Tight cultures tend to have strong cultural norms and a pronounced lack of tolerance for deviant behavior. Conversely, loose cultures have weak cultural norms and more tolerance for deviant behavior. Whether tight or loose, cultures come with advantages and trade-offs. For instance, the United States has grown progressively looser over the last two centuries. As a result, creativity has increased, while at the same time social order has decreased.
The pandemic exposed the drawbacks of cultural looseness. In March 2020, as the coronavirus spread, Gelfand observed that Americans’ “decentralized, defiant, do-it-your-own-way norms” could prove dangerous in the months ahead. That warning came to fruition as a study of 57 nations published in “The Lancet Planetary Health” revealed. Gelfand and her coauthors found that the U.S. and other loose countries had had much higher numbers of COVID cases and deaths.
The United States’ response to the pandemic shows how the advantages of looseness can become liabilities in a crisis. The ability to pivot away from looseness or tightness is important not just for societies but for organizations seeking both innovation and order. This program will not set out to prove one culture is better than the other, but rather, explain how they differ, provide concrete examples, and how their differences manifest in public policy and political reaction, especially to crises.
Kathy and Neal Kimmel generously underwrite our Hot Topics Series.