YANSS 173 – How our differing relationship with norms predicts cultural evolution, innovation, and conflict

In this episode, we sit down with psychologist Michele Gelfand and discuss her new book: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.

In the book, Gelfand presents her research into norms, along with a fascinating new idea. It isn’t norms themselves that predict how cultures will react, evolve, innovate, and clash, but how different cultures value norms and sanction people who violate them. Through that lens, she categorizes all human cultures into two — kinds, tight and loose.

Tight cultures heavily sanction norm violators. Loose cultures value leniency. Zoomed in, each kind of culture features areas of tightness and looseness, depending on the specific issue or subculture, but as a whole, cultures lean one way or the other. She argues that all human behavior depends on whether a person lives in either a tight culture or a loose one.

In the book, Gelfand explains that evolution shaped our brains so that we biologically inclined to conform to normative influence. Studies show that infants prefer hand puppets that engage in our most fundamental socially normative behavior, like helping others to open a box full of toys instead of preventing others from opening it, or worse still, opening the box and stealing the toys before others can get to them. And by age three, children will openly and vocally sanction other children who do things that are considered taboo in their cultures by saying, “No, you aren’t supposed to do that!”

Why? Gelfand explains that being predisposed to create and live by norms serves a vital function. They allow human cultures to behave automatically and intuitively in familiar environments. In the interview, Gelfand asks us to imagine a restaurant where people grab food off each other’s plates. Then imagine in another restaurant eating before everyone is served could result in a prison sentence. Now imagine a different set of rules for each restaurant you visit. Common restaurant norms, like all norms, allow humans to coordinate efficiently by using a common set of behavioral expectations. With them, human cultures can develop solutions to solve communal problems, to reach common goals, and deal with group threats. They unite us and allow us to quickly and nearly effortlessly get on with the business of living together in groups.

In the book, Gelfand explains how tightness or looseness develops. You’ll hear about it in the interview, but the short version is that cultures tighten up when they face threats. Those threats can be ecological, like food shortages or natural disasters, or they can be historical, like the threat of invasion, the aftermath of wars, or the wreckage of an economic collapse. When resources are tight or in danger of being lost, cultures become rule makers. When resources are plentiful and threats are few, they become rule breakers.

There are drawbacks and benefits to both, and the dynamic within and between tight and loose cultures explain a great deal of the mysteries of human social conflict and evolution. And you’ll hear all about that in the interview.

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Michele Gelfand is a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. She directs the Culture Lab, which studies the strength of cultural norms, negotiation, conflict, revenge, forgiveness, and diversity. The lab focuses on an interdisciplinary approach to research, relying on computer scientists, neuroscientists, political scientists, and–increasingly–biologists to understand all things cultural.

Links and Sources

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Previous Episodes

Previous Episodes

Michele Gelfand’s Official Site

The Culture Lab