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When Culture Meets COVID-19

What psychology can teach us about culture, rules, and our coronavirus response.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

We’ve all seen the news and watched the different ways countries are responding to the coronavirus outbreak. Places like Hong Kong are enforcing a 14-day quarantine for those who came in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, while some states in the U.S. more recently mandated a loosely monitored shelter-in-place order.

Why is there such a varied response to a global pandemic? Why does each response elicit acceptance from one and skepticism from another? Why has it been a challenge for some places to grasp social distancing? Some may say it’s a policy issue. But beneath all that is something else: the ever-present, often-overlooked power of culture.

Dr. Michele Gelfrand, a cross-cultural psychologist at the University of Maryland, has been studying the impact of culture for over 30 years. In her book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, Gelfrand explores the cultural concept of tight and loose cultures. Simply put, tight cultures are more rule-oriented while loose cultures are more allowing of rule-breaking. Could this cultural lens help us understand the differences in responses to the pandemic? Let’s look at the research.

In one study on tight-loose cultures, Gelfrand and colleagues analyzed 33 countries with the purpose of better defining the difference between the two in order to “foster cross-cultural understanding in a world of increasing global interdependence.” In this study, they surveyed over 6,000 individuals, using scales and ranking systems to measure the strength of social norms as well as the acceptance of deviating from them. They also collected data on environmental threats, conflict history, and various historical information.

They found that tight cultures had stronger social norms and less acceptance for deviating from them. There were more constraints on everyday situations (ex: behavior in banks, parks, public transport, etc.). The tightness was also reflected in government policies and practices. Loose cultures showed the opposite, with fewer constraints, weaker norms, and higher acceptance for deviation.

And this is all reflected on an individual level. Individuals from tight cultures tend to like rules and order and to have high self-control. On the other hand, those from loose cultures tend to be more impulsive, take more risks, and ignore rules.

Another interesting finding from the study was the correlation between threat and tightness. The research concluded that tight cultures had histories with higher conflict and environmental disasters. Additionally, cultures were able to quickly tighten up when threats arrived. Essentially, tight cultures have learned through time and experience that responding to threats collectively produces better outcomes.

What does this mean for us?

In times of global crisis, the importance of collective action increases. If you’re from a loose culture (like me), this can be difficult to adjust to. We might bristle under the new restrictions that define our current reality. Here are three things we can learn from tight cultures to help as we adjust:

  1. Adjust our perspective on rules. Rules don’t necessarily mean constriction and deprivation. Often, they’re created with our best interest in mind. The clear suggestions from the authorities help keep our essential workers safe and health systems from being overrun. Please wash your hands and remain at a safe distance from others.
  2. Manage our impulses. I know you want to see your friends/go out/travel. Believe me, I do too. But instead of giving in to our whims, let’s practice patience and creative ways to connect. This too shall pass, and when it does, we can go do these things.
  3. Believe we can change. History and research show that cultures (and individuals) can tighten in the face of crisis. It will be difficult, but we can change our behavior—on both an individual and national level—in order to flatten the curve.

Centuries ago, philosopher Herodotus observed:

“if one were to order all mankind to choose the best set of rules in the world, each group would, after due consideration, choose its own customs; each group regards its own as being the best by far.”

Dana Krol, used with permission
Source: Dana Krol, used with permission

Our inherent tendency is to believe that our culture knows the best way to do things. But the truth is, no culture is inherently better than another. We all need both tight and loose inside us and our nations. We can pause and learn from others. In this current situation, we can learn from tight cultures and their accompanying perspective on rules. As Dr. Gelfrand said in a recent interview on NPR, “we can think of this as a temporary tightening up to flatten the curve.” As we move forward, let’s remember that we are stronger together.

This is a guest post written by Dana Krol, an M.A. candidate at Wheaton College who is currently working as a graduate assistant for the Humanitarian Disaster Institute.


**It’s important to note that neither tight vs. loose is better, nor is it totally exclusive. There are exceptions to every rule. Research allows us to generalize, not stereotype.

**If you want to learn more about tight and loose cultures, listen to Dr. Michele Gelfrand’s interview on NPR’s “Hidden Brain” with Shankar Vedantam

Gelfand, M. J., Raver, J. L., Nishii, L. H., Leslie, L. M., Lun, J., Lim, B. C., Duan, L., … Yamaguchi, S. (2011). Differences between tight and loose cultures: A 33-nation study [Electronic version]. Retrieved April, 13, 2020, from Cornell University, ILR School site:

Herodotus, The Histories (Oxford, New York, 1998; R. Waterfield, Transl.).