Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Rule Makers, Rule Breakers

Social norms are so normal we don't notice them very often.  But they control us, or at least influence us or some might say they are there to be challenged or ignored.  Social scientists are dissecting the world and it seems continually identifying new ways to divide us into useful bits that others can use to better understand (and manipulate) our behavior.  Michelle Gelfand has identified a continuum that is both a result and cause of many other factors namely, looseness and tightness and has a few ideas how to balance them.  She also includes that social norms are what binds groups together.

When the author talks of tightness she is referring to social norms that are restrictive, regimented and conformative.  When she refers to looseness it is the disregard for strict rules and more relaxed.  The tightness-looseness scale is a continuum with extremes at both ends and what passes for normal in between.  

Surveyed 33 countries to determine how they fit on a continuum between tightness and looseness.  The tightest nations include Pakistan, Singapore, Norway, India and Malaysia.  At the other end the loosest nations include Ukraine, Israel, New Zealand, Brazil, Netherlands and the United States.  Corporations and individuals have many variables.

Why are some nations tighter than others?  Generally an outside threat unites the population and they accept restrictions for the common good.  Outside threats include invaders, drought, turbulent weather, pandemics, scarcities, etc.  Orderliness is highly valued.  With the lessening of outside threats people have less need for order and restrictions.  The author relates her scale to companies and individuals allowing that each group has variations.  As individuals we are tight about different things, but most of us feel a need for looseness with other activities.

The benefits of tightness are a regimented power to get something done.  The benefit of looseness is innovation (I would add more fun, at least in the short view).  The truth is taken to an extreme either factor can hurt society extremely.  Finding the balance, as the author puts it, the Goldilocks principle is an ongoing battle.  You might remember Goldilocks found one porridge bowl too hot, another too cold and another just right. 

She points out that early American settlers from Scotland and Ireland were very concerned about honor, but generous until they felt insulted.  That attitude helped set the tone for United States and also Canada.  Diversity opened up looseness, until some felt conflict.  Gelfand suggests there might be some genetic flows as people tend to associate (and mate) with similar people.

An experiment highlighted in this book that demonstrated that people tended to conform to the majority, reminded me of an embarrassment that haunts me.  At university I majored in sociology and we were encouraged to do experiments to understand better.   Simply a vertical line was shown on the left side and the participant was to determine which of three lines matched it.  Simple enough, except that all but one of the participants had been instructed to give false declarations to see if the test subject would bend to the majority judgment.  In many cases they did.  My group decided to see if women were more compliant then men which in general they were (this was before 1970).  Why I feel guilty is that I recruited the sister of a good friend.  She was intelligent and well educated, but had been raised in a Central American culture that was even more male dominated than our own.  She caved almost right away despite the others being blatantly wrong.  She was a decent person who was willing to do me a favor and I am sure she felt humiliated.

Quote from the author "From the time we wake up to the moment we go to bed, we experience the ebb and flow of tight and loose mind-sets... Each of us has a default setting."  Another quote, this time from Dov Frohman of Intel Israel, "If you aren't aware that the people in the organization disagree with you, then you are in trouble."  Dissent indicates a looseness that can benefit the corporation.

The tightness-looseness continuum relates closely to other traits in what she labels a curvilinear relationship such as diversity, mental health, happiness, even life expectancy.  As we are all tied to global concerns it will be necessary for loose and tight societies to co-operate.  The author offers examples of how this has worked and might work in the future.

The book was published in 2018, but I learned of it through a recent television interview between Fareed Zakaria and Michelle Gelfand that focused on how different cultures were reacting to the Covid 19 pandemic.  Tight cultures established control much quicker, but were not as able to adapt to changing variants while the loose cultures were more adaptive.  It was concluded that a mixture would be better.

From the Acknowledgements we learn a conversation with her father helped expand her interests.  Studied to be a doctor, but became interested in cultural matters.  Has pulled together a variety of academic disciplines.  In the end she marvels that with her husband and two daughters she personally has achieved the Goldilocks Principle.

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