Living in a loosely regulated society, the very term “social norms” can be vaguely threatening, as if these norms are a threat to freedom always lurking on the periphery. But cultural psychologist Michele J. Gelfand says norms are not the enemy – they are one of our most important inventions.
“Culture,” she says, “is this set of values, norms, and assumptions about the world that we’re socialized into from the time we’re babies. We follow social norms and we need social norms to navigate. It’s really an incredible human invention that helps us predict each other’s behavior and coordinate on large-scales on a regular basis.”
That said, Gelfand definitely understands that social norms can seem threatening – or reassuring – based on your perch. That’s the basis of her substantial body of scholarship, and it’s a concept neatly encapsulated in her 2016 book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.
In her work and her book, Gelfand explores the continuum between “tight cultures,” which strictly enforce and adhere to social norms (think Singapore), and “loose cultures,” which are much more permissive (such as the United States). But in all cultures norms, are, well, normal. We’re constantly following norms – Gelfand points out how people always face the door of an elevator as they ride up and down – and it’s only when we break them that we realize how important they are.
“Social norms are the glue,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “that keep people together.” How much glue do we need? Gelfand describes the “simple tradeoff” between tight and loose cultures: tight opts for more order and so reaps some of the hallmarks of that, like less crime and more uniformity and more self-control, while loose aims for openness, which can result in more creativity, tolerance for differences, and openness to change.
Gelfand also discusses factors that cause the evolution of these differences. One major contributor is the degree to which groups face ecological and human threats (think constant fury from Mother Nature or the threat of invasions). Groups that have a lot of threat need more rules to coordinate to survive—so they tighten, while groups that have less threat can afford to be more permissive. Other factors that promote the need for coordination also lead to tightness (like working in agriculture versus hunting and gathering).
Asked if her depiction is a little too neat, Gelfand tells Edmonds she “love[s] the exceptions ... no theory can be a one-to-one prediction.” Plus, her descriptions are “dynamic constructs – they are not static – they can change over time.” As an example, during times of external threat, looser cultures may tighten up (although it takes much longer, she notes, for tight cultures to get demonstrably looser when pressure wanes).
While Gelfand avoids saying one direction is better or worse than the other (and it is a spectrum, not a binary), the extremes of both – tight to repression, loose to chaos – are a concern. She notes that people experiencing either extreme, whether in a company or a country or a household, become dysfunctional. She calls this “the Goldilock’s principle of Tight-Loose”—and argues that groups that are getting too tight need to insert some discretion (what she calls “flexible tightness”) while groups that are getting too loose need to inserts some structure (what she calls “structured looseness”).
Gelfand is a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychology and affiliate of the RH Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, where she runs the interdisciplinary Culture Lab in the school’s the Social Decision and Organizational Sciences group. As she says on the lab’s ‘About’ page, “We work with computer scientists, neuroscientists, political scientists, and--increasingly--biologists to understand all things cultural.”
In addition to her best-selling book, Gelfand has seen outside validation, such as from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences which elected her to membership in 2019; from the American Psychological Association, which named her the 2017 Outstanding International Psychologist; and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, which gave her its Diener Award in 2016 and Outstanding Cultural Psychologist award in 2019; or the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which bestowed its Annaliese Research Award.