Today, COVID-19 impacts every country in the world in multiple ways — from lockdowns to contact tracing to the massive economic fallout. But the ways in which life has changed over the past six months has varied from country to country, both in terms of governmental policies and in the ways that citizens have responded to those policies.
Michele Gelfand, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and author of “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World,” says we can look to each country’s culture to predict how its citizens will respond to the restrictions necessary to get the virus under control.
“Your government needs to be super-efficient to be able to coordinate between the private and public sector. ... But you also need people who are behaving themselves, who are following rules, who are ‘tight.’"
“Your government needs to be super-efficient to be able to coordinate between the private and public sector,” Gelfand says. “But you also need people who are behaving themselves, who are following rules, who are ‘tight.’ And we found that those two factors were really important to predicting countries that were able to flatten the curve and have lower death rates.”
Gelfand uses “tight” and “loose” to categorize various societies around the globe, based on the strength of their social norms.
“What you can look for is how much order versus how much openness there is in a country,” she explains.
In her research, Gelfand’s methods range from simple survey measures to tracking crime rates, personal debt, social tolerance, and even the uniformity of city clocks.
Tighter countries include South Korea, Germany, and Singapore; examples of looser countries are Spain, Brazil, and the United States.
These cultural differences can be viewed on a spectrum.
Every society has social norms that are enforced and followed, and there is behavioral variation within a culture in different kinds of spaces; for example, you might behave differently in a park, as opposed to a library. According to Gelfand, it’s just that the range of behaviors allowed in those spaces will be wider or narrower based on the overall culture.
“In the US, you’ll see people — at least in some of the classrooms I’ve taught in — wearing pajamas, or they might be on their phones, or they might be eating a sandwich. And in Beijing, I find that there’s a much more restricted range of behavior permitted in the classroom.”
Gelfand teaches both in Maryland and in Beijing, and has witnessed the contrast firsthand. “While [the classroom] is tight in many countries, it’s actually much looser in the US,” she says. “In the US, you’ll see people — at least in some of the classrooms I’ve taught in — wearing pajamas, or they might be on their phones, or they might be eating a sandwich. And in Beijing, I find that there’s a much more restricted range of behavior permitted in the classroom.”
Meanwhile, in more individualistic societies like the United States, the range of acceptable behaviors is much wider. While this lack of pressure can lead to greater tolerance and creativity, it can also have detrimental effects when facing serious threats like COVID-19.
Gelfand suggests that the relative tightness or looseness of a culture is related to its history of external, collective threats. When faced with war, natural disaster, or famine, an organized response from everyone is essential. Countries that have dealt with these kinds of crises frequently have developed a focus on the collective, which they have needed to in order to survive.
That is not the case for the majority of the United States, she says. While certain regions may lean tighter due to their specific circumstances, the country as a whole, isolated by two oceans and bordered by two allied countries, does not.
“In loose cultures, when you haven’t had a lot of collective threats, people have a lot more difficulty sacrificing autonomy and liberty for constraint. We’re just not used to that."
“In loose cultures, when you haven’t had a lot of collective threats, people have a lot more difficulty sacrificing autonomy and liberty for constraint. We’re just not used to that,” Gelfand says.
We see the reluctance playing out today when so many disregard warnings to wear masks in public and to social distance.
But that doesn’t mean that we should be resigned to an ineffective response to the pandemic — in fact, our individual choices and our government’s policies carry even more weight. Gelfand explains that New Zealand, which her research has shown to have a looser culture, has been able to successfully combat COVID-19.
“New Zealand is a really interesting exception because it’s a loose place. But actually they had very, very strong and consistent messages from the government, and people trusted the government. So they were able to really rally,” Gelfand explains.
The United States’ inadequate response to the crisis can’t be entirely chalked up to our culture. Gelfand cites the conflicting messages from the government and other sources as significant in undermining the opportunity for a unified response.
She emphasizes that in the US, it may be important to let people know that behavioral modifications won’t last forever, but they may be critical in the short term.
“We really need to come together and collectively agree upon the basic evolutionary fact [that] when there is collective threat, we need to tighten,” Gelfand says.
Teresa Lawlor is an intern at Innovation Hub. You can follow her on Twitter: @tmlawlor