Office Artifact: Michele Gelfand’s Pickle Costume

When you’re doing serious research, making time for fun is a pretty big dill.

October 10, 2023

Portrait of Michele Gelfand and a student dressed in her pickle costume. Credit: Elena Zhukova

Michele Gelfand holds a photo of a celebration with her students. Pickle costume modeled by research fellow Bastian Weitz. | Elena Zhukova

Research takes a long time. It’s not for the fainthearted. My philosophy as a professor is that you have to figure out ways to celebrate small things along the way. That’s particularly important for students and collaborators, people who are working with you on these projects that may take many, many years.

When I was at the University of Maryland, we submitted a paper to ­Science. It was a long shot. ­Science is the kind of journal where typically you publish something about how you found a new planet. I told my postdoctoral student, “Look, if this gets accepted, then I’m going to dress up as a giant pickle and we’re going to go around Washington, DC, in a limousine and celebrate.”

By chance, I had a giant pickle costume because my daughter really liked pickles and my ­husband had created a crazy “pickle Olympics” for her birthday party. I was the surprise guest and I walked through the door with this ridiculous pickle costume on.

I’m a cross-cultural ­psychologist. I’m interested in social norms — unwritten rules for behavior that sometimes get formalized into laws and other codes. We’re a normative species, but some groups have stricter norms: They’re more “tight.” Tight groups have a lot of order; they have more coordination and synchrony and self-discipline. “Loose” groups struggle with these things, but they corner the market on openness. They’re more tolerant, more creative, more adaptable.

Part of our culture group’s recent work is looking at ambidexterity: How do you help systems that are very tight have some looseness inserted into them? We call this “flexible tightness.”

Michele Gelfand in a pickle costume and a group of students pose in front of a white limousine. Credit: Courtesy Michele Gelfand

Michele Gelfand (center, in pickle costume) and GSB students relish the moment. | Courtesy Michele Gelfand

The pickle costume’s connection to all this is that I was trying to insert some looseness into a pretty tight agenda. It requires a tight ship when you’re trying to implement large-scale research projects, when you’re trying to get funding, when you’re exploring interdisciplinary collaborations. We do very ambitious projects, some of which fail. Providing a space for people to feel celebrated and relax a little bit is really important because I think it helps deal with the difficult demands of research.

When the paper got accepted by Science, I went into my postdoc’s office and I said, “I have really bad news. It looks like I’ve got to wear this ridiculous pickle costume and we’ve got to go around DC.” And that’s what we did.

I promised my students here at Stanford that we’ll continue the tradition. In June, we heard from the Templeton Foundation that we’ll be getting $1.7 million to study the evolution of trust across cultures. Ying Lin, my postdoc and partner on this proposal, dressed up as a pineapple. Pre-doc Basti Weitz dressed up as an avocado and grad student Alex Landry dressed as a lion. And of course, I broke out my pickle costume. — Told to Dave Gilson

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