Michele Gelfand:

"Rule Makes, Rule Breakers" (2018)

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Gelfand is a psychologist and clearly a great communicator. This is a study of culture as defined by social norms along a continuum from “tight” to “loose”. She analyzes different nations/cultures/ societies along this "tight-to-loose" axis. “Tight cultures have strong social norms and little tolerance for deviance, while loose cultures have weak social norms and are highly permissive”. Tight cultures are "rule makers" while loose cultures as "rule breakers". What caught the attention of the press (and of the public) is the conclusion that loose cultures foster innovation and rule-breaking. She classified the USA as a loose culture and therefore the US media declared "mission accomplished". She also concludes that "threats" drive tightness, where threats can be anything from climate to terrorism, globalization and immigrants, and therefore also offers an explanation for the rise of autocratic leaders like Trump (another welcome conclusion in US media).

She uses a range of experiments and statistics that looks impressive... until you doublecheck them carefully and realize that the scientific rigor is quite low. Too many of the conclusions come from self-declaration surveys. None of the experiments are corroborated by statistical analysis and, quite simply, replication of results in other settings. Experiments also seem cherry-picked to prove the conclusions. It would be quite easy to come up with experiments that disprove it. The results of this questionable methodology don't even fully match the hypotheses and often have to be stretched and warped to reach sweeping generalizations that would otherwise not be justified by the data. She also relies on some psychological studies that have been criticized in the literature (e.g. the marshmallow test). Nonetheless she comes up with bold statements (that certainly make good stuff for newspaper headlines). The very starting point for her theory, the tightness-looseness classification system of cultures, was a paper published in "Science" by her team in 2011, the result of an investigation of the behaviors of thousands of people in dozen of countries. That study produced a metric for the tightness of each country based on a short (six questions) questionaire about the importance of social norms filled and graded in 2010 by psychology students in those countries. Once you look at the methodology behind the experiments you are a lot less impressed.

Her logic is certainly not mathematical logic: her reasoning is full of "tends to" and "mostly" and "generally" clauses that, to mathematicians like me, mean that the conclusion has a less than 50% certainty of being correct.

The distinction between tight and loose cultures is obviously not new. Anthropologists have been discussing it for decades. She herself mentions Ruth Benedict (who used the terms "Apollonian" and "Dionysian") and Pertti Pelto (possibly the ones who introduced the terms "tight" and "loose").

The book starts with the premise that our behavior largely depends on whether we live in a tight or loose society. Get used to the "largely". Almost all of her statements use adverbs that cannot be quantified. She then jumps to social norms, equating (largely?) our behavior with obedience to social norms that exist to keep the group together. Typical of the studies she mentions is one "suggesting that rituals can increase community cohesion". Note the "suggesting" (only suggesting) and the "can" (only "can"). If you focus on it, the statement is meaningless: it may or may not be that rituals "increase community cohesion". Another study shows that merely following the exact same routine "is sufficient to increases cooperation" (note that "cohesion" has become "cooperation", and we don't have any definition of either term). She mentions Joseph Heinrich's book "The Secret of our Success", according to which our survival has depended on following social norms. Groups that cooperate are more likely to survive all sorts of threats. She herself, however, finds a problem with this theory when one page later she observes (correctly) that norms (culture in general) are the source of endless and bloody conflicts all over the world: while social norms help us cope with the external world, they also create divisions within the human world.

She mentions indicators such as crime (generally low in tight countries like Japan and Germany) and cleanniness (generally high in tight countries) and xenophobia (generally higher in tight countries), but doesn't even try to make it stick. Palo Alto, the birthplace of countless startups, is a very clean city and i doubt you'd call it "tight". She then says that people in "loose" countries are more open to different ideas, more likely to "think outside the box" (so it's a mystery how such a "tight" country like Germany gave us Quantum Mechanics and Relativity). When she examines the states of the USA, she argues that "loose states are hotbed of innovation" (for example, California, New York and Massachusetts).

One question is, of course, why some countries ended up being tight and others ended up being loose. She argues that tighter cultures have evolved in response to "threats" that can be either environmental, political or demographic (so it's a mystery how Italy, invaded over the centuries by all sorts of armies, prone to earthquakes and floods, and densely populated, has become such a "loose" country). She doesn't explain which natural threats the Germans had that made Germany such a tight country. She herself finds a notable exception to her rule: Israel. And then tries to explain the exception with the fact that Israel is a very diverse country. Really? It's 75% Jewish. It's easy to find other exceptions. It's so easy to find exception to this rule that it is obviously not a rule at all.

Perhaps the most controversial of her arguments is that lower classes tend to be tighter than upper classes, and upper classes tend to embrace innovation. I can't think of anything "looser" than the slums of Southeast and South Asia. The level of creativity and "thinking outside the box" is also very high in the slums: it's a matter of survival. The idea that the upper classes are more likely to challenge conformity harkens back to Melvin Kohn's book "Class and Conformity" (1969). I think that upper classes embrace innovation because they have the money to pay for it.

Besides countries, there are also tight and loose organizations/corporations. Gelfand suggests an ideal "ambidextrous" mix: “structured looseness and flexible tightness”. This is an old idea that she credits to a 2004 essay by Charles O'Reilly and Michael Tushman but it's been around for a century.

Things get more interesting when she briefly mentions a genetic study: people in tight cultures are more likely to carry the "S allele of the 5-HTTLPR length polymorphism" that "has been associated with vigilance, attention to negative informatin and avoidance of harm". She mentions only one paper to defend that thesis: her own "The role of culture–gene coevolution in morality judgment" (2013). Nobody else researched this after 2013? She doesn't mention studies that associate the same allele to anxiety and depression.

The problem is that the definition is "tight" and "loose" is so vague that what you think is "tight" might be "loose" to me. The premise that the USA is a "loose" culture will shock those like me who are immigrants and have always felt that the USA is a country of rules and regulations. Think of restaurants: when you enter a US restaurant you know exactly what will happen. First of all, do not sit at a table! There's a host in charge of sitting you, that host will hand you the menu, another person will bring you water, and the waiter is yet another person. There is hardly anything you can do that doesn't have a rule. The moment you deviate from that rule someone will ask you "Can i help you?" which really means that you are not following the rule. To immigrants like me the USA has always felt like a society of robots who applied rules with no flexibility. It's pointless to argue: they will only repeat what the rule is. But to Gelfand, born and raised in the USA (and probably with little experience of traveling around the world), the USA is a "loose" society. (If "rules" are not the same as "social norms", then the title of her book is misleading).

And all Indian readers have probably laughed at the classification of Indian society as "tight". Has she ever been to India? Quotes from the book: "tight nations tend to be more organised and cleaner... tight cultures tend to have less noise pollution... transportation tends to be more coordinated in tight cultures..."

The truth is that, given how vague the definition of "tight" and "loose" is, you can classify any society as tight and as loose at the same time. It all depends on which features you analyze, and perhaps in which year.

She herself gets lost in the nested dolls of tight and loose: there are loose organizations in tight neighborhoods of loose cities in tight provinces of loose countries...

She spends quite a bit of time showing the dangers of excessive tightness and excessive looseness, quoting Emile Durkheim's "Suicide", the children's story "Goldilocks and the Three Bears", and her own study that extremes cause depression, suicide, heart attacks and so on. I am still puzzled that she doesn't classify my home country of Italy as an extremely loose country. Maybe my fellow Italians changed. Or maybe it would fatally weaken Gelfand's thesis.

The final recommendation of "everything in moderation" is old-folk wisdom: we didn't need a 300-page book with hundreds of citations to discover this. "By tightening when we’re becoming too loose and loosening when we’re becoming too tight, we can built a better planet". If it only were so simple: what kind of "tightening" and what kind of "loosening" exactly?