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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.
Richard Drury
Getty Images
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

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Thomas Lu is an assistant producer for Hidden Brain.He came to NPR in 2017 as an intern for the TED Radio Hour. He has worked with How I Built This, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Pop Culture Happy Hour. Before coming to NPR, he was a production intern for StoryCorps.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Lushik Wahba