COVID-19 has impacted every country in the world. But the ways in which life has changed in the past six months has varied from country to country, both in terms of government policies and in citizens' responses 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 predict how a country's citizens will respond to COVID-19 restrictions by looking at each country’s culture.
“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.”
To predict countries' success in combating COVID-19, Gelfand looks at how much order versus how much openness they have. She uses the terms “tight” and “loose” to categorize societies based on the strength of their social norms. Her research 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, Gelfand said. 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. But the range of behaviors allowed in those spaces is wider in loose cultures, Gelfand says, and narrower in tight cultures.
Gelfand teaches in both Maryland and Beijing and has witnessed the contrast firsthand.
“While [the classroom] is tight in many countries, it’s actually much looser in the U.S.,” she said. “In the U.S., 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.”
While this lack of pressure in looser societies like the U.S. can lead to greater tolerance and creativity, it can also have detrimental effects on national responses to 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.
“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 said.
We see the reluctance playing out today, in citizens who are disregarding warnings to wear masks in public and 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, she says. New Zealand, for example — which has 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 said.
The United States’ inadequate response to the crisis can’t be entirely chalked up to our culture. Gelfand cites conflicting messages from the government and other sources as significant in undermining the opportunity for a unified response. She emphasizes that in the U.S. 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 said.
Teresa Lawlor is an intern at Innovation Hub. You can follow her on Twitter: @tmlawlor