulse control and can better monitor and adjust their own behavior to fit a given situation.  Individuals in L nations don’t need to be so careful because many different behaviors are acceptable within a given situation.  They can, if they want, sing or kiss or even curse in a public park or train station.

Finally, what can be said about the United States?  Is it a tight or loose nation?  According to Gelfand’s study, Americans as a group are fairly loose—about as loose as the Spanish.  Then again, Americans are nothing if not diverse, so any generalizations must be applied “loosely.”

Sources:

Gelfand, M. (2012). Culture’s constraints: International differences in the strength of social norms. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(6), 420-424.

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

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