Culture & Society

Why the Pandemic Slammed “Loose” Countries Like the U.S.

When crises hit, cultures with less strict social norms may not respond quickly enough.

November 17, 2021

| by Dave Gilson
A photo illustration of an inflatable yellow “tube man” wearing the statue of liberty crown and holding her torch.

Credit: Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez

“I’m a cross-cultural psychologist,” Michele Gelfand says. “I study the evolution of culture and its multilevel consequences around the world. It’s a totally unbelievable job.”

Gelfand, who recently joined the Stanford Graduate School of Business faculty as a professor of organizational behavior, has spent her career making sense of the often unseen and unwritten forces that shape our behavior. “Culture is omnipresent: It’s all around us, but it’s invisible. We take it for granted,” she says. “Often, when we get outside of our cultural bubble, we realize we’ve been socialized profoundly to have a certain set of norms and values.”

How those norms vary and evolve is one of the primary focuses of Gelfand’s research. Most notably, she has found that cultures’ adherence to social norms falls along a spectrum from tight to loose. “Tight cultures, generally speaking, have more order,” she says. “They have less crime, more monitoring. There’s more self-regulation.” Think Japan, Singapore, Austria. Loose cultures, on the other hand, “have more openness and more tolerance. They have more creativity and they also, generally speaking, are more open to change.” Examples include Brazil, Greece, and the United States.

Gelfand introduced these ideas in a study of 33 nations in Science in 2011 and has since expanded upon them in numerous studies and her 2018 book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. With her collaborators, she has found that the tight-loose model doesn’t just apply to countries, but to American states, organizations, households, and to some extent individuals. (You can take a quiz on her site to see how tight or loose your mindset is.)

Both tightness and looseness come with advantages and trade-offs, Gelfand says. Take the U.S., which has grown progressively looser over the past 200 years. Creativity has increased, while social order has decreased. “People are always asking, ‘Which is better? Tight or loose?’” The answer is neither. However, she adds, “the extremes of both are really problematic.”

Loose Countries in a Tight Spot

The pandemic has exposed some of the pitfalls of cultural looseness. In March 2020, as the coronavirus spread, Gelfand wrote an op-ed in which she cautioned that Americans’ “decentralized, defiant, do-it-your-own-way norms” could prove dangerous in the months ahead. That warning was borne out in a study of 57 nations published in The Lancet Planetary Health a year later, in which Gelfand and her coauthors found that the U.S. and other loose countries had had much higher numbers of COVID cases and deaths.

She elaborates on this finding in her most recent paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science. Borrowing a concept from evolutionary biology, Gelfand describes loose countries’ inability to tighten up in response to COVID as a “cultural evolutionary mismatch.” Just as our bodies’ propensity to soak up fats and sugars has gone from being a survival advantage to a health risk, loose cultures’ optimism also resulted in misjudging a major public health threat. Compared to tight cultures, she found that loose cultures had far less fear of COVID even though their illness and mortality numbers were much worse. In the past two years, she writes, “Loose societies generally had a conflicted reaction to tightening norms, with tragic consequences.”

It’s a great thing to be an optimistic culture. That’s not a great trait in a context of a collective threat.
Michele Gelfand

Understanding why loose countries like the U.S. have fared poorly during the pandemic is linked to why they’re less strict in the first place. Cultural tightness, Gelfand explains, generally evolved as a response to persistent historic threats ranging from natural disasters to invasion. “It’s a pretty simple idea,” she says. “When you have a lot of chronic threat, you need stricter rules to coordinate to help you survive, because it’s not something you individually can handle by yourself. So norms provide that coordination.” Accordingly, tight countries have, in general, pulled together more quickly and efficiently to confront COVID.

The United States’ response to the pandemic shows how the advantages of looseness can become liabilities in a crisis. “From an evolutionary perspective, when you haven’t had chronic threat, we have this afforded optimism. It’s a great thing to be an optimistic culture.” But, she notes, “That’s not a great trait in a context of a collective threat.”

Balancing Freedom and Structure

That’s not to say that loose cultures can’t buckle down when things get tough. Gelfand points to New Zealand’s “ambidextrous” response to COVID. “The Kiwis are famously loose,” she says. Yet their political leadership sent a clear message that some temporary tightening would be necessary. (It also helped that they live in an island nation.)

The U.S. has proved that it can tighten up quickly, particularly in response to threats like terrorism and military attack. And, paradoxically, culturally looser states like California have implemented some of the strictest responses to COVID, while relatively tighter states, particularly in the South, have been more lax. “It’s possible for tight cultures to follow the wrong norm,” Gelfand says. Here too, leadership has played a large role in shaping people’s perceptions of risk. “When your leaders tell you this is no big deal, that’s even more comforting in a context where it’s pretty abstract and we don’t want to have to give up our liberty for constraint.”

The ability to pivot away from looseness or tightness is important not just for societies but for organizations seeking both innovation and order. Gelfand mentions her recent work with a grant from the Navy. “They need to be tight, but how do you insert a little bit of discretion into that system? We call this flexible tightness.” Companies that veer loose, like Silicon Valley startups, have the opposite challenge. “How do you insert some structure, some accountability, into those systems? We call that structured looseness.” Balancing freedom and structure is a key part of Gelfand’s research program at Stanford GSB.

Gelfand also brings these ideas to her teaching on negotiation, where she emphasizes cultural intelligence — not simply respecting other cultures but understanding how they really work beneath the surface. “Social norms are probably one of our most important human inventions,” she says. “We can harness their power to pivot when we need to.”

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