When COVID-19 started cutting a deadly swath around the world, some countries — such as Taiwan and Singapore — contained the virus with strictness and vigor. They mandated lockdowns, testing, quarantines, and universal mask-wearing. Others, including the United States, adopted a scattershot approach that relied more on suggestion than enforcement. “How countries handled COVID was very much a story about culture,” says Michele Gelfand, a professor of cross-cultural management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Gelfand’s ground-breaking research has taken her across the globe to study terrorism, the art of cross-cultural negotiation, and a range of other issues. But she is probably best known for her work in elaborating the idea of tight and loose cultures, a concept that combines theoretical power with practical applications.
Drawing on years of studies, her 2018 book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, distinguished between countries — as well as states, social classes, and organizations — with strict social norms and those with more lenient ones. Tighter cultures, she found, develop in response to chronic threats such as natural disasters or wars and tend to be highly disciplined. Looser cultures tend to experience less chronic threat and have different virtues, including more openness, greater creativity, and tolerance. Those virtues, it turns out, aren’t as well suited to dealing with a global pandemic as following rules.
In a study in The Lancet Planetary Health, Gelfand and her co-authors charted the impacts of COVID-19 in 57 countries through mid-October 2020. They found that cases and fatalities were both significantly higher in loose countries, including the United States. “We had a lot of problems sacrificing freedom for constraint and had thousands more cases and deaths” than tight countries such as Japan and Singapore, Gelfand says. The pattern persisted until at least early 2021 when vaccines started to become available.
Gelfand’s wide-ranging research draws on cross-cultural collaborations and multiple disciplines. At Stanford, she is building campus-wide partnerships involving the GSB, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, psychology, political science, and computer science. With her recent election to the Council on Foreign Relations, she will bring a cross-cultural psychology perspective to foreign policy. “It’s important for us to get outside of our academic silos to help solve real-world problems,” she says.
Gelfand describes her interests as falling into three main buckets: cross-cultural theory and methods; conflict and negotiation, including terrorism and the importance of honor, revenge, and forgiveness; and stigma and diversity. “I’m quasi-religious about teaching negotiation,” Gelfand says. “It’s such an important skill to have.”
Paul Hanges, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, where Gelfand taught from 1996 to 2021, describes her as “a force of nature” and praises her “ability to identify critical topics years before other academics.” He adds: “People are drawn to her. Maybe this is due to her positive attitude and energy level. But her charisma is also a function of her intellectual power and her academic discipline. She is inspirational to her fellow colleagues and her students.” In farewell tributes, Maryland colleagues, students, and collaborators around the globe stressed her warmth, collegiality, and penchant for bringing food, from bagels and lox to hard-boiled eggs, to the office.
Another collaborator, Jeanne M. Brett, an emerita professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School, says of Gelfand: “People want to work with her because they learn from her. But it is also because she opens doors that you wouldn’t open yourself. She always does her share of the work, and that hasn’t changed with her increasing stature and commitments.”
A past president of the International Association for Conflict Management, Gelfand co-founded and co-edits an annual series, Handbook of Advances in Culture and Psychology. The Oxford Handbook of Cross-Cultural Management, which she co-edited, and Isis in Iraq: The Social and Psychological Foundations of Terror, co-written with four other scholars, are slated for publication this summer.
Gelfand’s honors are too numerous to list. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2021 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2019. In 2017, she received the Outstanding International Psychologist Award from the American Psychological Association. She recently helped to co-found the Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution.
Bitten by the Curiosity Bug
The grandchild of Polish Jewish immigrants, with an engineer father, a homemaker mother and two brothers, Gelfand grew up “a sheltered kid” on Long Island. Her defining characteristic was an insatiable love of learning. “I’m insanely curious,” she says, “and I feel like it’s a total gift to have that kind of curiosity bug.”
At Colgate University, she was initially pre-med. “I love medicine,” she says, “but I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor.” After stumbling into a cross-cultural psychology class, she was hooked. “I found the study of culture to be super-interesting,” she says. “I couldn’t believe there is this field where you can actually start looking at cultural variation using the best tools of science.” In that course, she discovered that “even basic visual illusions might not be universal and, if that’s not universal, wow, what about social behavior, organizational behavior, and more?”
Gelfand set her sights on working at the U.S. State Department. A cross-cultural trainer, Richard Brislin, then director of the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, suggested that she study with Harry Triandis, a founder of the field of cross-cultural psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “Harry was incredibly brilliant and had a big heart,” Gelfand recalls. “He always told me to be passionate about what I do, don’t be afraid to be controversial, and, most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously.” Triandis encouraged Gelfand to pursue an academic career. After earning her doctorate in social/organizational psychology, she accepted a job as a visiting assistant professor of psychology at New York University in 1995-96, before moving to Maryland.
Gelfand says she was broadly interested in testing whether theories of human behavior were universal or culturally specific, as well as helping people build “cultural intelligence.” One early project examined a finding in Western psychology that giving people a voice in decisions was integral to their sense of fairness. Gelfand compared two otherwise similar cultures that differed in their degree of hierarchy, Costa Rica and Turkey. In more hierarchical Turkey, Gelfand found, “this theory doesn’t really travel well.”
“So I started looking at other classic findings in the field of social and organizational psychology,” she says. That led, in turn, to the question of whether negotiation models were influenced by Western values and assumptions. Spoiler alert: They were. One of her first projects involved documenting that people in Japan and the U.S. perceived identical conflicts through different lenses, each of which made good “cultural sense.” Later, Gelfand set up shop in the Middle East to understand culture at the negotiation table. She found that where institutions tended to be weak and resources are scarce, it was as important to negotiate your reputation as the tangibles of the deal. “Your honor and your trustworthiness are extraordinarily important” in many Middle Eastern countries, Gelfand explains. “The first thing you need to do is demonstrate your honor.”
Her 2014 study on the motivation of extremists — a precursor to her forthcoming Iraq book — revealed that people drawn to extremist ideologies were often seeking a sense of “significance” — a response to perceived humiliation or disrespect. For the study, Gelfand interviewed people who had been radicalized, including some accused terrorists who were imprisoned at the time outside of Manila.
Another one of her ongoing concerns has been the “numerous dimensions” on which cultures vary, including individualism versus collectivism. She and Triandis found that not all individualistic (or collectivistic) cultures were alike — that, for example, in the United States, individualism was competitive, while in Scandinavia, Australia, and New Zealand, it was more egalitarian. At Illinois, she also became interested in the tightness-looseness paradigm, first proposed by the anthropologist Pertti Pelto in the 1960s.
The Importance of “Ambidextrous” Cultures
One of Gelfand’s major contributions has involved mapping the role of threat in shaping social norms. “I had this hunch that cultures that have a lot of threat need stricter rules to coordinate to survive,” she says. “A window into that is language,” so she and colleagues created an algorithmic “Threat Dictionary,” showing how threat shifts norms, political attitudes, and stock market activity.
Loose cultures can tighten, and tight ones can become looser and more flexible, Gelfand says. Cultural ambidexterity — being able to make those adjustments — is key. In general, she says, cultures do best when they avoid extremes, embracing the Goldilocks Principle: finding a happy mean between looseness and tightness.
“Even in my own household,” says Gelfand, who is married to lawyer Todd Betke and has two daughters, Jeanette and Hannah, a bird, and a Portuguese water dog, “we negotiate what’s tight, and what’s loose, just to have a healthy balance.” For example: “We are tight in terms of working hard in school and having respectful communication but are loose in terms of messiness and curfews.”
“Culture isn’t destiny. We can harness the power of social norms to fit the requirements of our shifting environments,” Gelfand says. “Clearly not all tight cultures got it right, and not all loose cultures got it wrong,” Gelfand says. “The best places were ambidextrous: They loosen when it’s safe, and they tighten when there’s threat. New Zealand was a good example of that.” The country’s egalitarianism also contributed to public health compliance, she says, because “everyone made each other follow the norms.”
To examine whether or how interventions might alter tight/loose attitudes, Gelfand and her co-authors conducted a “nudge tournament” that encouraged participants to wear masks and published the results in the July 2022 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The study’s conclusion: “Our internal cultural divisions made it very difficult to unite to fight an external threat — the pandemic.”
Gelfand’s work on tightness and looseness has applications in government, business, and elsewhere. Gelfand says that she has worked with the U.S. Navy, a traditionally tight organization, to insert some looseness — to create what she calls “flexible tightness.” “They have a lot of threat,” she says. “But without any kind of flexibility, they can lose out on innovation.” By contrast, she says, social media platforms “can get too loose and quasi-chaotic and unpredictable and need to insert some accountability.” They need to aim for what she calls “structured looseness where they have more accountability.” The trick, she says, is to find the right balance between “accountability and empowerment.” Another potential problem occurs when companies with wide cultural differences on the tight-loose spectrum merge. She detailed one such instance in a Harvard Business Review piece. The question, Gelfand says, is, “How can we be intentional about social norms?”
To Gelfand, “the serendipity of science is really what I think is the most interesting thing.” Triandis, her mentor, used to tell her that “the most important finding is the unexpected finding.”
Her childhood curiosity remains intact. “I’m interested in all things cultural,” she says. “If someone said, ‘I want to do research on underwater basket-weaving around the world,’ I might get interested in that.”
Photos by Elena Zhukova