Michele Gelfand on Tight and Loose Cultures (Ep. 49)

Where is Tyler most at risk of getting shot at a bar?

Michele Gelfand is professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and author of the just-released Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. In her conversation with Tyler, Michele unpacks the concept of tight and loose cultures and more, including which variable best explains tightness, the problem with norms, whether Silicon Valley has an honor culture, the importance of theory and history in guiding research, what Donald Trump gets wrong about negotiation, why MBAs underrate management, the need to develop cultural IQ, and why mentorship should last a lifetime.

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Recorded August 31st, 2018

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with Michele Gelfand, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. She has a very interesting new book out called Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.

Welcome, Michele.

MICHELE GELFAND: Thanks for having me.

COWEN: Now, in one of your ratings you mention that New Zealand is arguably the loosest country or culture on this planet. Why does New Zealand qualify in that regard?

GELFAND: Well, I would say it’s of the loosest, not the loosest. In our study, we measured perceptions that people had of the strength of the norms in their cultural context.

New Zealanders, like many people around the world, agreed — they shared perceptions about the strength of norms. They categorized their culture as being relatively loose, permissive, and having a wide range of behavior that was permissible.

COWEN: But can we trust what Kiwis say? I think of New Zealand as a place where conformity is relatively strong. There’s a phrase, “cutting down tall poppies.” You don’t stand out too much. They might deviate a lot on small things, but there’s oddly little radicalism there.

To me, they seem a bit cautious. They have lots of impulse control, and they’re extremely polite. Does that make them loose or tight?

GELFAND: It’s a great question. All cultures have tight and loose domains. New Zealand is a place, like you said, that has some domains that are pretty tight. Some of these domains evolve for good reasons.

The value of egalitarianism is really important in New Zealand. Tall poppies are cut down because that threatens that value. In all cultures, I would argue that some domains evolved to be tight because they’re really important in that culture.

The United States is a great example. Privacy is a very important domain here, so we tend to be pretty regulated about it. If I just show up at someone’s house — even if it’s a close friend — unannounced, I’ll get some pretty strong feedback. Even in the United States, which is relatively loose, we have some domains that are tight.

COWEN: What would be a social phenomenon that the degree of tightness or looseness in a culture or country might explain?

GELFAND: Many things. Actually, in the book, I talk about the tradeoffs that tight and loose provide for human groups. Tight groups tend to have a lot of synchrony, a lot of coordination, a lot of self-control. Loose groups, generally speaking, are very disorganized, and they have self-regulation failures, problems with self-regulation.

But on the flip side, tight cultures tend to struggle with openness. They have more ethnocentrism, they’re less creative, and they’re less open to change. That’s where loose cultures have a market. They’re very open even if they’re slightly disorganized.

COWEN: In one of your papers, you gave some 2011 rankings where, if I recall, the three tightest cultures were in this order: Malaysia, Pakistan, and India. They don’t seem very orderly when you go there.

What makes them tight? Isn’t it the case that they, in some regards, maybe have oppressive norms, but they absolutely fail at regulating behavior in some regards? If you try standing in a queue, at least, say, in India, it’s a highly disorderly experience.

GELFAND: That’s right. These are very crowded places that are relatively poor. So those domains, in terms of things like traffic or coordinating, like you said, and cutting lines — these are things that they tend to be loose in.

But in many domains, they tend to be very tight: in the domain of marriage, in the domain of sexuality, in authority and language. These are very strong rules that people have to abide by, and if they deviate, then there’s strong punishments.

These are really important observations. Every culture has some tight domains and some loose domains. It’s helpful for people to develop cultural intelligence — not just emotional intelligence or general intelligence — when they’re traveling, and understand and anticipate what domains are going to be tight and loose.

Japan’s another example. It’s really tight, but there’s some domains that become totally loose. Takeshita Street — I talked about it in the book; it’s a place where anything goes. After hours in organizations, anything goes. You need in a very tight culture some places that you can let off some steam and become quite loose.

Any culture needs both tightness and looseness, and I would argue — and I talk about the Goldilocks principle that any culture that gets too extreme in terms of looseness or tightness has a lot of problems.

COWEN: In that 2011 rating, if the three most tight are listed as Malaysia, Pakistan, India, and then the three next most tight are Singapore, South Korea, and Norway, might we infer that there are two kinds of tightness somehow? That Malaysia, Pakistan, India belong together, but Singapore, South Korea, and Norway deserve a separate dimension? And that tightness-looseness is too few dimensions; there ought to be three, four, maybe more?

GELFAND: In our data — it’s a great question — we didn’t find any multidimensionality to the scale in terms of factor analysis. Also, when we look at banding, we statistically group cultures. Those groups actually banded together. In our data, they pretty clearly fall together, even if they appear very different.

There’s an interesting reason why cultures evolve to be tight or loose. Maybe that could help to explain why some of these cultures seem so different that actually are quite similar in terms of the strength of norms.

Tight cultures, both in modern day and in ancient history, from our research with anthropologists, archaeologists, they don’t share a similar religion. They don’t share a same location. They don’t share a same language. But they do share one fundamental aspect of their sociality, which is that they experience, generally speaking, a lot of threat. Threats can be varied, from ecological threats to man-made threats. That might help to explain some of the ranking that you see.

Tight cultures, both in modern day and in ancient history, from our research with anthropologists, archaeologists, they don’t share a similar religion. They don’t share a same location. They don’t share a same language. But they do share one fundamental aspect of their sociality, which is that they experience, generally speaking, a lot of threat.

COWEN: As you know, it’s a common distinction in cross-cultural analysis to call some cultures individualistic and others collectivistic. How does tightness and looseness differ from that distinction? What do you pick up that, say, the work of Triandis does not?

GELFAND: Actually, Triandis is my mentor. I went to Champaign to work with him. I did a lot of research on collectivism and individualism. For a long time, that was the one dimension that we looked at in cross-cultural psychology.

It’s almost akin to, in personality psychology, only studying extroversion to the neglect of other dimensions, like neuroticism. In cross-cultural psychology, we got a little bit narrow in what we were studying. Collectivism-individualism is related to tightness but distinct.

Part of the problem we’ve had is, we’ve confounded cultures in our research. We’ve been studying East Asia, which is both tight and collectivistic, with the United States and other Western cultures, which tend to be loose and individualistic. So they have been confounded.

But when you think about the off-diagonals of that two-by-two, you can imagine cultures like Germany, Switzerland, Austria that tend to be pretty individualistic. They emphasize privacy. They’re not hugely group and family oriented, but they’re relatively tight. They have strong rules and punishments for deviance.

On the flip side, you can think about Latin American cultures — in our data, that’s Brazil or Spain — that tend to be pretty family oriented and pretty collectivistic, but they’re rather loose.

In a lot of ways, you can disentangle that variation, even if they’re related. They tend to be related about 0.4. That’s found both in modern nations and also traditional societies. At the state level, they also tend to be related but again distinct. Only in that case, it’s about 0.2 or 0.3, the correlation between tightness and collectivism.

COWEN: Would the notions of tightness and looseness, say, predict big five personality variables like conscientiousness, openness?

GELFAND: These are different levels of analysis. It’s important to think about cultures as systems. You have very macro-level factors like threat. Then you have personality, individual level. The question is, how do those relate to each other? In the Science paper, I tried to develop a multilevel model that specified different factors that help reinforce tightness at different levels.

Certainly, at the individual level, I would say that openness — the big five dimension — and conscientiousness are critical for making up and reinforcing the strength of norms. Loose cultures need people, socialize people to be open because you need to actually tolerate a lot of ambiguity in loose cultures. You’re going to see a lot of weird stuff happening.

Tight cultures have stronger norms — think about being in a library — need people to have a lot of self-regulation and a lot of prevention focus in order to fit into those contexts and maintain them.

There is a connection. You can start thinking about how norms and personality make each other up. They can’t exist without each other in a large extent.

COWEN: I’m from northern New Jersey. Do you regard that as a tight or a loose region? I know you have state-level variables, but of course we can’t count the South here.

GELFAND: I’m from Long Island, so we have a little bit of a rivalry, although I will say that, as I’ve grown older, I think Jersey’s definitely a much nicer place than Long Island. Sorry for my Long Island friends out there.

New Jersey, in our data at the state level, falls in the relatively loose category. When we rank order the 50 states, we can see a new way to think about our variation in the United States. Not just red or blue, but, again, tight or loose. New Jersey tends to be on the looser side. The coasts tend to be looser. The South tends to be tighter in our data.

We can think about this both in terms of, again, threat. Threat tends to predict tightness, even in the United States. If you look at the map that the New York Times published earlier this summer in terms of natural disasters, it’s very closely aligned with our map of tightness in the United States. The South has been the victim of Mother Nature’s fury for years, and it also has a lot of other threats.

There’s also a lot of founder’s effects that I talk about in the book. The East Coast has been a diverse place for centuries, as has been the West Coast. Diversity promotes looseness.

COWEN: One of your ratings of the states has the five tightest as being Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee. Those strike me as some of the states where a stranger is most likely to shoot you in a bar.

I understand they may be tight as a kind of response to threat and danger. But isn’t this showing that there are always two dimensions? They have some norms that are tight precisely because the places themselves are not tight. Things can spiral out of control and be somewhat chaotic and disorderly.

What you’re measuring is always one side of the coin. But it’s exactly offset by other chaotic features of these places.

GELFAND: It’s a great question. The South is both tight and it’s also honor oriented. The people who settled in the South were coming from contexts where honor was very important because of the weak institutions in that context.

Honor evolves when you need strong rules to regulate behavior. All honor cultures — or many — are tight, but not all tight cultures are honor cultures. You can also separate out what’s happening in the South from what’s happening around the world.

I will say that the stranger getting shot in a bar . . . I would disagree with that because usually what’s happening in these contexts is, when you have an honor threat, when you have an insult to someone . . . we know, from a lot of our evolutionary game theory models and other computational work, that honor evolves in contexts where you need to defend your reputation.

Those kinds of contexts are places where people felt the need to defend themselves for survival. It’s not that people just shoot each other randomly. It’s usually precipitated by some kind of threat.

COWEN: Does Silicon Valley have a strong honor culture?

GELFAND: I would say not. No. When you think about honor, think about whether or not — as Dov Cohen talks about — your self-worth is negotiable with other people. In honor cultures, your self-worth is constantly negotiated with others. When people insult you, it’s as if they’ve just stolen some of your self-worth.

In dignity cultures, what Dov Cohen calls . . . which, I think, characterize Silicon Valley, if someone insults you it’s painful, but it doesn’t mean that your worth has been stolen. That’s how I differentiate honor cultures from other types of cultures. It’s not as though people like being insulted in any context, but in some contexts that carries a lot of weight for your sense of self-worth.

COWEN: My colleague, Garett Jones, is a big fan of what he calls the deep roots literature, namely the notion that cultural traits are extremely persistent, possibly even for centuries, but at least for generations. Your notions of tightness and looseness — how much do they persist over time? At least assuming the set of people living in a given territory is staying more or less the same.

GELFAND: I think that tight-loose is a dynamic construct that . . . what we can see, and I’ve collected data after, for example, the Boston bombing. After that event happened, we could see immediate tightening in Boston. People wanting stronger rules. People starting to get skeptical of outsiders.

We’ve seen this in the laboratory. I can convince people at Maryland that they’re living in an environment like Singapore that has 20,000 people per square mile. That activation of threat can make people immediately tighter and wanting stronger rules, wanting stronger leaders.

But if the threat is not chronic, if it’s not perpetuated, then we go back to the attractor that we’re used to in dynamical systems theory. It’s not as though it can’t change, but in order to actually have a gigantic change in tightness, you need to have either a very strong, top-down threat that’s persistent or different people that have now entered the system.

That’s something that doesn’t happen that much. That’s why I think it’s relatively stable.

COWEN: Let’s say China does not, in a major way, threaten Japan, and the Japanese population continues to shrink. You end up with 50 million people living in what we now call Japan. What’s your sense of the speed of adjustment?

Japan will then become a much looser culture? How long does that take? Is it more like 20 years, 200 years? How do you think about that?

GELFAND: I think that someone like Joe Henrich might argue that it would take a long time, several hundred years. I think that people, through socialization, through social learning, are trained to follow the norms of their previous generations.

Ron Inglehart also talks about — change takes a long time in his data, over years and years to happen. This is not something that we can witness, change happening overnight.

COWEN: You mention in your book that population density in the year 1500 has fairly high predictive power. What does it predict?

GELFAND: It predicts tightness. Imagine you’re living in Singapore, which I’m sure you’ve visited — 20,000 people per square mile. It makes sense to ban gum, large quantities of gum in that context. That’s exactly what Lee Kuan Yew did.

He’s a brilliant cultural psychologist, in my point of view. He assessed the level of threat that Singapore experienced, both ecologically and in terms of diversity, having many different cultural groups. He decided, “We have to have tight rules here.” He actually talks about it in his autobiography.

The gum issue is interesting. He saw people in this very crowded context were taking their gum, throwing it on the ground. It was causing a national mess. Overnight, he said, “Guys, we’ve got to ban gum.”

You wouldn’t find that in New Zealand, that has 50 people per square mile. When you have a lot of people per square mile, you need rules to help you coordinate, to avoid chaos.

COWEN: Isn’t Singapore evidence of low persistence, though? Because in the 1950s, sanitation levels were pretty low in Singapore. Early in the 20th century, it wasn’t even that well populated. Lee Kuan Yew comes. He makes a lot of big changes. That seems to show you can change the equilibrium pretty readily if you do the right things.

GELFAND: That’s right. He did. He was a very good example of a top-down influence that was very much deliberate, and it was very systematic. In that particular case, he’s a good example of when cultural change can happen. When it’s deliberate, when it’s top down, and when it’s necessary.

In Singapore, there’s good reasons why you have to sacrifice liberty for security, given the context.

On wealth and social norms

COWEN: One of my readers wrote to me and suggested, correctly or not, that about 70 percent of the variation in a people’s values can be explained by wealth. Do you agree? Just this one variable, wealth, much more important than anything else. True or false?

GELFAND: I would say that wealth is obviously very important. It predicts, in the collectivism literature, high levels of group orientation.

In our data, we don’t find any direct connection between GDP per capita and tightness. You have very tight cultures that are wealthy, like Singapore and Japan. You have very loose cultures that struggle. In our data, actually, what we can see is that there’s no real main effect of GDP on the strength of norms.

COWEN: Doesn’t that mean, though, if there’s no correlation, that both tightness and looseness — in some way, they don’t work? Looseness doesn’t get you more innovation. Tightness doesn’t get you more order.

Are they, then, a kind of epiphenomenon? How people answer questions or how they set their clocks in synchronization, but that don’t really drive what people actually care about in the country, which is wealth?

GELFAND: Actually, what we find in our data is a curvilinear effect of GDP. Extremely loose and extremely tight cultures both have low GDP. They have low happiness. They have higher instability.

This kind of Goldilocks principle is very important when it comes to the strength of norms. Groups might need to veer tight or loose based on their ecologies. But as they get more extreme — and for different reasons — they wind up being unsuccessful, both in terms of monetary wealth, but also in terms of their happiness.

Very, very tight cultures tend to be very oppressive. What Durkheim would say, they want to escape from this kind of oppression. Very, very loose cultures — those usually which are coming from a very autocratic context that have dismantled, like the Ukraine — they tend to experience a lot of anomie, as Durkheim would say, and total unpredictability. They’re not sustainable, either.

This principle of too much or too little constraint is applicable to many domains. It relates to free speech. It relates to the brain. When the brain is too synchronized or too little synchronized, it produces different brain disorders. When we have too little choice or too much choice, it produces a lot of problems. When we have too many rules or too few rules for raising our children, it produces problems.

So this principle of having a balance in terms of the strength of norms is important. That’s why wealth is important, but it’s not determinant of human behavior.

COWEN: In your broad view, norms are actually not very functional. They may try to do certain things . . .

GELFAND: No, no, no.

COWEN: . . . but they fail.

GELFAND: No, no, no. I’m saying the extreme nature of norms is problematic. We need norms. We can’t operate without norms. From the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we go back to bed, we have been following norms, thousands of norms.

COWEN: Sure, you need some norms. But a particular pattern of norms as defined in terms of tightness or looseness — it won’t make you wealthier. It won’t make you happier as long as you avoid the extremes.

Within a broad range, the norm at the macro level — it has particular effects, but again, the things people care about — wealth and happiness — it fails to deliver. Or not.

GELFAND: I’ll say that again: the extremes are what produce the problems.

But when we look at groups that are tight and not extreme, they provide a lot of things that people need. They provide a lot of order. They provide a lot of synchrony. Synchrony is really important as a very basic phenomenon, feeling like you are aligned with others. It produces a lot of cooperation. But it also has a detriment of creativity.

Looseness, when it’s not too extreme, makes people really creative. It makes people really open to different people. There are definitely huge advantages to both tightness and looseness, depending on your vantage point.

COWEN: You mentioned Joe Henrich before. He has this idea of what he calls WEIRD psychology. WEIRD is an acronym for Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic.

As I understand his view, people who are WEIRD are just fundamentally different in terms of their norms. There’s not some kind of spectrum or continuum. There’s simply a fundamental break in human civilization.

Do you agree with that? Or what’s your perspective?

GELFAND: No, I don’t. I would say this idea of WEIRD predates years and years of psychology. The reason why cross-cultural psychology developed in the first place is because people were really concerned that American psychology was based on very strange samples, ignoring 70 percent of the world.

This WEIRD idea has been with us for a long time. I would say that, no, there’s not this discontinuous nature where there’s one society that’s so unusual. The difference in the United States from other cultures is in the type of individualism that we endorse.

We’re not just focused on privacy and on independence. We’re focused on what I call vertical individualism. That’s competitive individualism. That is different than other Western cultures like Scandinavia, Australia, that are much more horizontal in their individualism.

So the WEIRDness of the United States, in many ways, is its form of individualism. I think that there’s a lot of ways we can examine cultural constructs and find variation around the world.

COWEN: We don’t, in this country, actually seem all that rational to me in the way that WEIRD might predict.

General question about what we can never know about culture. As you know, a lot of people who work in areas with large numbers of data points and well-specified models — they’re very critical of cross-cultural papers, because they think we don’t really know the true model; we can’t write it down.

There are all these big interaction effects at the macro level. We’re not sure how to trace them. Maybe the tests have low statistical power, or it’s hard to come up with causal tests at all.

What’s your response to this kind of criticisms? Is your view, “Well, they’re misunderstanding the econometrics; this is actually as good as a lot of other empirical work”? Or is your view, “We know culture is important. It’s either this or the anthropologists, and this is telling us something”?

How do you place yourself in this debate on cross-cultural econometrics?

GELFAND: It’s a great question. Every method that any of us use is very limited in what we can say about any particular study.

I’ve always been a big fan of theory, testing theory with as many methods as humanly possible. That’s how I think about cross-cultural psychology. We can’t take one paper that has 35 nations and come to any massive conclusion about that or strong conclusion about that.

We have to then try to replicate that theory with other methods, whether it’s using computational models, using neuroscience, looking to traditional societies with totally different methods.

We just spent a couple years coding over a hundred samples in terms of the strength of norms in various different domains with ethnographies. I’m really curious to see, with my work, can I see the theory replicating with different types of methods?

My group at Maryland is really fiercely interdisciplinary because we want to bring in methods that can help us replicate theory. That’s my approach to these issues, given that any particular study is going to be flawed in many ways.

COWEN: Your own work aside, what would be a few generalizations about culture that you think we’ve learned empirically and follow from theory that you more or less agree with or believe in?

GELFAND: I would say that we’ve learned that culture is not random, that it evolves for semi-adaptive reasons, given the kinds of environments that people place.

That doesn’t mean all cultural traits, values, norms have been adapted, but many are. People don’t realize that cultures are not just accidental, that there’s some rationale to cultural differences. Actually, once we realize that and we can start to document that, I think it produces a lot more empathy.

When you’re traveling, when you’re learning about other cultures, when you start to think, wait, if I lived in that context, whether it’s the US South, or whether it’s in Sri Lanka, or wherever it is, or Japan, that you also would likely support the norms and values that are being cultivated if they were helpful for your survival.

So I tend to think about cultures being quasi-rational.

On the replication crisis

COWEN: How bad is the replication crisis in social psychology? It relates not so much to your work, but it’s become a big issue. What’s your view?

GELFAND: It’s a great question. I’m actually really proud of what psychology’s doing. I think that transparency is really important. Best practices — identifying them is important. I’m really excited about this revolution, we would call it.

I would say that cross-cultural psychologists are not too unfamiliar with this kind of replication crisis because for years and years, we know that when you try to replicate something, even in a different state, let alone another country, you are going to be dealing with hundreds of rival hypotheses.

Whether it’s different instructions, interpretations of the instructions, or different motivations of the subjects, the interactions with experimenter, they’re all things that can produce null effects, or they can dramatically change your effects.

We’re in the business — cross-cultural psychologists — of having problems replicating basic American findings for many, many years. What’s interesting is that what you see in the replication crisis and the recent PNS paper, that the papers that didn’t replicate very well were rated by other scientists as having a lot of contextual factors that might weigh in on them.

It’s really important, as we go through the replication crisis, to think about, we’re trying to replicate things. And we have to understand that if they’re very much influenced by the social context, there’s a risk they won’t be replicated.

That doesn’t mean that the theory doesn’t matter. The risk — and I’ll talk a couple of seconds about the replication crisis risks — is that people will throw out the theory with the bathwater, whatever the metaphor might be. That we’re in this business now of just seeing, can we replicate this in one other context?

As just an example, there was an attempt to replicate some kind of race relations question that was done in LA in Italy. Now that, to me as a cross-cultural psychologist, is silly. But it could also be that if we try to replicate something in Kansas, it might be different.

People, I think, need to be collaborative as they seek to replicate, to understand the social context in which the phenomena has been tested and make sure, when things don’t replicate, that there might be a good reason why it hasn’t replicated.

COWEN: As you mentioned before, in your work there’s a notion that fear of outsiders or natural disasters or a sense of threat — it can make a culture tighter.

Now, Jonathan Haidt and some other researchers — they’ve talked about how a sense of disgust can make personal moral views, in some way, more conservative, or arguably tighter. Do you think this is ultimately the same phenomenon? Or are they two separate mechanisms here?

GELFAND: That’s a great question. I think that they are two separate mechanisms. Disgust is not necessarily an emotion that relates to fear. But both might relate to needing stronger rules in order to coordinate behaviors in those contexts.

Disease threat or pathogen threat usually is something that could be related to disgust. But that’s different than the fear of invasion. Fear of invasion is not activating disgust. It’s activating something where you feel, as a collective, that you need to coordinate your action to face that threat.

COWEN: But how do people respond to a pandemic when they come? It looks a lot like a war, right? You have quarantines. You have people band together. There’s a fair amount of central planning.

GELFAND: I just don’t think it activates disgust. I would say the same thing with natural disasters. If we’re worried about a natural disaster happening at Maryland, we don’t start feeling disgusted. We feel fear.

But they might both produce . . . and we have seen that pathogens produce tightness, both in the lab and also in the field. We see that other threats that require coordination also produce tightness, but they’re not mediated through feelings of disgust.

COWEN: How do the categories of loose and tight map onto traditional gender roles? Is there a gender-based difference, say, in how people respond to fear or a sense of threat?

GELFAND: I haven’t actually seen much evidence for gender differences in response to threat. I will say that women, minorities, people of lower social power tend to live in tighter worlds. That is how I think about the connection of gender and race to tightness.

I think that in the past we’ve thought about power as allowing people to violate norms and to have a lot of latitude. That’s a looseness phenomenon. People who are in high-power positions live in looser worlds. They’re not as accountable, whereas people in lower social statuses are much more accountable. They have to be worried about rule violations to a much greater extent. That might produce more of a prevention-oriented mentality, as mediated by having to survive those tight environments.

COWEN: Is Steven Pinker correct that human progress is improving basic culture basically all the time?

GELFAND: [laughs] I agree with Steven a lot on how much we’ve come in terms of threat, if you compare hundreds of years ago, the kinds of things we experience.

I disagree with him, though, in the sense that I think we have to be mindful of looming threats, things like climate change. I think that there are certain threats like violence that have been dramatically reduced, but there’s other collective threats that we have to be mindful of.

COWEN: Are cultures in general becoming tighter or looser over time?

GELFAND: That’s a great question. Many people would think that they’re becoming looser, but actually you can see here in the US lots of evidence that we see tightening in the United States.

I don’t think it’s a healthy tightening, per se. It’s involving a lot of fake threat or exaggerated threat, the confluence of leaders that are activating threat as well as social media that amplifies threats.

People pay attention to these threats. This is the availability heuristic, as you know, in cognitive science. When we hear about an immigrant who has just shot someone, it’s very salient to us. It’s much more salient than another person in another state who is an American citizen shooting their whole family.

So we overexaggerate these threats. As a result, it produces the desire for stronger rules and strong leaders.

I think that looseness ebbs and flows. It depends on the perceived or actual level of threat in the environment.

COWEN: Geographic cross-state mobility is down about 50 percent from its postwar peak in this country. How is that changing our culture?

GELFAND: Mobility is a really critical aspect of tight-loose in the sense that when you have lower mobility, you have less exposure to differences in opinions, differences in traditions, and it tends to promote tightness. It reinforces tightness.

Lots of mobility affords looseness. We’ve seen that empirically.

We know that mobility in some of our computational models is really affecting ethnocentrism. In Axelrod’s famous paper on the evolution of ethnocentrism, he would argue that ethnocentrism is inevitable. But actually, in our data, we could see that high-mobile contexts actually have much less ethnocentrism. Mobility is really part and parcel of looseness.

COWEN: How much does it matter, if at all, that so much of the Western world is now post-Christian for social norms such as tightness and looseness? Do we fear different things because we’re not so religious anymore?

GELFAND: I can’t really speak to the religious differences. What I can say is that when people feel threatened, they tend to desire different aspects of God, from our research. They want a more tight, monitoring, punishing God, in our research, when they feel threatened by natural disasters or conflict.

So I think that even religion is both a source of tightness, but it could be affected by the ecology in which people are embedded.

COWEN: What was it like for you when you moved from New York State to Champaign-Urbana for your graduate work?

GELFAND: [laughs] It was culture shock, no question about it. I went to a small school for undergrad, upstate New York at Colgate. I was really looking forward to being in a city. When I heard about Harry Triandis and his work and I thought, “Oh, my gosh. I’d love to work with him,” and got in there, it was devastating to have to go live in another small town.

I would say that it was the most amazing graduate experience, mainly because of the interdisciplinarity of the context. I got over the culture shock relatively quickly.

COWEN: What surprised you the most about actually living in Champaign-Urbana?

GELFAND: Oh. [laughs] I would say the politeness. In our research, loose states are very rude. Tight states are more polite, more norm-abiding. I’m someone who’s used to flipping people off as a friendly gesture. New Yorkers are known for interrupting people. I have a lot of relatives in the Midwest, so we’ve negotiated these differences in culture over the years. That was probably the biggest shock.

Also, the general geography. It was very flat and very different than upstate New York.

COWEN: Do tight or loose cultures scapegoat more?

GELFAND: Scapegoat in terms of blaming . . .

COWEN: Take someone from within the community, consider them to be in some way at fault, correctly or not, treat them as a sacrificial victim, which is done very often in American political culture, and enact an ongoing ritual through which that victim falls. Then the community feels cleansed as a result, à la René Girard.

GELFAND: I would suspect that tight cultures do have more of that phenomenon because people who are different are seen as dangerous. We actually had students go around the world in tight and loose cultures, wearing even something as minor as a facial stigma like warts. I bought them warts to wear on their face, or tattoos where they were wearing nose rings.

We asked them to seek help in city streets or in malls. In the tightest of cultures people were helped much less. They were really much less friendly to them and much less helpful as compared to loose cultures. In small communities, when someone is threatening the social order, then scapegoating is possibly a response to that.

COWEN: What do you think of five-factor personality theory as a psychologist? How good is it?

GELFAND: I would say it’s an approximation to try to explain lots of variation. As a cross-cultural psychologist, I would say that it’s not necessarily the only personality dimensions that are relevant around the world. There’s some research in China that suggests that there’s a sixth dimension of interpersonal relatedness that hasn’t been found with the big-five factor.

This is what’s so upsetting about cross-cultural research, because when you generate theory and research in one context, it doesn’t mean that you’re not deficient in that theory. And you have to go to other cultures to think, “Well, do we need a sixth factor?” or “What might be contaminating about those factors in other cultures? Maybe some of these dimensions are not as relevant in other cultures.”

The construct’s base itself is what we’re trying to really look at in cross-cultural research. But the big five have been replicated. I do think there’s a lot to be said about it, but I think that there’s some variation around the world that would suggest additional dimensions are relevant.

COWEN: If you could have data on something for your research that you don’t have data on right now, to satisfy your curiosity, what would that data be?

GELFAND: Great question. I would say it would be data from thousands of years ago in terms of societal norms and ecology. In fact, I’m teaming up with Peter Turchin, who I’m sure you know of, who’s developed this fabulous database, Seshat. I’m trying to start to look at tight-loose in the ancient record.

COWEN: Let’s say you could go back in time a thousand years to any place on Earth. There’s no problem with disease, and by definition you’re fluent in the language. For your own curiosity and fun, where would you choose?

GELFAND: I would go and hang out with Herodotus.

COWEN: Herodotus. Why?

GELFAND: I would just like [laughs] to be traveling around with him and noticing what he’s noticing. The Histories is one of the most fabulous books that is really the first text in cross-cultural psychology. I would like to really witness what he looked at.

I would also say, if I had another second place, I would like to go to Sparta because Sparta is a very fascinating place, and even its neighbor, Athens, at the time, to contrast the strength of norms that we see in those two contexts.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: Now in the middle of these discussions, there’s usually a segment, overrated versus underrated. I’ll toss out some names of things. You’re free to pass on any one of them, but please give us your opinion. First and foremost, Bethesda, Maryland. Overrated or underrated?

GELFAND: [laughs] I would say properly rated. I think that Bethesda is a thriving place. There’s a lot of interesting restaurants. There’s a lot of emerging culture, jazz, and so forth. So I wouldn’t say it’s really over- or underrated.

COWEN: For me it’s dull, so I think it’s overrated. I would much rather live in Silver Spring or College Park or anywhere else in that part of Maryland than Bethesda.


GELFAND: I should say that, as someone who lives in PG County near College Park, that I do really love living in an extremely diverse environment in PG County. I’m proud that my kids are in a context where they’re learning about different cultures. Now, I think you also learn a lot of other cultures in Bethesda as well.

I just think that you’re more of a minority if you’re a white, Jewish kid when you’re in PG County. The world looks very different, and the way you think is affected by that. I’m glad that they’ve had that experience.

COWEN: The TV show The Americans.

GELFAND: Ohhhh. [laughs] It’s probably underrated. I’m on episode 10 of season 6 right now. I’m not a big TV fan. I don’t watch a lot of television, but I started watching The Americans this summer, and I was hooked by the first episode. It’s just phenomenal. It’s underrated to the extent that everyone on this planet should watch that show.

COWEN: What is interesting for the social scientist in that show?

GELFAND: I would say it’s the ability to be inauthentic all the time, having to play a role. Not just a dangerous role, but also just go against your inner instincts at all times. It’s also extremely interesting to watch the dynamics of the couple on this show in terms of their loyalty. It’s a tight-loose issue.

I’m not going to get into details for the audience, but you have one person who really wants to get rid of the allegiance, who questions what they’re being told to do, and another that, for a very long time, thinks, “No. When we’re given an order, we abide by it.” That conflict is fascinating from a tight-loose perspective.

COWEN: Overrated or underrated, Staten Island?

GELFAND: [laughs] I would say probably underrated. That’s because I actually am familiar with Staten Island. We have relatives that live there. It’s probably the last undiscovered place around the city. Brooklyn has become a chichi place to live, but Staten Island has not. There’s great delis there. I’ve spent some time there.

My late mother is buried in Staten Island, so I have a very fond feeling for that place.

COWEN: Direct talk in negotiations.

GELFAND: Overrated.


GELFAND: It works very well in certain ecologies, where cutting to the chase, where time is money, where you’re taught to be authentic, where face and honor are not that important as cultural constructs.

Again, it’s important in certain contexts, but it very much backfires in contexts where trying to maintain face, trying to signal respect to people is more important. Therefore, more indirect communication is more relevant in those contexts.

COWEN: Do Americans do too much direct talk when they negotiate?

GELFAND: Oh, yeah. I would say, generally speaking, no question about it. One of the biggest problems in negotiation is, again, around cultural intelligence. It’s taking our ways of doing things and just applying them around the world without thinking about, “Do these styles match the context?”

There’s a reason why these things work here, but they might not work in Egypt or in Japan. It’s really important because we’re training our students, our MBAs, our political scientists, our lawyers to adapt a certain style of negotiating that just doesn’t work in other parts of the world.

COWEN: Economics. What’s the biggest thing wrong with us?

GELFAND: [laughs]

COWEN: You can be harsh.

GELFAND: I would say that economics can be somewhat atheoretical in the sense that psychologists are concerned with mediating mechanisms. What explains the phenomenon? Whenever I’ve given a talk to economists, and I try to open up the black box of what I’m talking about, they lose interest very quickly. “Why do you need to understand the mechanism? Just give me what the effects are.”

I’m not saying all economists are like this. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with people up at Harvard — Nathan Nunn, other people — that really do care about these things, so I don’t want to overgeneralize.

I also think experimental economics has another set of problems, but . . .

COWEN: No, tell us, please.

GELFAND: I think that a lot of it, again, is the strengths to it. I’ve always admired the lack of deception that’s used in experimental economics. In psychology, for a very long time, people felt OK with deceiving subjects because we had new subject pools that wouldn’t be spoiled by that deception. Nowadays, when you use Mechanical Turk, the same people are engaging in studies.

We have to be concerned about this, so I admire some parts of experimental economics. Again, on the theory side, I’m a big proponent of theory, and I think the theory comes first. A lot of times, we just see these effects happening, that you can nudge people in this direction or that direction. How replicable they are is a question.

But really, what’s the underlying theory that’s being tested sometimes is open to question.

COWEN: Other than yourself and Triandis, but who’s a psychologist that economists should read more of whom they don’t? Not just economists but intelligent lay readers.

GELFAND: I would say someone like Joe McGrath. He is deceased. He was a big groups researcher at Illinois when I was there. He really created many circumplexes — I’m always a big fan of the circumplex — whereby he can delineate what kind of tasks groups are engaged in, what kind of conflicts they might have. I think he’s a phenomenal theorist.

Also wrote a lot about research methods that would be useful, the judgments we have to make in research that he wrote about in several books.

COWEN: Jordan Peterson is trying to resurrect the reputation of Carl Jung who, of course, was a psychologist. What do you think?

GELFAND: Probably not a good idea.

COWEN: Why not?

GELFAND: [laughs] Maybe the ideas that he had, but the methods or the test of those ideas would need to be really approached very differently.

COWEN: How much of Freud has held up?

GELFAND: I would say not a whole lot, although some of his very big ideas really were not noticed as much. His ideas about how societal constraints affect psychopathology are really interesting. I read about it in a book.

COWEN: Could you give us an example of that?

GELFAND: Just the kind of neuroses he would argue when people feel that they have to abide by a lot of strong norms. He was conflicted also about, how do we create a balance between freedom and constraint? That kind of idea he picked up on in Civilization and Its Discontents, but it hasn’t been really something that people talk about a lot.

COWEN: In general, in the history of psychology, are there unmined insights in the history of psychological thought? Or is virtually all of it incorporated into the contemporary wisdom?

GELFAND: That’s a great question. I really think that there’s so much about history that psychologists ignore. This is not just psychologists. It’s in any discipline that, if anything, our science should be more historical. It should be trying to address questions that are not just relevant right now but to the past, and that it will inform our methods now to think about history and evolution.

That’s why I started to team up with people who are studying history to try to test questions that are informing now with previous behavior. We almost act as though life started here, now, in the 21st century. One of the problems, also in the sociology of science and psychology, is that we’re getting much more ahistorical, even in our science.

The length of journals makes it such that people don’t review literature that happened 50, 60 years ago, even in the science. It’s a big problem, and that we need to make sure that our theories are not just getting rehashed because people don’t know what happened 60 years ago.

Part of that is some of the practices in journalism. But part of it is that people want to create something sometimes that maybe is old wine in new bottles.

The length of journals makes it such that people don’t review literature that happened 50, 60 years ago, even in the science. It’s a big problem, and that we need to make sure that our theories are not just getting rehashed because people don’t know what happened 60 years ago.

On the importance of management

COWEN: Do social psychologists have anything to teach CEOs about management?

GELFAND: Oh, of course.

COWEN: What?

GELFAND: Of course. I teach executives. I teach negotiation, mainly in Beijing for the Smith School. What happens with MBA students, in general, is that they want to learn about finance and accounting. It’s only later, when they become older, that they realize, “You know what? I really need to understand human behavior.”

That’s the stuff that’s really difficult, is how to manage, how to lead, how to motivate, how to manage conflict. These are the critical skills that managers need. They can learn those other skills pretty easily. But they need psychology to understand how to actually deal with human behavior.

COWEN: Say I’m a CEO, and I want an entry point into understanding academic psychology as a research enterprise. Where and how should I start?

GELFAND: In terms of your education? You mean in how you would get educated?


GELFAND: There’s some great textbooks that you can learn in organizational behavior.

COWEN: They say people don’t respond well to textbooks, which maybe tells . . .

GELFAND: I would say maybe Harvard Business Review.

COWEN: Harvard Business Review?

GELFAND: I think that there’s some really smart, accessible types of papers that come out in HBR that help people to understand human behavior, give real-world examples of how they apply. I’ve been just writing about, for example, Elon Musk and some of his problems [laughs] and how they reflect his genius, his looseness, but how much he needs to tighten up that operation.

We write about mergers and acquisitions, and how they succeed or fail, and the cultural factors that managers and CEOs should know about. You would think that in those contexts, they would understand and do cultural due diligence before they get married with other companies, but they don’t.

So HBR helps people to understand the scientific principles that inform management, but in a context where they’re given real-world examples.

COWEN: Is academia a tight or a loose culture?

GELFAND: [laughs] I would say that it’s pretty tight. The replication crisis in particular is making it even tighter. That’s another possible downside of the movement, in the sense that it gets personal. People sometimes are accusing people of things that are reflecting their intent. And this is making people more cautious, or it might make people more cautious.

It might actually inhibit creativity if it’s not something that we develop norms of civility for. I’ve seen it happen with many people because of the loose nature of the internet, which in itself has a lot of advantages but also is a cesspool of anti-normative behavior. It promotes a lot of problems when it comes to reputations and therefore might limit creativity.

COWEN: How did academia become such a tight culture? Is it that it feels under threat? Does it have some notion of population density but in intellectual space? Or what’s the transmission mechanism?

GELFAND: It’s a great question. I would share, by the way, disciplines vary in terms of their tightness. I wouldn’t say that we can define all academia as tight. I think that because of the tenure process, because sometimes the demands of the task can actually cause tight or loose to evolve. . . .

When you need to get tenure, when you are being evaluated and monitored, that tends to produce a tight mentality. It tends to produce some elements of risk aversion. That, again, could limit creativity. Of course, now I’m a full professor, but even when I was just assistant professor, I thought, “If I’m going to be in this job, I want to do something that’s risky, that’s interesting.”

I try to encourage my students to do that, to think big, to not be inhibited by the journal space or what might be expected. That incremental contributions are not nearly as interesting as big contributions, even if you failed a lot, which we all do. [laughs]

COWEN: Now, you’re well known for your work on negotiation. Why are women worse negotiators than men, if indeed they are?

GELFAND: I don’t know where that comes from because meta analyses would say that when there are gender differences, they tend to be pretty small. That is to say that situational factors really do affect behavior and outcomes in negotiation a lot. So there’s not huge differences in gender.

What I do find that differentiates women and men in general — but this is again delimiting it further: white women of a certain social class compared to white men — is that women are less likely to get to the negotiation table. We can think about putting people in a lab, having them negotiate, and studying their behavior, but we can think about who gets to the table in the first place. It’s what we call propensity to negotiate.

We started this research program with Linda Babcock. She’s an economist at Carnegie Mellon. We can see that women actually are less likely to ask for things than men. Men get to the negotiation table more often. We’ve been studying that phenomenon, why it’s the case. It turns out, actually, there’s some kind of rationality to it.

Other people have showed that when women do negotiate, when they do initiate negotiations, they tend to experience a lot of backlash. I would argue that that would apply to other forms of lower status, whether it’s social class or minority status. There is some sense that, if I do ask for more things, I’m going to get some negative feedback. Tightness.

COWEN: There’s a frequently communicated result — it may or may not be true — that women have a harder time asking for raises. Do you agree?

GELFAND: In negotiation situations you don’t get a memo that says, “It’s time for you to do this.” They’re very ambiguous — weak situations is what we’d call them. So you need to perceive the opportunity. Then you need to feel comfortable and emotionally comfortable with taking on that opportunity.

Asking for raises is something that involves all those processes. You have to perceive that it’s even possible. Most times, when you’re around people who are very powerful, they might tell you to do this. Mentors tell you, “It’s time for you to do this.”

I tend to, I should say, negotiate a lot, so I’m not sure. [laughs] That’s always been the case. I’ve never felt like it’s a problem to ask for something. Ask and you shall receive, or you’re not going to get something if you don’t ask for it. But there are some social consequences to asking for women. It’s a delicate balance of how you do that.

COWEN: Are Americans less patient as negotiators?

GELFAND: Oh, yeah. [laughs]

COWEN: And why?

GELFAND: De Tocqueville really noticed this as an American trait years ago, that Americans seem to be pretty impatient.

We live in a context. An undervalued, underrated concept in psychology is metaphor. We live in a context where sports metaphors, game metaphors, are really guiding a lot of interaction in general but also in negotiation. In those contexts, the clock is ticking. People feel like they have to get things done quickly. That’s where the impatience comes from. It comes from certain metaphors.

When you’re in a relationship metaphor, the clock is not ticking. The relationship metaphor is much more common in places like East Asia or the Middle East, where reputation building and understanding one’s honor and building trust is not something that you could put a time limit on.

Americans tend to operate in certain metaphoric frameworks, and that guides their impatience. To some extent, that’s OK here in the US, but it doesn’t work so well in other places.

An undervalued, underrated concept in psychology is metaphor. We live in a context where sports metaphors, game metaphors, are really guiding a lot of interaction in general but also in negotiation. In those contexts, the clock is ticking. People feel like they have to get things done quickly. That’s where the impatience comes from. It comes from certain metaphors. When you’re in a relationship metaphor, the clock is not ticking.

COWEN: Putting aside your political views, but just if you observe Donald Trump as a negotiator — as a psychologist, what strikes you?

GELFAND: Donald Trump has a very classic negotiation style. It’s a distributive negotiation style. It’s a win-lose style. It works in certain contexts, especially contexts where there’s one issue or when there’s very little expected future interaction.

What Donald Trump does is, he takes that style to international [laughs] politics where these contexts, the structure of these situations is very different. There’s usually many issues at the table. There’s expected future interaction.

Trump uses these distributive tactics like threats. He makes threats very easily. Psychologists know that threats create a lot of reactants. When you threaten me, I’m going to threaten you right back.

When I teach students how to negotiate and I train them, “If someone threatens you, you go right back to interests. You tell them, ‘I can threaten you, but let’s go back to interests. That’s really where we’re going to make a lot of action in this negotiation.’” His style is really mismatched with the context that he’s in.

I’ll say one more thing as a cross-cultural psychologist: Trump, as many negotiators need to do, is to develop cultural intelligence. In our data, cultural intelligence is just as important as general intelligence or emotional intelligence.

That’s one thing he really doesn’t understand, is the cultural context, that there are so many ways you can violate someone’s honor in a negotiation. I’ve studied this among hundreds of professional negotiators in the Middle East.

If I’m on my phone and negotiating with you, that’s a sign that I’m not respecting you enough to put my phone away. If I wear something that’s not formal in a negotiation, that’s a sign of disrespect. That could be as important as the economics of the negotiation. So Trump needs to gain some cultural intelligence, in my point of view.

COWEN: How can people best learn cultural intelligence? Say they’re a prospective diplomat, politician, or CEO. What’s the path to learning cultural IQ?

GELFAND: It’s immersing yourself in different cultures. It’s studying cross-cultural psychology, anthropology, and other disciplines.

Part of the problem is that a lot of people get these dos and don’ts — superficial aspects of culture — when they’re being sent on an expatriate assignment. They’re usually selected because of their technical competence, not because they’re culturally competent.

You need to see it as a lifelong — at least I do — quest to understand what are the cultural differences and why do they evolve?

On the Michele Gelfand production function

COWEN: I’ll close with a few questions about the Michele Gelfand production function, which is that classic thing we do in these chats. What’s your secret to how you’ve been so productive so as to publish so much? Other than just hard work. That’s obvious. What is it you can teach other people about how to be productive?

GELFAND: I would say that having a passion — it sounds pretty trite — but having a passion means you’ll never work a day in your life. I feel like being paid to do what I do is an unbelievable feat because I love what I do. I wake up and I’m crazy curious about what I do. When you’re really curious and really passionate, it will drive the rest. Work doesn’t seem like work.

I also think it’s important — a good idea can come from anywhere. It could come from a lab manager. It doesn’t have to be a postdoc. In our group, we try to practice no one’s different. It doesn’t matter what your level of education is. It’s a matter of being engaged.

I’ve had a lot of visitors comment on that practice in our group. I like to tell people, “Come up with the stupidest idea possible.” I want people to feel psychologically safe, whatever their rank, to come up with ideas. Many of them, like, I have many ideas that are not good but some that might be good.

COWEN: There’s always an implicit bidding for quality coauthors. A lot of people will want to work with them. You’re choosing coauthors. They’re choosing you, in turn. What is it you think you know about spotting talent in collaborators that other people don’t?

GELFAND: It’s commitment. This again sounds pretty obvious, but it’s commitment to and passion for similar questions, but having very different perspectives on them. These interdisciplinary collaborations are — when they can work, and many of them don’t — they are beautiful because you have people who are interested in the same questions, and yet we have such different complementary expertise that it makes for really interesting research.

I could say that with Dana Nau at Maryland. His students, who have been trained in evolutionary game theory, collaborate with cross-cultural psychologists. We eat together at breakfast every other week. Maybe that helps. We always are having our meetings at restaurants. We are committed to the same problems, but we have very different perspectives on them.

Some collaborations are harder. I remember I was working as part of a MURI grant with the Israeli computer scientist Sarit Kraus, a really brilliant woman. When she came to Maryland, she was developing computer agents to negotiate. I wanted to use these computer agents and bring her work into our work on negotiation.

She said, “Michele, I’m not interested at all about human behavior.” I was crushed at the time. I said to her, “You know what? While we’re being honest, I don’t really care about your computer agent.”

COWEN: [laughs]

GELFAND: Then we realized, “OK, we’re going to have to start somewhere. How are we going to integrate our interests?” It turns out, I said to her, “Look, your agent is going to be a better agent” — which is her quest — “if it understands culture. And I can use your agent to collect data in a very standardized way in a lab but around the US. I can actually benefit from your work.”

We never had a common problem per se, but we were able to integrate our interests enough and get past the really-do-I-want-to-work-with-you stage. It takes a lot of commitment. Those complementary skills can help both parties advance their research agendas.

COWEN: Last question. What is it that other academics don’t know about teaching and mentoring?

GELFAND: I would say it’s like these are like your kids. When you accept a PhD student, you’re going to be committed to them for not just five years, but forever. [laughs] My students, they’ll write me emails when they’re going for tenure or when they’re going for full, whatever. They’re like, “I need some mentoring.”

I always tell my students, “Once a mentor, you’re always a mentor.” These are going to become your family. That’s, at least, my approach. I still rely on Harry Triandis. I’ve sent him every chapter of this book. He’s 90 years old. We’ve just recently wrote a paper together, and I left Champaign years ago.

It’s a long-term commitment. It’s incredible to watch your students grow up. It’s painful when they leave. Always is. [laughs]

COWEN: Michele Gelfand, thank you very much.