Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele Gelfand
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The central theme of this book is that there is a continuum of loose norm and tight norm cultures. The looser the culture, the less strict the norms for behavior are. There are many more permissible ways to act in that culture, with fewer punishments for non-compliance. The tighter the culture, the stricter the norms: fewer things that are permissible or acceptable. There are more punishments for not adhering to the expectations and norms of tight cultures. The author looks at how this continuum plays out cross-culturally and also within organizations and other norm-governed groups.
Dr. Gelfand sees this distinction, this continuum as explaining many social conflicts. Everything from conflicts between nation-states, between different groups within cultures, between spouses and families, between parenting styles, and between corporate cultures in mergers. She tracks the correlations between loosen and tightness and many other measures: including happiness, well-being, economic success, governing stabilities, etc. She finds that cultures that are more balanced between tightness and looseness (the goldilocks principle) tend to do better on all these measures. Veer too tightly or too loosely and things tend to trend worse for that culture.
Gelfand argues that the cause of norms tightening up is from a perception of danger. Cultures that tend to be tighter experience more threats: internally or externally. These might be from other people (e.g. threats of invasions) or natural (e.g. regular earthquakes or severe weather events). She sees this at work in industry as well: industries with tighter norms, more compliance and regulations, are ones where there is greater potential for danger and harm. A looseness about mistakes and compliance at a nuclear power plant is dangerous. And those industries that are seen as loose (think Silicon Valley) are ones where mistakes aren’t going to lead to death and widespread harm. Gelfand argues that in the presence of a threat, cultures of all kinds tighten up and when that threat fades, there is a loosening. (This helps to make sense of the way many otherwise liberal (loose) societies, like New Zealand or California, imposed very tight restrictions during Covid).
There is a lot to be learned by using the tight/loose framework to make sense of many things. However, I think Gelfand over does it; it is too all encompassing: she sees tightness and looseness under ever rock and around every corner. It is presented as explaining everything about cultures. I don’t think she actually thinks that, but as you go through the book, that is definitely the impression one can walk away from. There is not enough discussion of alternative theories that might explain things better but also the places where the thesis doesn’t seem to work that well. There are several “exceptions” to her thesis connecting threats to tightness: Israel, the Netherlands, California, etc. These are cultures that tend to be much looser than the thesis would suggest, given the threats they regularly face. Gelfand does discuss these and how they are exceptions, her main response is that these are also diverse cultures and that mitigates against the tightening one would normally expect. That is interesting, but ultimately, I found it a bit too quick.
I think Gelfand’s thesis is interesting and worth thinking about. I think it can be very useful for understanding how norms in cultures are working. But I also think it is just part of the story. I’ve no doubt that Gelfand understands that and agrees, but the book tends a bit too much towards presenting the thesis as THE explanation and that undermined its persuasiveness.
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