Rule Makers, Rule Breakers | Michele Gelfand

Summary of: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: Tight and Loose Cultures and the Secret Signals That Direct Our Lives
By: Michele Gelfand


Ever wondered why some cultures strictly abide by rules, while others promote a more relaxed approach to life? Michele Gelfand’s book ‘Rule Makers, Rule Breakers’ sheds light on the phenomenon of tight and loose cultures, which is determined by the varying social norms and the degree to which people conform to them. The book dives into how cultures evolve to become tight or loose- usually as a response to threats, and explores the pros and cons of each. Additionally, it offers insights into how understanding these differences can help in navigating complex socio-demographic patterns, facilitate international mergers, and cultivate successful professional relationships.

The Power of Social Norms

Social norms serve as the foundation that binds societies together. They dictate how people behave and why they do what they do. By understanding a culture’s social norms, we can begin to comprehend and explain complicated behavioral patterns. For instance, women in New Zealand have more sexual partners than women in other countries. And the Japanese train system runs like clockwork, while New York City’s train lines often experience delays. These differences are due to tight and loose social norms. Tight cultures follow strict rules, and there is little tolerance for breaking them. Loose cultures, on the other hand, are characterized by weak social norms and more tolerance for individual preferences. Understanding the impact of social norms is vital in comprehending the differences between cultures and how it influences behavior.

Tight vs Loose Cultures

Tight cultures emerge from deep societal threats and implement strong social norms to help citizens coordinate and survive, while loose cultures have fewer threats and tolerate more deviant behavior.

Have you ever wondered why some cultures are more rule-bound than others? Contrary to popular belief, a country’s wealth does not necessarily dictate its tightness or looseness. For instance, both Singapore and Germany are wealthy nations, yet they have different levels of social rule-making. Tight cultures, characterized by strict social norms and intolerance for deviance, tend to evolve in nations with chronic human-made or natural threats such as disease, conflict, or high population density. In contrast, loose cultures with more permissive attitudes to behavior typically have fewer societal threats and a more relaxed approach to social norms.

The impact of societal threats on culture is far-reaching. For example, Singapore’s severe population density has led to strict social norms, such as the famous gum ban of 1992, which is still widely upheld by Singaporeans. In comparison, Brazil’s less rule-bound culture is reflected in city centers’ tendency always to run late. Such differences in social rule-making and adherence reflect the fundamental need to coordinate and survive during challenging times. Thus, tight cultures have strong social norms to help establish order, while loose cultures tolerate more deviant behavior and less rule-making.

The Tight-Loose Trade Off

Increased threat can lead to tighter cultures and social norms, but there are exceptions such as Israel, which has a relatively loose culture due to its diversity. Loose cultures tend to have higher crime rates, obesity, and debt, while tight cultures handle threats better. However, loose cultures also have an edge in being open to change and new ideas, making them adept in innovation. Tight cultures tend to play it safe but have a lot of order. In the end, there is a tight-loose trade-off, with pros and cons to both sides.

Understanding the Psychology of Tightness and Looseness in US Culture

The theories of looseness and tightness help explain the cultural differences that make up the 50 states of the USA. Tight cultures, which emphasize control and order, can be attributed to natural and man-made threats. Loose cultures, on the other hand, emphasize tolerance and multiculturalism. The book presents how this theory can help us unravel complex socio-demographic patterns and why it is important to understand these differences in the current political climate.

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