Loose vs. tight societies

By Razib Khan | May 28, 2011 2:23 pm

ResearchBlogging.orgA new paper in Science, Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study, is making the media rounds. Here’s NPR:

…The idea for this study really dates to the 1960s. Back then, an anthropologist decided to evaluate a few dozen obscure cultures and see if he could rank them on a scale from “tight” to “loose.” He defined tight cultures as having a lot of rules, which people violate at their peril. Loose cultures are more relaxed in their expectations, and more forgiving of people who deviate.

The Tightness Scale

“So for example, you might have been asked, how appropriate is it to curse in the bank or kiss in a public park, or eat or read a newspaper in a classroom? And we were able to derive scores of how constrained, in general situations, they are, versus how much they have latitude in different countries.”

“Some of the cultures that are quite tight in our sample include places like Singapore, Japan, Pakistan,” Gelfand says. “Whereas many loose societies include countries like New Zealand, the Netherlands, the United States.”

The abstract from the paper is a little harder to parse:

With data from 33 nations, we illustrate the differences between cultures that are tight (have many strong norms and a low tolerance of deviant behavior) versus loose (have weak social norms and a high tolerance of deviant behavior). Tightness-looseness is part of a complex, loosely integrated multilevel system that comprises distal ecological and historical threats (e.g., high population density, resource scarcity, a history of territorial conflict, and disease and environmental threats), broad versus narrow socialization in societal institutions (e.g., autocracy, media regulations), the strength of everyday recurring situations, and micro-level psychological affordances (e.g., prevention self-guides, high regulatory strength, need for structure). This research advances knowledge that can foster cross-cultural understanding in a world of increasing global interdependence and has implications for modeling cultural change.

This schematic from the paper illustrates the general model of how differences in “tightness” emerge:

Like many social science studies the authors relied a lot on survey data and conversion of rank ordered categorical responses into dependent variables. That’s a problem insofar as you need to take the quantities that are generated out of their statistical analyses with a grain of salt. They aren’t measuring someone’s height or temperature. Rather, they’re generating an aggregate measure from a range of concrete subcomponents. Granted, this measure has been shown to correlate well with individual questions in terms of how they vary cross-culturally. This is the “tightness,” the higher the score, the more tight the society. I do have some issues with this usage of a summary for a range of characters, but first let’s hit the raw results.

They are displayed in tabular format in the paper. That’s fine, but I decided to change it up a little for the purposes of presentation here. I took their table and focused on the “tightness” score, and added my own column which placed each national sample into a subjective broader region-cultural category.


Language Group Nation Tightness
Urdu South Asian Pakistan 12.3
Malay East Asian Malaysia 11.8
Hindi South Asian India 11
English East Asian Singapore 10.4
Korean East Asian South Korea 10
Norwegian West European Norway 9.5
Turkish Mediterranean Turkey 9.2
Japanese East Asian Japan 8.6
Chinese East Asian China 7.9
Portuguese Mediterranean Portugal 7.8
West European West European Germany (East) 7.5
Spanish Latin American Mexico 7.2
English Anglosphere United Kingdom 6.9
West European West European Austria 6.8
Italian Mediterranean Italy 6.8
West European West European Germany (West) 6.5
Icelandic West European Iceland 6.4
English West European France 6.3
Chinese East Asian Hong Kong 6.3
Polish Eastern Bloc Poland 6
Dutch West European Belgium 5.6
Spanish Mediterranean Spain 5.4
English Anglosphere United States 5.1
English Anglosphere Australia 4.4
Greek Mediterranean Greece 3.9
English Anglosphere New Zealand 3.9
Spanish Latin American Venezuela 3.7
Portuguese Latin American Brazil 3.5
Dutch West European Netherlands 3.3
Hebrew Mediterranean Israel 3.1
Hungarian Eastern Bloc Hungary 2.9
Estonian Eastern Bloc Estonia 2.6
Ukrainian Eastern Bloc Ukraine 1.6

Tables leave something to be desired in gaining a gestalt understanding of relationships, so here’s a bar plot rank ordered by tightness score, with colors corresponding to region-culture. A lot of this is presumably not too surprising. Pakistan is the “tightest” nation which they sampled. But is Norway much tighter than Estonia? I picked this pair because Estonia is the most Nordic of the ex-Soviet Baltic nations, it traditionally being a Lutheran society due to German and Scandinavian influence and hegemony until absorption into the Russian Empire. Those who have visited both nations are probably the best to ask how this comports with their own experiences.

Backing up a bit, in the introduction to the paper they take a very broad historical view. They seem to imply that there is a gap between “small scale” hunter-gatherer societies and more dense agricultural ones in terms of the importance of social norms and conformity. There’s a plausible ecological rational for this: there are many more opportunities for “free riding” in dense and large scale societies. In contrast, inter-personal relationships are probably sufficient for cultures which exist mostly at the band level. The Code of Hammurabi is only necessary in cultures where personal relationships have diffused to the point where impersonal rules and heuristics need to be interposed between parties which are literally or de facto strangers. This is probably the difference between survival and extinction in a world which was predominantly at subsistence.

In the supplements there is a table of correlations between “tightness” and predictor variables, controlling for per capita GNP. I’ve selected out the most interesting (to me):


Variable N Correlation P-value Effect size
Population density in 1500 (Log) 11 0.77 0.01 0.59
Population density (Log) 32 0.31 0.10 0.10
Rural Population density (Log) 30 0.59 0.01 0.35
Food deprivation 30 0.52 0.01 0.27
Fat supply 30 -0.46 0.01 0.21
Natural disaster vulnerability 30 0.47 0.01 0.22
Historical prevalence of pathogens 32 0.36 0.05 0.13
Death due to communicable diseases (Log) 31 0.59 0.01 0.35
Prevalence of tuberculosis (Log) 31 0.61 0.01 0.37
Infant mortality rate (Log) 32 0.42 0.02 0.18
Openness of media 29 -0.53 0.01 0.28
Murder rate 31 -0.45 0.01 0.20
% attending religious services 31 0.54 0.01 0.29

Notice the difference between population density in 1500 vs. population density today in terms of prediction! This may point us to the possibility that the long arm of cultural memory still reigns supreme to some extent. The effect size is the square of the correlation, and gives us a sense of how much of the variation in the dependent variable is predicted by the independent variable when you hold GNP per capita content. Of course it is important to observe that the N has dropped when you go back to 1500, probably because the individual data points are nations, and nations can’t always be projected back in time. All that being said I like predictor variables like population density and death due to communicable diseases best, because they’re a lot less clear and distinct than something like openness of media. Openness of media is a valid measure in my opinion, but since the statistic we’re predicting only comes out via a process of human directed calculation, having both ends of the line be open to disputation is not optimal.

As for the tightness measure itself, there’s some strangeness here. On the one hand, some if it makes sense. But scores for other nations surprising, as noted by the authors. For example, Israel. But that just leads to ad hoc explanations:

…Gelfand was surprised to find that Israel — which is under threat from its neighbors and its desert environment — is still culturally loose. Gelfand suspects that’s in part because lots of Israelis came from relatively loose cultures in Eastern Europe.

“It’s also a culture of argumentation, debate, dissent, that really is very much consistent with Judaism. And these things all promote looseness,” she says.

There are two points here. I’ll address the second first: the time depth of the culture of disputation in Judaism is something I’ll actually dispute. One can make the case that as a generality this is very much a feature of modern Ashkenazi Jewish culture, with the opening of the public debate to all sectors of society. Of course I grant that disputation between eminent rabbis occurred in the past, but pre-modern Jewry was run like most pre-modern societies, there were authorities on on high who dictated what was, and wasn’t, permissible. European Jewish communities were run as corporate subnational entities before their liberation in the wake of the Enlightenment. The expulsion of Baruch Spinoza from the Sephardic Jewish community of the Netherlands illustrates the nature of pre-modern Jewish, and gentile, society on the cusp (by this, I mean that the religiously plural Netherlands of the period exhibited a cohabitation between pre-modern exclusiveness and parochialism, and post-modern pluralism). Modern day stereotypes and generalizations are often very much the result of modern day conditions.

But the first point is of more concern to me: the aggregation of genuinely different societies into one sample. The idea that the European Jewry shared something with its Eastern European milieu is a questionable assertion. European Jews for much of the pre-modern era were in the West, but not of it. More accurately, Jews in the world of Islam and Christianity were suffered to exist, but lived in a parallel world unless they converted to the majority religion and left the Jewish community. The Yiddish (and later standard German) speaking Eastern European Jew had a strained and complex relationship with the nation-states of Eastern Europe which arose in the wake of the collapse of the old empires (Austria-Hungary, the Second Reich, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire). Can we speak of Hungarian or Romanian Jews who were distinctive from each other because of their association with the Hungarian or Romanian majority? As an illustration, Paul Erdos’ family had changed their name from Englander, as part of the process of de-Germanization and indigenization of Hungarian Jews.

This issue of the “nations” which were evaluated crops up elsewhere. The Indian sample was from west-central India, on the margins of the Hindi-Punjabi-Gujarati “cow belt.” It was very similar in “tightness” to Pakistan. But what would the “tightness” be in southern India? It may be very different. Additionally, comparing Iceland to China, as if they are comparable units, is obviously ridiculous (something the authors acknowledge). Despite my qualms with the “tightness ” statistic I would be very interested to see how this varies on a subnational scale. If it is measuring something informative and useful the correlations should start going up as you proceed down to a finer grain (“tightness” may be representative of only one region, while GNP per capita and the independent variables are drawn from the whole nation).

Though the top line of the research is focused on inter-cultural differences, the authors argue for the importance of cultural context to individual response and expectation. This is actually pretty obvious on the internet, and even among Americans. There are lots of cryptic subcultures and cultures which bubble up out of the woodwork when something of dispute comes to the fore. Prior to the issue which highlights the differences, one may not have been aware of implicit or background variation in norms.

The future direction of this sort of research will be in the direction of gene-culture coevolution and pathogen-culture coevolution, and their combinations. Pathogens are critical covariates of any shift toward dense living, and in the modern world tend to hit those from historic low density backgrounds much worse. The difference between high conformity and low conformity to me is well illustrated by the varied paths toward Christianization of the peoples of Oceania. In Polynesia the missionaries generally converted the chiefs, who then brought their people to the new faith en masse. Apparently this was just not feasible among Australian Aborigines, who were only predominantly Christianized by the 1970s. This development had to occur one individual at a time, because the “big men” in these societies simply had no ability or will to enforce conformity of religious belief.

Citation: Gelfand MJ, Raver JL, Nishii L, Leslie LM, Lun J, Lim BC, Duan L, Almaliach A, Ang S, Arnadottir J, Aycan Z, Boehnke K, Boski P, Cabecinhas R, Chan D, Chhokar J, D’Amato A, Ferrer M, Fischlmayr IC, Fischer R, Fülöp M, Georgas J, Kashima ES, Kashima Y, Kim K, Lempereur A, Marquez P, Othman R, Overlaet B, Panagiotopoulou P, Peltzer K, Perez-Florizno LR, Ponomarenko L, Realo A, Schei V, Schmitt M, Smith PB, Soomro N, Szabo E, Taveesin N, Toyama M, Van de Vliert E, Vohra N, Ward C, & Yamaguchi S (2011). Differences between tight and loose cultures: a 33-nation study. Science (New York, N.Y.), 332 (6033), 1100-4 PMID: 21617077

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture, Social Science
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  • John Emerson

    I have trouble seeing Norway (9.5, between So. Korea and Turkey) Iceland (6.4, between Germany and France) and the Netherlands (3.3, between Brazil and Israel) as being as widely-spaced as that. I would also suspect that the Ukraine, the Netherlands, and Brazil, and Brazil are loose in quite different ways and for quite different reasons.

    It looks pretty much GIGO to me.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    “there are many more opportunities for “free riding” in dense and large scale societies. In contrast, inter-personal relationships are probably sufficient for cultures which exist mostly at the band level. The Code of Hammurabi is only necessary in cultures where personal relationships have diffused to the point where impersonal rules and heuristics need to be interposed between parties which are literally or de facto strangers.”

    Robin Hanson succinctly put it “towns norm best“.

    “Tightness” sounds like a preference for survival over self-expression values in WVS terms. Although the picture in that link doesn’t seem to match up well with these numbers.

  • http://opines.mythusmage.org Alan Kellogg

    In a Grantville Gazette story one down timer observes how the up timers see themselves as free of neamingless regulation, when in all actuality they are bound by rules and regulations the down time Germans would barely tolerate.

    (cf 1632 et al. by Eric Flint)

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I see the author’s themselves are noting scores of nations surprising, so I won’t try to compare. (I _did_ find the US vs Norway score relation surprising, even without knowing what goes into the score; I would have placed US as “tight” on my experience of Texas.)

    What I can say that Norway certainly has the historical potential to be “tight” and it would have surprised me no end if it didn’t place in the tail of such a distribution. The religious lutheran heritage runs deep in this naturally isolated populated nation (mountain coastal region, bad climate, bad weather).

    It is a good nation to go to for earning money. It is AFAIK noted by many through the years that it isn’t a good nation to go to for experiencing personal freedom; at least it is the rumor in neighboring nations. (But IIRC it is also rumored that this, personal freedom vs community rules, is changing lately.)

    I just wish I could provide references on what is, after all, mere anecdote correlated to my perception of it. :-/

  • John Emerson

    The US has extreme variability, with the South and rural areas tighter and the west coast loosest.

    Rural areas still see life in terms of face-to-face personal relationships and personal obligation and responsibility. This applies to things you wouldn’t necessarily expect, like bankruptcy. In the business world and in cities generally bankruptcy is regarded as an unfortunate outcome, but often the best business choice in a given situation. In small towns it’s regarded as shameful and fraudulent.

  • DK

    The proper response to the ranking obtained would be “look, it does not make any sense – we either totally screwed all of this up or we need to come up with a way of explaining it all so that it does make sense”. But this being an academic social science, the authors proceed publishing the results as if there is any indication that they make any sense in some way, shape or form. “Tight and loose”. Jeez, why not “wet and dry”?

  • Charles Nydorf

    I also have the impression that the relative rankings do not agree with any reasonable definition of looseness or tightness. A friend cursed very mildly in an Israeli bank. He thought the clerk was being too fussy and he asked her to ‘stop beating on the samovar’ (hak nit keyn tshaynik). The clerk responded by bursting into tears, asking the other workers incredulously if they heard what he just said, and quoting it for them.

  • John Emerson

    That doesn’t sound like the Israel my friends have visited.

  • Charles Nydorf

    @John
    They evidently didn’t frequent banks whose clerks were hired from the Yiddish-speaking Orthodox community.

  • Koreansentry

    If North Korea was included in this analysis, I’m pretty sure North Korea would have made to No.1, I’m surprised China didn’t made to top 3 because China is definitely more tighter than Pakistan, India, Malaysia and South Korea. Which proves there must have been distorted stats from China.

  • Dragon Horse

    I disagree, China is not more tight than South Korea. If I had to rank East Asia it would be, most tight to less:

    Korea,
    Japan,
    Taiwan,
    Mainland China.

    The social norms and controls in Korea and Japan just can’t compare to Taiwan, and the Cultural Revolution in China had significant affect on many areas of Chinese traditional culture, many of which you can still see in Taiwan, but are absent in China (and many Mainland Chinese who come into contact with Taiwanese note this, especially in the way women behave in relations to the larger society, their social power).

    I would ague that since China is big and regionally diverse it can vary. I would imagine that southern China is more “traditional” than the North, so tighter. South being any place south of Shanghai.

    I would argue women have more power in Mainland China than Korea or Japan, they start more businesses, more outspoken, less subservient to men. I would also argue that the crime rate in Taiwan is higher than Japan or Korea, as it likely is (but stats in China are fixed by the government) in Mainland China than the previous three because of lack of social controls, especially when it comes to cheating people, stealing, and other non-violent crimes.

    We could also look at differences in littering, quality of products, respect for nature in general, cursing in public, etc.

  • dave chamberlin

    Such a strange, flawed, but still interesting study. John Emerson nailed it when he criticized it as GIGO. You can’t paint a broad brush across a whole country and label it as a certain degree of measurable looseness or tightness. You can’t even measure people individually with set questions because looseness is so variable and relative. But still it remains like a planted seed in our collective heads that there really is a tremendous variation between societies and individuals of this strange quality that this study attempts so poorly to measure. I can’t think of a single person who has seen this more clearly than Razib. He has spent two weeks in a fundamentalist muslim seminary in Pakistan and he has spent over a decade in the USA west coast university environment. The United States is a mobile society and we intentionally sort ourselves with our own kind. Every large city has a bohemian enclave at it’s center and more conservative suburbs on it’s fringes. This study is food for thought but as real science it is junk food.

  • commenter

    I have to go with the garbage in – garbage out guys on this one.
    The only way it adds to our understanding is by pointing out how parochial
    psychology professors can be without their realizing.

    Background – I’ve lived 26 years in New York, followed by 26 years in Israel.
    Criteria that give the results in that table for Israel have to be irrelevant criteria.

    Israelis might be “loose” on the criteria this report studied, but they would come out very “tight”
    (=low tolerance of deviant behavior, in the words of the paper) on a different set of criteria more suitable to how they perceive the world, criteria that may be invisible to an American psychology professor – things like attitudes towards family, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, work ethic, housekeeping standards, individual responsibility to the wider community, hospitality.

    The definition of deviant behavior varies from society to society.

    For example, just as foreigners can be scandalized by Israeli manners, Israelis are scandalized by foreign manners. It would be a scandal in any Israeli nursery class to have a birthday party and not invite everyone in the class to the party, because feelings could be hurt. I have listened to Israelis who postdoc’d in the US who years later were still aghast at being told they could not bring along an extra child to a party “because there weren’t enough colored plates and cups”. The Americans were “tight” about the table settings, while the Israelis were “tight” about insulting children.

    Or another example of low tolerance of deviant behavior –
    I bet it did not occur to her to include attitudes towards having children altogether.
    There is pretty low tolerance here of the deviant behavior of not planning to have a family.
    That might not occur to an American nowadays, since the option of not having a family has become taken for granted.

    “…Gelfand was surprised to find that Israel — which is under threat from its neighbors and its desert environment — is still culturally loose. Gelfand suspects that’s in part because lots of Israelis came from relatively loose cultures in Eastern Europe. “It’s also a culture of argumentation, debate, dissent, that really is very much consistent with Judaism. And these things all promote looseness,” she says.”

    You could even say there’s low tolerance of the deviant behavior of not arguing, when arguing would be appropriate. There is low tolerance for not taking personal responsibility, and that can include the responsibility to argue for your point of view.

    In her comment I suspect she’s giving away that she probably isn’t a first generation American,
    and may not be personally familiar with eastern european jewish culture.
    I can’t imagine she would say this if she had grown up with parents born in the “old world”.
    I’m first generation American, and grew up in a neighborhood where people came from all over the world. My high school had people who spoke 26 languages, if I remember correctly.
    Even to me as a child, it was clear that, as far as “looseness/tightness”, things divided up better
    by American born or old world born, rather than by ethnic group. My polish born father, his Italian born mother, her chinese father – were tight. The Jewish-american mother, the Italian-american father, the chinese-american mother – they were american and had american influenced values.

    “But the first point is of more concern to me: the aggregation of genuinely different societies into one sample.”

    There’s no point in trying to analyze the supposed reason for the findings if the findings are just wrong. I haven’t read the article, but I looked at the abstract and supporting online material.
    Parts of it read like nonsense.

    Note that the Israeli author (7) is not a researcher at a university,
    but a freelance human resources interviewer –
    http://il.linkedin.com/pub/assaf-almaliach/11/137/347
    ie he may have been hired to administer the questionnaire
    without first applying a local sanity check.

  • commenter

    got it! they’re not measuring “strength of norms and a tolerance of deviant behavior”.
    They’re measuring compliance to a particular notion of public decorum.

  • ackbark

    Is it that Jews as a group, perhaps counterintuitively, have a lower level of social conservative personalities?

    Because social conservative personalities would, in the already segregated Jewish diaspora communities, default towards orthodox rigidity which is a lot less favorable in an already ghettoized circumstance, because of the way it highlights distinctiveness from the surrounding populations and works to limit interaction?

    So Jewish culture has been, historically, broadly selective against social conservatism?

  • DK

    And, of course, this bullshit of a study got into Science. I’d say the handling editor and reviewers are as much to blame.

  • Jane

    As a long-term American resident of Japan, I would say that I get a lot more gasps and tut-tuts from Americans when saying something that is not “politically correct” than I do from Japanese, while I get more tut-tuts from Japanese when the correct form is not followed – so which is “tight” and which is “loose”?

    Also, didn’t see questions asked like, “Would you take a bath nude with strangers?” or “Would you allow your school-age children to sleep with the parent of the opposite sex?” I think the answers of most Japanese would be on the “loose” side while many American answers would be on the “tight” side.

    I could go on and on, but basically I find the study very flawed and shallow in its initial presumptions. Just shows that you can apply statistics to anything.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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