Loose Cultures Cost Lives
The ability of societies to respond adequately to threat depends on cohesive social norms.
Why did Taiwan deal so well with the threat of Covid-19, but the UK failed to act before it was too late? Why did New Zealand respond rapidly, but the US descend into an act of narcissistic self-sabotage which has left over half-a-million citizens dead?
A variety of theories have emerged over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic to explain differences in national responses. From the prevailing political ruling class, to economic priorities, to widespread denialism and rejection of science, a multiplicity of factors likely converge.
One fascinating concept, which may provide a more unifying explanation tying together the various socio-political and economic explanations, is the anthropological theory of cultural “tightness” and “looseness”. This theory was first described in a 1969 paper by anthropologist Pertii J. Pelto, which defined “tight” or “loose” societies as the degree to which social norms are expressed and adhered to within a society. “Tight” societies closely observe social norms and are not tolerant of aberrant behaviour, while “loose” societies champion the individual and emphasise individual freedoms.
Social norms provide a powerful glue for cohesion in a society. As an informal system of social regulation, norms provide a more ubiquitous influence on individual behaviours. Social units like the family and community constitute an unofficial form of reinforcement of social cooperation. As highlighted in a 1998 paper by Yale legal scholar Robert C. Ellickson, informal systems of social control like norms may exert a more important function than the law in many contexts.
Pelto's original research had identified a spectrum of tightness-looseness in traditional, as yet unacculturated societies. However, more recently the research of Professor Michele J. Gelfand at the University of Maryland has picked up the ball and ran it further, into analyses of tightness-looseness in modern societies. Starting with a 2011 paper in Science, Gelfand et al. conducted an analysis of participants from 33 countries to identify the characteristics of tight and loose societies. Individuals in societies defined by “tightness” are more likely to be attentive to rules and laws, exhibit greater impulse control, and have more uniformity in societal institutions and social behaviours.
Simply put, tight societies champion order. Conversely, individuals in societies defined by “looseness” exhibit lower impulse control, have higher levels of individual debt, and substance abuse. Yet loose societies also exhibit more openness than tight societies, more tolerance of sexual orientation, religious diversity, and tend to display greater entrepreneurialism. It is important to note that these are not dichotomised constructs, but rather tightness-looseness exists on a continuum, and societies may flux depending on the prevailing social norms within that culture.
While the characteristics of tight and loose societies may be similar, an interesting observation from this literature is that there are no obvious similarities in terms of geography, language, religion, or country wealth (as defined by GDP). So what might drive one society toward tightness over looseness? Interestingly, a 2020 paper from this group analysing 86 societies highlighted that the primary determinant is the extent to which societies have been exposed to collective threats. In this context, “collective threat” encompasses both ecological threats, i.e., natural disasters and pathogen prevalence, and human-derived territorial threats, i.e., natural resource scarcity and invasion. Importantly, these threats may be historical, but have shaped present social norms within a given society.
Broadly, “tight” societies have experienced greater natural disasters and prevalence of disease, more resource scarcity, threat of invasion, and often higher population density. These factors mandate a need for greater social cohesion and strong social norms within the population. “Loose” societies have faced fewer ecological, resource, or human-made threats, and consequently can afford to have lower need for order and social regulation as they face little collective threat, allowing for weaker social norms, but facilitating greater openness.
For example, compare Taiwan (a “tight” society) to the US (at the national level, a “loose” society). A country like Taiwan faces an omnipresent threat to its existence in the looming ogre of Communist China, has relative natural resource scarcity (compared to other Asian countries), and faces frequent natural disaster threat from typhoons, floods, and earthquakes. Cohesive societal organisation and regulation of social norms is paramount to its capacity for threat reflex. The US, on the other hand, has largely been isolated from invasion (was unscathed during the Second World War, particularly when compared to Germany or Japan), is abundant in natural resources, and low land-related population pressure.
However, tightness-looseness may also exist within-nations, particularly those with diverse ecological and historical background factors. In a 2014 paper, Gelfand’s group showed that the top three “tight” States in the US were (in order) Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, while the top three “loose” States were (in order again) California, Oregon, and Washington. This may seem contradictory in one sense, as the tight States in the US would concomitantly espouse a rhetoric of individual freedom, for example on issues like gun control. However, these are also States exposed to more ecological threats from natural disasters (hurricanes, flooding, tornados), have fewer natural resources, and sense of external threat (see: Civil War, Reconstruction). Tight societies are more likely to be intolerant to dissent, have interventionist criminal justice systems with severe punishments (e.g., the death penalty), and are more religious, many if not all of which would be characteristics of tight States in the US, which are heavily concentrated in the South.
These are also common characteristics of tight nations; the rise of Right-wing populism in Europe has been driven by a rhetoric from populist leaders which promises to return more tightness" back to societies, linking looseness to immigration, permissive social norms around sexual orientation and identity, and playing on the all-important sense of external threat which underpins the tightness-looseness pendulum. By appealing to tightness, Right-wing populist leaders have promised a restoration of uniformity, usually defined along narrow ethno-nationalist lines, and protection against external threats to opaque concepts like “our way of life”.
Given the central role of exposure to collective threats in shaping tightness-looseness within societies, it may come as no surprise that the capacity for threat reflex in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the capacity of societies to mobilise to effectively deal with the threat, is reflected in the tightness-looseness of the culture of particular nations. This is precisely what Gelfand et al. have shown. In a 2020 paper, they showed that loose societies on average had ~5 times the number of cases, and ~8 times the number of deaths, compared to tight societies. In effect, tight societies are comprised of individuals who are more willing to cooperate when faced with a threat, and as result have higher levels of survival as a society. To quote:
“...collective threats require a tremendous amount of coordination to survive, and that abidance of social norms is one key coordination mechanism that enables groups to do so...Not all loose cultures did poorly and not all tight cultures were successful at limiting cases and deaths during COVID-19. Yet the results show that cultural looseness can be a liability during collective threat.”
Simply put, loose cultures cost lives. Their 2011 paper had in fact predicted the factors related to tightness-looseness that would become paramount to effective national threat reflexes to Covid-19; individuals in countries with “high situational constraint” would self-direct to behaviours that would be more prevention-focused, would be more cautious and dutiful in following appropriate behaviours, and would have higher impulse control and self-monitoring ability. Conversely, individuals in loose societies were more likely to perceive wearing a mask as a greater “threat” than the virus itself, reflecting a lack of calibration to genuine threats from living in a society for which genuine threats are minimal to non-existent.
And while there are characteristics to loose societies that would not be desirable to trade, in particular openness, tolerance, and creativity, the pandemic has served as a stress test for the ability of nations, individually and collectively, to coordinate appropriate threat responses. New Zealand arguably serves as the best example of the tightness-looseness continuum: in ordinary circumstances New Zealand would be classified as a loose society, however, faced with the threat of the pandemic they were able to temporarily shift to tighter norm enforcement to deal with the threat. As Gelfand's research has highlighted, the sooner societies tighten in the face of a threat, the sooner that society may loosen again.
Given that ecological threats in particular are likely to be omnipresent, from climate-related population displacement to the potential for new emerging pathogens, it may be paramount for loose societies to develop the capacity to shift to more uniform social norms to deal with future threats. Worryingly, the stress test of Covid-19 has been one in which self-proclaimed “leading” developed nations like the US and UK, which also happen to be loose societies, have failed miserably.