Other than air, what is invisible, omnipresent, affects every single human being and yet is taken for granted? The answer is the cultural norms. They are the unspoken rules of social behaviors and shared conventions that everyone is expected follow, but may be doing so without really connecting it to the WHY.
On this episode, our guest, distinguished university professor and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Michele Gelfand, Ph.D., discusses the concept of looser or tighter cultures and how our deep cultural programming shapes our views and informs our implicit understanding of what’s permissible in public versus private settings. In order to achieve goals we aspire, we need strong Executive Function and self-regulation skills that allow us to activate versus inhibit certain decisions and actions. However, without the true understanding of the social or cultural context or the understanding of social conventions, one might fail to comply because of having failed to code-switch.
About Dr. Michele Gelfand
Michele Gelfand is Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Gelfand uses field, experimental, computational and neuroscience methods to understand the evolution of culture and its multilevel consequences. Her work has been published in outlets such as Science, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Psychological Science, Nature Scientific Reports, Nature Human behavior, PLOS 1, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Journal of Applied Psychology, Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, Research in Organizational Behavior, Annual Review of Psychology, American Psychologist, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, among others.
Gelfand is the founding co-editor of the Advances in Culture and Psychology annual series and Frontiers of Culture and Psychology series (with CY Chiu and Ying-Yi Hong, Oxford University Press). She is the Past President of the International Association for Conflict Management, Past Division Chair of the Conflict Division of the Academy of Management, Past Treasurer of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, and co-founder of the Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution. She received the 2016 Diener award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the 2017 Outstanding International Psychologist Award from the APA, the 2019 Outstanding Cultural Psychology Award from SPSP, the 2109 Science-Practitioner award from SIOP, and the Annaliese Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation which was given to 7 scientists worldwide for outstanding contributions in their fields. Her work that was published in Science was honored with the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2019.
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Producer: All right, welcome back to Full PreFrontal where we are exposing the mysteries of executive function. As always, I am here with our host Sucheta Kamath. Good morning, Sucheta, good to be with you.
Sucheta Kamath: Great to be with you, Todd. How are you doing?
Producer: I am doing great. I am very much looking forward to this conversation. Just the energy we got from our preshow chat with our guest has me all excited, so kick us off. What are we going to talk about today?
Sucheta: Well, let me tell you a funny story and this is a real story. So, I as you already, I was born and raised in India and I have these friends who happen to have business in Japan, so this friend of mine went to Japan and with a friend who lives in Japan, they met together and this was his first night, and they decided to take the train or subway, or whatever it is, and it was his first time, and so when they arrived at the station, they took a flight of stairs, they ran downstairs, and the train was about to close, the doors were about to close, and so just as any Indian would do, my friend but his leg in between the door, and the door opened, and they got in and they were so happy that they made it, they sat down, and of course, unbeknownst to them, the train had shut down, and so they thought maybe it’s delayed because of some other reasons and they were yapping with each other, and then suddenly two police officers came, they asked my friend for his passport and asked him to vacate the train, and took him to this train station police station, I guess – I don’t know what it was, and they asked, “Do you know why we asked you to come with us?” and my friend was clueless; he was, first of all, freaking out because he didn’t do anything illegal or he was literally FOB, fresh off the boat, and so he couldn’t believe that he was in trouble, and so they turned on the TV in the room and they played this video of him putting his leg in between the two doors, the doors opening, and you won’t believe it – he was made to sit there for half a day watching the same video again and again, and afterwards, he was asked, “Are you going to do this again?” and my friend was so freaked out by this whole thing because if you did this in India, first of all, there are no cops to be found, there is no room with a video camera or a video recording that you can replay, and so he absolutely swore that he will never do it again, and since then, he’s been doing business there for the last 10 years and yes, he has never put his leg in between the train door.
Why am I telling you this story? Because we’re going to talk about what is allowable and what is not allowable is decided by not one person but a group and we call that group a culture. It becomes a system in which we operate and we, if particularly if you are a foreigner in that system, you have to kind of take the time to understand those rules because they are mostly invisible, but you will be in trouble if you violate them, and that brings me to this amazing expertly have and she studies norm psychology. Her name is Dr. Michele Gelfand. She is a distinguished University Prof. and Prof. of psychology at the University of Maryland College Park.
Dr. Gelfand uses field, experimental, computational, and neuroscience methods to understand the evolution of culture and its multilevel consequences. What I really love about this is, unlike most psychological experiments, people limit themselves to the experimental aspects of it, but she combines this field, computational, and neuroscience aspects, so she has a lot of knowledge about how the brain works, but how do people with brains behave in the cultural context? Her work has been published in outlets such as science, nature, scientific reports, nature, human behavior, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Academy of Management Journal, etc., etc. She is very, very well-published.
She is the past president of the International Association for Conflict Management, past division chair of the Conflict Division of the Academy of Management, and past treasurer of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology. The reason I’m listing a few things, I don’t know how she finds time to do this in addition to the research she does, and she is a recipient of many, many celebrated awards. One particular one that I was in the audience but I did not know her personally or had not reached out was in 2016, she received the Diener Award from the Society for personality and social psychology, and in 2017, she received Outstanding International Psychologist Award from the APA which is such an honor.
Her work has been published in Science and was honored with the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize from the Society for Psychological Study of Social Issues. She is extremely well-published, celebrated, and a fun, fun person to talk to, so I can’t wait to talk to her, and the most important thing we are going to discuss today is her fabulous book called Rulemakers and Rulebreakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the World, which is published recently, so we will have all this information in our show notes, so people can look that up.
So, Dr. Michele Gelfand, welcome to Full PreFrontal.
Dr. Michele Gelfand: Thank you so much for having me, Sucheta.
Sucheta: So, I have a question. I asked this of all my guests, how would you describe your own executive functioning skills and when did you become aware of the norms or the culture that you grew up in and what hold it has on you?
Dr. Gelfand: Wow, that is such a great question. You know, I like to say that I’m sort of a New Yorker who escaped New York and I like to compare my early life to this New Yorker cartoon which many of you will have remembered. It shows sort of how New Yorkers view the world which is basically, we sort of see Manhattan, we see New Jersey, but then there’s kind of the rest of the world, and I was really ignorant about culture growing up and growing up in Long Island, and I got really shaken out of that world view in a very positive way when I went to London for a semester during my junior year, and I remember a conversation I had with my father telling him how much culture shock I was having, including the people just going from London to Paris for the weekend, and he said something really important to me in his Brooklyn accent. He said, “Well, think about it like it’s going from New York to Pennsylvania,” and I thought wow, what a great metaphor, pop! And, literally, the next day – it’s a true story – I booked a trip to Egypt by myself.
Sucheta: Oh, my goodness!
Dr. Gelfand: And, I told my dad, “It’s just like going from New York to California, pop. Don’t worry about it,” and it was really – I really wanted to immerse myself in culture and that is what I wound up doing. I really traveled around the world and I realized just how little I knew about this profound influence on my own behavior, and it actually caused me to change careers. I was pretty met at the time, and then I came back and I wound up deciding to go get a PhD in cross-cultural psychology with Harry Triandis, a champion of that, and the rest was history. So, I really, like many people, recognized only culture when I got away from my own culture. TS Eliot says, it’s only when you kind of come back from a cultural experience that you realize that you have now understand the place you came from from the very first time.
Sucheta: Wow! I mean, it’s funny, yes, I guess growing up in New York, I called Texas as country by itself, New York as a country by itself, particularly the Manhattan and the suburbs, and the tiny culture, it’s such an amalgamation of many, many international experiences, but yes, you never know until you leave your country, and I’m so blessed that I got a chance to do that.
So, let’s start with this very book. Tell us why you wrote this book, Rulemakers and Rulebreakers, and what is culture and what our cultural norms, and why are they so important to study?
Dr. Gelfand: Well, you know, I wrote this book for a general audience, first of all, because I feel like a lot of the work we do in academia gets kind of trapped in scientific journals that not a lot of people read, and my father who influenced me very much always completely can’t understand a word I’m saying about my work, so I wrote this book first and foremost to take what I think is really exciting cultural science and make it accessible for a general audience and to learn from a general audience about how these ideas resonate with you, and basically, I was trying to get beyond some of these superficial distinctions that we think about when we think about culture. Typically things like red versus blue or East versus West, or rich versus poor, and I’ve been trying to understand for about 25 years, or their deeper cultural codes that are driving a behavior? And so, over the last several decades, I’ve been studying hundreds of cultures from ancient Aztecs to Alabama, from startup to Singapore, and even from the military to Silicon Valley, and I do find that one very important distinction among others and cultural psychology is essentially the strictness with which we adhere to social norms, and social norms are these incredible devices that humans have developed. They are these unwritten, sometimes written rules for behavior, and what is so interesting about social norms is that their omnipresence, they affect us all the time, but they are really invisible, we really take them for granted, we take them for granted, for example, that we put clothes on, most of us, when we walk outside during the day and we drive on one side of the road versus both sides of the road at any one time, or that we don’t have sex in public places and most places. We reserve that for private settings and these are all social norms that we have invented, and they are really important for human groups because they help us to predict each other’s behavior and to coordinate our behavior at an unprecedented degree. They are the glue that keeps us together, and what I had been studying though is the strength of that glue, and what I’m finding is that some groups have stronger social glue. They are what I call tight cultures, and other cultures tend to have weaker social glue. They are what we call loose cultures, and this distinction of tight-loose is really important for understanding a wide range of differences from nations to neurons, from politics to parenting, and everything in between.
Sucheta: So, you know, I am listening to this. This made so much sense once I started reading your book, and thank you, by the way, for literally bringing this into our lives because I think when people talk about culture, people literally talk about going to the opera or something. They think being cultured, but I think, I have to tell you a funny story. So, when I work with lots of this regulated children and adults, I do this therapy approach where I have this little container for pickup sticks. It’s a metal container and on top of that, I put this brown envelope upside down, so you can’t see. It’s used to hold that brown envelope and it’s on the table, and so when the kid comes in, I say, “How many people are in this room?” and they will say, they’d look at the fun and they’d say, “Two?” and I say, “No, there are three of us,” and they are so surprised, and so I said, “Do not see, I call it Youmeus.” Youmeus is the name of this third person. It’s you, me, and us, and so the Youmeus is, so when I discussed that I’m not interrupting the teacher and the typical response from the student is that the teacher does not like me, rather than its expected of you to not interrupt the teacher. So, I tell them that it is not Mrs. Smith who came up with this rule, it’s not Sucheta who came up with this role. It is Youmeus who came up with this rule, anything just to get them to understand that rules are made by systems that are much larger than just simple you and I.
Dr. Gelfand: Yeah, that such a great example because norms are collective and there’s something that we develop over time, they are passed on generations, and it’s remarkable because we start learning them from a very early age. There is some evidence in developmental psychology that even infants, before they have language, will start to reach for puppets who are behaving cooperatively with other methods, and they will kind of ignore puppets that are beating up other puppets. By the time we’re age 3, we start berating puppets that are violating norms, and so you can just think about norms as something that we start – really developing our understanding of them, most of us – of course, your populations tend to have problems with some of these issues, and I think it’s fascinating to think about just how profoundly important social norms are for functioning in society and for people that don’t understand them, it could put them at a terrible disadvantage in terms of being ostracized, feeling punished, and really not understanding what are they doing wrong. So, norms are so fundamental to human sociality that it’s important to study them from all sorts of vantage points, from healthy functioning, but also dysfunction.
So, I see it in two ways play out in the population and where it’s not going well for people. One is in, for example, the ADHD population where the learning disabilities such as their attention to detail is what is the weakness and what that means, there may be aware of the social expectation, they are just too impulsive and too eager to violate them through self-serving ways, but in autism and spectrum disorders, they actually are unaware of the existing norms, so the therapeutic approach is very different, but both are designed to actually creating this attunement, so that they become aware of the norms.
Dr. Gelfand: Yeah, exactly. That’s right. I mean, I think that they require different solutions when you need to help people to adjust to norms that they just may be not paying attention to versus people who really don’t understand the psychology of social norms, and I think that norms are at the basis of many different dysfunctions, including the opposite of the extreme. Maybe there is also a pattern where people are hyper attentive to social norms and that that can also be somewhat dysfunctional, so it’s interesting that in my work, I talk about something I call the Goldilocks principle of social norms which is having balanced in terms of how much freedom versus constrained we have, and so for example, even at the level of societies, we find the groups that are really, really loose, that allow for a really broad range of behavior, they tend to be very unpredictable places and kind of chaotic, and they, at the opposite extreme, we have cultures where they are extremely tight and have a lot of repression, and those extremes tend to produce a lot of malfunctioning. This is now at the societal level where they have higher suicide rates, they have lower happiness, higher blood pressure, and so even at the group level, there tends to be a need for some kind of balance between freedom and constraints, and when you get in either extreme, it could be problematic for societies more generally, even beyond the individual level.
Sucheta: I see. So, can we go back a little bit and talk about tightness and looseness? So, how does tightness, norm tightness appear ambiguous examples of cultures where this exist and the same with the looseness, and then help us understand as parents or educators who are trying to raise children, how do these cultural references affect the way we parent or guide students, or learners?
Dr. Gelfand: Yeah, this is a great question, and so in 2011, we published a paper in the journal Science trying to start to look at can we place nations as a whole on a metric ranging, on a continuum from tight to loose with the idea that of course, all cultures of some loose in some tight elements, but just like at the individual level where we can differentiate people who are more or less introverted or extroverted, or other personality dimensions, we wanted to see, can we measure norm strength, tight and loose, how strict or permissive groups are around the world? Later, by the way, we started looking at this within nations and we differentiate the 50 states in terms of tight-loose, or social classes, or organizations, or even around households, and what is exciting more generally is that we can use this kind of simple lens to understand a wide range of phenomena and in our study in Science, what we found was that groups like Japan – you mentioned – Singapore, Germany, Austria, they tended to be tighter in our groups, in our data, whereas groups like New Zealand and Brazil, and the Netherlands, and the United States in general tends to be loose, and of course, again, all cultures have elements of both, but we can see that they vary on this continuum on, and we were really interested in what kind of signature do these kinds of cultures and have? What liabilities and strengths do they confer to human groups? We found really striking patterns across cultures and later, we see this within the States also, and that is this predictable trade-off that we call order versus openness. So, for example, in tight cultures, we see that there is a lot of order, less crime, and more monitoring, like you described in your story that keeps people behaving themselves. It is also more synchrony and uniformity in tight cultures, more synchrony in what people wear and what they drive, even more synchrony in the clocks on city streets. In tight cultures, the clocks on city streets in our data show pretty much the same time, but in loose cultures, they are pretty off.
Sucheta: I love your example that in Brazil, I think you said that none of the street clocks watch, right?
Dr. Gelfand: Well, they are off by quite a bit, and this is a matter of synchrony and uniformity, and tight cultures also have a lot more impulse control. When you are worried about fitting in and not violating rules, you have to manage your impulse. As you are trained to your point from a very early age in schools, from parents, and other institutions in society to monitor impulses, so we find there is more self-regulation in tight cultures, less debt, less obesity, less alcoholism, less lateness in schools, for example, and loose cultures struggle with these kinds of order issues. They have more crime, less monitoring, less synchrony, and more self-regulation problems, but on the flipside, we find loose cultures are much more open. They are open to different types of people, from immigrants to the disable, to the stigmatized. They are open to different ideas, they are more creative, and they are open to change, to new ideas that are changing, and its type cultures that struggle with these issues. So, we could see a very predictable trade-off between order and openness at the national level, at the state level, and we were really excited to try to understand what causes these differences to evolve in the first place? Is there a logic, a rationale for why cultures of all to be tight or loose? Because often, when we look at cultural differences, let me be your friend did also, or in many cases, we look at other practices, we think they are so strange, why are they so strange or why are they so permissive? And we become very judgmental, and so understanding why cultures of all the way they do and why it might make sense is really important to increasing empathy for other cultures and reducing ethnocentrism.
Sucheta: So, do we know what type cultures become tight and loose cultures become loose? Is that something to do with the resources to market is that something to do with mindsets, attitudes?
Dr. Gelfand: Yes, so it’s multiply determined but what we were looking at in this study in Science is we, for example, found there was no common tradition or religion, or no common geography that United tight and loose cultures. Some tight cultures existed thousands of years ago, like Sparta and loose cultures like Athens existed thousands of years ago, and so there is no commonality across time, but we did find a really important factor in that had to do with how much threat from space, and thread can be either from mother nature, think constant natural disasters like Japan experiences some famine and tsunamis, or it could be human made threats – how many times has your nation been potentially invaded by its neighbors? Or pathogen prevalence or population density, and what’s really simple about this sort of concept is that when you have a lot of threats and it is collective threat, you can’t solve these issues on your own as a person. You need strong rules to coordinate to survive, and that is what we found: in general, tight cultures tend to have more threat, loose cultures tend to have less threat, they also tend to have more diversity and more mobility, and this again tends to apply not just to the national level but to the state level. It applies across many different levels of analysis, and again, it can help us to be more empathic because when you live in a context where you are faced with all those threats, you can understand why it is that people want to have stricter rules in order to coordinate.
Sucheta: And, what’s interesting, as I was reading that, that the threat may go away, but the ingrained cultural traces, I guess, don’t go away. Is that right?
Dr. Gelfand: Yeah, it’s a really important point. Tight-loose is really dynamic, so we could see that in fact, even in the US which tends to be loose, we have pockets of tightness I can talk about in certain states, definitely have more natural disasters and pathogens, and this predicts tightness among other variables, but even in the United States, we could see, after the Boston bombing for example, a desire for tightening. In my own laboratory, I can activate fake threats by population density on my own campus or terrorism threats, and I can see within minutes that people want stronger rules and even more autocratic leaders to help coordinate the supply. It’s really interesting that the same sort of temporary threat can produce the same tightening. The issue is that it will dissipate in most cases over time, if it is not a chronic threat, although it does to your point in our computational models, we could see that it takes longer to go from tight to loose as the threat is decreasing than it does when going from loose to tight. So, there seems to be kind of a risk aversion, wanting to hold on to those rules, even when threat is not there chronically, but that is a really important point in a book that I try to make because a lot of what we see around the world now with increasing populism and with desire for autocrat is not really explained by a wide view by some mesmerizing personality or some kind of historical moment that is strange. It’s really based within the psychology of tightness. In fact, we’ve seen, before the Trump election, people who felt threatened, whether by ISIS or by North Korea for immigrants, they thought the US was too loose, and that in turn predicted their support for Trump, and it was the same exact pattern in France, and so you could see this dynamic of threats and tightness playing out not just in societies and in ancient preindustrial societies in our day at all, but even in our own electoral dynamics.
Sucheta: You know what, I found this so interesting that here we are as a group, collective psychology, I guess, that what we feel threatened, we bond together, we come together, we impose stringent rules in ourselves, we expect a lot greater adherence, and then we kind of get tired of it, we feel we are stifled and we want creativity and individualism, and then we fight and liberate ourselves. Then again, it waxes and wanes, waxes and wanes, and I feel like both places, we have something to complain about.
Dr. Gelfand: Well, that’s right, because if we are tightening unnecessarily, then that is producing that sort of deficit in what we know with the tightness trade-off, that makes us less creative, less innovative. It makes us more ethnocentric, and so we need to try to strike a balance between tight and loose. Your point, sometimes, when we need the direction, there are some pendulum shifts that we could see happening, and so I think what is exciting about norm psychology now is once we understand the distinctions between tight and loose, and other cultural psychology theories, we can use these theories actively to negotiate our worlds. For example, in our own households – to say in my house, I veer kind of loose and my husband veers kind of tight, and for very good reasons that we could talk about and empathize with each other, but the key here is that we can actively discuss and negotiate the norm strength in our household – what domains need to be tight? What domains can we be looser in? Could we talk to our kids about this? I mean, it sounds a little bit cheesy, but that’s what we do in this household. We have certain domains that we agreed on we got to be strict about, but we are going to loosen up on others and that it can apply this kind of agency, this age-agentic approach to social norms to other contexts. For example, I think we need to do – and this is covered in Rulemakers and Rulebreakers, in the last part of the book, is to really think about actively negotiating norms that have gotten too loose and that we might need to insert some more regulation, more accountability, and also on the flipside, to actively negotiate notes that perhaps have gotten too tight within our society, so the Internet is a really good example. In many ways, it’s kind of a wild, wild west of anti-normative behavior and it’s not too surprising. Psychologists have known for decades that we are not being monitored, that you do all sorts of weird things and we see that on the Internet, and it offers a great amount of advantages in terms of efficiencies and productivity, but it also is suffering in my view from normlessness, from extreme looseness, and in fact, some of our recent data that my undergraduates just presented, we found that it’s not the amount of time that you spend online that is related to depression and loneliness. It’s how much normlessness you perceive online, and so it’s what’s interesting. Now, we’re trying to do some research on how do you nudge this kind of more normative behavior online without sacrificing freedom and diversity, and debate? To your point, like trying to have some kind of balance between the two, and I think we can do it. I’m an optimist. It will take a while, but we have learned as humans to adapt to so many different contexts. We scaled up from very, very small travel groups to interacting with strangers and norms helped us to do that. Now, we live online, so we have to do it again in this context, and we have to step out.
Sucheta: You know, when my husband and I, we met in India, we married – we came to the US when we were married, but he comes from, within India, he and I don’t speak the same language, we don’t trust the same way, we don’t have the same norms in the household, we don’t eat the same food, but we got together and what was distinct to me, one simple example I will give is when we went – my family – when we went to other people’s house for dinner or invitation, or whatever the occasion might be, we never went empty-handed. That was our culture, and when I got married and I was petrified that my husband, my in-laws, nobody ever reciprocates or offers anything. Not that they are rude or stingy, or none of that. It’s just the culture. So, when my husband and I, when we moved to the US, we literally have to have two young adults, 20 and 23-year-olds and we had to discuss what kind of norms we will have for the because the way I grew up, I grew up in a very tighter household that my husband did, and so I’m very much ‘parents are the boss and you have the rules and you cannot violate them, and a lot of expectations of appropriateness,’ and my husband, everything was okay. We had to decide in America, what is it going to be, and what I love about your book as well as you are speaking, that there has to be active discussion and negotiation, and I think that is the missing link I find that even teachers who are trying to regulate the classroom of students who come from different cultural backgrounds or they are importing their own classroom culture, they don’t have explicit discussions regarding that culture.
Can you talk a little bit about that? How can we create an active negotiation in the classroom or at home when we are within the United States and within a classroom of a particular school, but there are children who are behaving and varied ways and some are creating a ruckus and some are not getting the attention they deserve because of those who create a ruckus?
Dr. Gelfand: Yeah, it gets back to this point that we sort of ignore culture. It is so profoundly important but it’s invisible. We focus a lot on IQ or maybe emotional intelligence, and we really are very proud of our technological achievements as humans. We have split the atom and we have wired to the earth and we’ve even trained dogs to ride skateboards, but we have to really now shift our attention to perhaps one of the more important issues in our society which is our cultures and our cultural differences, and how to really understand them and manage them in all sorts of contexts. You know, it’s interesting – and I’ll get back to schools in a minute – but I study organizations and we look at people who were sent abroad for international assignments, and it’s the same issue. We find in a lot of people who are sent away for their technical competence, not because they necessarily have cultural intelligence, which is a new field of study in my area, and we could see, by the way, that when people are sent abroad, especially going to tight cultures and they are really not used to them, they can really suffer in terms of their adjustments, and that is really important to be able to anticipate – and we can anticipate if we start talking serious about culture, and that applies to our schools too. A lot of times in the United States where we are multicultural society, kids are coming from all sorts of different backgrounds and kids who come from very tight cultures at home and trying to adapt to the looseness of American classrooms or vice versa could really be suffering, and teachers need to understand and be mindful of where kids are coming from, so they can help them to adapt to these cultures and explain to them why the classroom is structured the way it is and how to structure the classroom so that it helps kids adjust and helps them understand and not blame themselves for feeling, in a sense, like a fish out of water.
Sucheta: You know, this reminds me of another story that my brother who came here for a job and he didn’t go to school here like I did, but somebody he works for a very large Indian technology company and they sent a brand-new VP of operations or whatever are directly from India, and this young man – not quite young but 45 years old, he had not traveled outside the country. He assumed this was United States and everybody drinks, and so first day, the night before he was about to start his job, he was invited to this welcome party and at that party, he got smashed drunk, and this is probably his first time because he assumed everybody in the United States, this is a way to celebrate with employees, something he would never do in India, never would drink at a job party in the first place, it was so funny. He got fired.
Dr. Gelfand: Oh, my gosh!
Sucheta: He was sent home for being inappropriate.
Dr. Gelfand: You know, it’s such an interesting story because a lot of times, people kind of do what we call “overshooting.” They have some stereotype of the culture that there is always a grain of truth to that stereotype, that Americans drink more than people in India and we know that, but also exaggerating that stereotype because we tend to meet in the media and we don’t kind of – and we look at all these crazy movies and we think Americans are half naked all the time or they are drinking. I actually have data from Pakistanis and Americans about stereotypes they have of each other and it’s about to be published it was a really interesting study because we found that Americans not only thought Pakistanis were tight but they thought they were only in mosques most of the time. They didn’t imagine Pakistanis playing sports and reading poetry, and Pakistanis also, again, they thought Americans were not just loose but they were half naked and they were drinking, and they were never with their parents are calling the police and their parents for being too strict, and what we did was, it was a really fascinating study because we are developing something called the daily diary technique where we had Pakistanis read American diaries, real diaries.
Sucheta: Oh, wow!
Dr. Gelfand: [0:32:11] diaries or they read Pakistani diaries, and Americans on the flipside, either read Pakistani diaries. Every day they were flashed what was going on with their Pakistani counterparts, or they read American diaries, and again, they were unedited, and they did vary on tight-loose and how strict or permissive they are, but they were much more detailed and have many more commonalities in terms of people experiencing anxiety or people playing sports, or people being on the Internet, it found, which was really exciting is that over time, people who read each other’s diaries from another culture are really keen to see each other as much more similar, they reduce their cultural distance and they really reduce negative stereotyping about each other. Even though they still recognize that they are different, they had way more sort of calibration at what the culture was like, and I think daily diaries are an ancient technique because they really hope you get a window into another person’s real life that you can’t get in the media.
Sucheta: Oh, my God, I love it! So, let’s bring this to close with this connection with executive function, so the two primitive or most essential executive functioning skills which is impulse control and perspective taking, and I, as you were describing the aspect of cultural regulation, I feel, and that there are psychological level, you need to really control your impulses to adhere to these invisible rules, so you’re not selfish and self-driven, but you are also complying with the expectations and benefit of the other, and then the prospective shift that you just described through these diary experiments, for example, are kind of activating knowledge of other people’s experiences which may be radically or somewhat different, and adjusting and re-tweaking your own perspective of them. So, how does this translate into code switching or do we call that code switching, or how to be kind of level of cultural responsivity, if I may say that?
Dr. Gelfand: Yeah, you know it’s really interesting because I wanted to mention, we have been looking at how cultures is ingrained, how norms are in great with some neuroscience research, and I think it’s really important to recognize these things become really patterned in the brain based on chronic exposure to strong norms. We see that for example in our comparisons of Chinese in China and Americans that when we’re asking people about their reactions to norm-violating behavior, for example, Michele is shouting in the library versus Michele studying in the library, that the N400 response – this is a negative deflection, 400 ms which is indicative of some kind of incongruity that you are detecting in the environment is much more strongly felt in China in the frontal area than it is in the US, and by the way, that neural activity is predictive of ratings of self-control that in our samples, Chinese of higher self-control and it’s in part mediated by their detection of social norm violations, even in the frontal area of the brain.
Sucheta: Wow, absolutely.
Dr. Gelfand: And so, I think that it’s interesting to think about how these things are ingrained and they tend to become very stable, and our research vitally in social class, we can see that by age 3, the working-class kids that we bring into our laboratory were trying to – their parents are trying to avoid hard living, with poverty, they are trying to have strict rules in the household, so that kids can really survive those difficult contexts. Those kids actually exhibit tighter patterns by three years of age. We had him, by the way, interacting with a public and the public is playing with him these new games, and then the puppet does something kind of weird and it’s violating the rules, and we simply will get how does the kid react to the puppet who is violating rules? And the working class kids, by age 3 are already more upset when they see these norm violations than upper-class kids who have a Christian and they can afford to break rules because they have a safety net. So, on the one hand, it’s important to recognize that culture evolves very early on and we have stable patterns that we can detect. At the same time, like we said earlier, we can negotiate culture. If we are in a tight context, we could think about where could we have more discretion in this system, in this family, in this organization or in the nation? I call this basically flexible tightness. In a sense, we want to have tightness in some context [0:36:24] threat.
Sucheta: I love that.
Dr. Gelfand: But we need to somehow have more autonomy, even in the military will I work with now, the Navy needs to have a lot of rules coordinate, there’s a lot of safety issues, but the question is, how can we diagnose certain domains where we can have more latitude to allow for more creativity in those contexts? Or in the flipside, some loose contexts need some more structure. I call this structured looseness and we may have a loose culture because we can afford to, but we might want to have more money touring, accountability, more benchmarks. In organizational world, I highlight Tesla or Uber as good examples. [0:37:00] really pretty loose and can use a little bit more tightness, or on the flipside, United Airlines and the other sense, it was getting really tight where people are following norms without thinking about it really needed some more looseness. So, what is exciting is to think about how to negotiate this for more healthy balance for kids, for our organizations, for our world as a whole.
Sucheta: So, you sound very optimistic and you are seeing results. So, who decides to loosen the rules? Who is in charge of negotiating the culture? Somebody lower on the totem pole or somebody higher on the totem pole, is there any directionality of that?
Dr. Gelfand: Well, you know, it’s really something I think it happened from top-down or from bottom-up. We know that a lot of changes – and I talk about in the book that happen in organizations to realize that they need to shift in their norm strength, they need the direction and it’s coming from top-down. For people who are able to communicate the importance of change, who helps deal with the underlying threats that people feel during those changes, so for example, people going from tighter to looser feel like they are losing some control and that is pretty scary. People going from loose too tight, they feel like their autonomy is being challenged, so the best leaders are able to deal with those kinds of perceived threats and help negotiate why it’s important, and again, why their common core is going to stay similar but they are going to actually have also the benefits of the alternative cultural code for their functioning, but it can also happen in a very bottom-of way where you are on a team and you recognize, for example, that whoa, we seem to be really uncoordinated and we keep missing deadlines, and in the book, I talk about ways that even people in lower levels of organization can start to talk about the importance of these things and change, and make a difference, and I think using the terminology, helping to identify norms, the strength of norms, where they come from, their consequences can help people to start having these kinds of dialogs.
One thing I wanted to mention that on my website which is michelegelfand.com, I have a tight-loose mindset quiz because as we talked about earlier in the conversation, understanding culture starts with understanding yourself. Where are you the default tight-loose mindset continue on? I mean, of course, we all navigate the strength of norms in our daily life. When our library, we tighten up versus when we are in a public school or a part, but nevertheless, we each have our own default setting based in our culture, our background, our gender, our occupation, and the quizzes based on some of the data from my Science paper and helps people to understand what’s your sort of natural preference? Actually, used in the book, Dahlia Lithwick, the Slate writer’s metaphor of are you a chaos Muppet or an order Muppet?
Sucheta: Yes, I love that. Tell us a little bit about that, that’s so good.
Dr. Gelfand: Oh, I think again, we shift based on the situation but we each have our own default setting. The chaos Muppet tends to kind of not really know these rules as much and maybe seems a little more impulsive and risk-taking, and also is very much okay with ambiguity. You think about cookie monster and animal as the chaos Muppet. On the flipside, the order Muppet like Kermit the frog and Bert, they are more attentive to rules. They are attentive to their impulses and trying to fit in more, and they also like structure and order, and so once you detect where your default is, you can start thinking about where does that come from, it may be again at the individual level, where am I to loosen up or tighten up depending on where I fall on this continuum? And of course, this helps to understand the people that we are most closely connected with. That tight-loose causes a lot of conflict in everyday life, from finances to parenting, two vacations. I could see personally that on big family vacations, there’s huge conflicts over spontaneity and structure, and really relates to tight-loose and we have to negotiate these differences even in our own families, let alone in-laws like the stories you told or in other contexts, and it’s also important to think about your default setting because we are embedded in communities that are tight or loose, in organizations that veer in these directions, in states, and it’s useful to think about the match that people have, how congruent is your own default mindset with those that are around you? And I think that really opens up a whole lot in terms of self-understanding about where we personally are calibrated for a lot of reasons on the strength of norms, and then how to use that knowledge to build more effective relationships and happiness.
Sucheta: I’ll tell you a funny story that I saw. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia show, oh, my God, it’s ridiculous, do not even watch it. It will ruin you for life, but anyway, these are a group of four inappropriate people basically. They have, as a father, he has two twins – I guess he has a set of twins, a girl and a boy, and then their two friends, so they are running a bar in Philadelphia and they are just generally uneducated, not very smart or witty, but just have lots of kind of prejudices against many, many things. So, there is a scene where the twins discovered that their mother had an affair and the father is Danny DeVito which he’s 4’11”, and that the mother is like maybe 5’5”, and forget the actress, so they discovered that he is not their father. So, they decide to confront the father or rather let him know that they think the mother had an affair. So, they choose this very fancy restaurant, okay, so they arrived there and so the sister says, “This is like a really fancy restaurant.” He says, “Yeah, at least here, he will not create a scene.” Of course, he does create a scene, so yeah, I think we are expecting that sometimes, culture and put a limit on people and they will behave themselves, and then there are some people who still don’t.
Dr. Gelfand: I have to say that once you start thinking about norms, for me, can’t stop thinking about them. I’ll be in a restaurant in Germany and I’m tempted to just try to violate norm, go and ask someone for one of their french fries and see how they react, because we take for granted that we are following norms, many of us for much of our lives, and we don’t tend to realize how important they are, that societies could not function without them, families with splinter, organizations, police, like we could not have these effective structures unless we share this expectation of what’s appropriate or inappropriate, and it’s so profound. Even things like why do we wear a white dress, most of us, in the United States on the happiest day on our life, when we are getting married, like why do we – in the book, I can get a lot of examples, why do we cut down good trees and let them die in our living room on 25 December in many households? Like, there’s just so many interesting rules that we developed and that we just don’t even think about, and so if you sort of start thinking about norms, it really helps you to see the world in a totally different way, and I hope Rulemakers and Rulebreakers does that and I want to mention that on my website, I also have a place that people can send me their stories about tight-loose, and I really would appreciate any stories that you have, the audience, but this distinction and how it affected your life because that is one of the most rewarding things about having written this book, is to get feedback from you and stories and ideas, and we will do research on them. We are really fired up to do research on all things tight-loose, and we just love to hear from you, so please check out the website and send in some notes and emails to me.
Sucheta: Well, I’m sure you’re going to get a lot of stories. I think I single-handedly could give you a lot of stories from having traveled through many cultures. So, Michele, I cannot thank you for being on this podcast and really so enthusiastically sharing your knowledge, your wisdom, and giving us this important perspective that without the context of a culture, we cannot even improve behaviors and improve attitudes, and understand even wide people – one of the motivational forces behind people doing the way they do more systems the way they run, so thank you very, very much for being on this podcast today.
Dr. Gelfand: Thank you for having me.
Producer: All right, that’s all the time we have for today. If you are enjoying this podcast, we would really appreciate it if you could share it with your friends and family and perhaps others who might benefit from it. Alright, so on behalf of our host Sucheta Kamath, today’s guest, Dr. Michele Gelfand and all of us at Cerebral Matters, thanks for listening today, we look forward to seeing you again right here next week on Full PreFrontal.