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August 15, 2022

It’s surely unfair to expect a brilliant scientist to also be a brilliant author. Some of the most valuable books I’ve encountered in my research have been the dreariest to read: repetitive, dense and joyless prose turning what could have been a fascinating journey through a world of ideas into an after-school detention. Psychology professor Michele Gelfand, though, manages to put those books to shame with the lucid and fascinating Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, which achieved that clichéd goal of popular science books: truly changing the way a reader see the world.

Rule Makers, Rule Breakers explores Gelfand’s research into differences between cultures. Specifically, she describes cultures that are (using terms invented by Finnish-American anthropologist Pertti Pelto) “tight” and “loose”. Tight cultures are conformist “rule makers” while loose ones are creative “rule breakers”. According to Gelfand, tight nations include India, Singapore, South Korea, Norway, Turkey, China and Portugal; loose nations include Spain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, the Netherlands and Ukraine. (The UK sits somewhere towards the middle, and is slowly becoming looser.)

Life in tight nations can be strict compared to looser places, which have weaker social norms and a more permissive way of being. Gelfand contrasts tight Japan where “trains almost never arrive late” with loose Brazil where “clocks on city streets all read a different time, and arriving late for business meetings is more the rule than the exception. If Brazilians want to insist on timeliness, they will ask you to arrive “com pontualidade britânica” (“with British punctuality”). In notoriously tight Germany there are “mandated quiet hours” on certain days, during which lawn-mowing, loud music and washing machine use is forbidden. “After one Cologne resident complained about a yapping dog, a judge allowed the dog to bark for only 30 minutes a day in 10-minute intervals.”

What makes all this especially powerful is Gelfand’s understanding that we absorb the rules of our time and place, internalising them so that, to an extent, we become them. The halting but demonstrably true fact is that certain cultures produce, on average, certain kinds of human. We’re a tribal species and our brains are programmed to learn local norms, to follow them and to judge others by how closely or otherwise they conform to them. We need rules in order to live successfully in co-operative groups; they are our “cure for chaos”. And we love our rules. Gelfand quotes the Greek adventurer Herodotus who, in roughly 450 BC, observed our ethnocentric nature: “If one were to order all mankind to choose the best set of rules in the world, each group would, after due consideration, choose its own customs; each group regards its own as being by far the best.”

It’s not that loose nations don’t have any rules at all, then, but that they take them marginally less seriously than the tight. And so sometimes dramatic differences arise between people of different cultures. Loose types, raised in a more laissez-faire environment, tend to possess less self-control than the tighties. “People in the United States, New Zealand, Greece and Venezuela weigh much more than people in tight countries like India, Japan, Pakistan and Singapore, even taking into account a country’s wealth and people’s average height,” writes Gelfand, adding that, in the US, “over 50% of dogs and cats are overweight or obese, including my own dog, Pepper”. Similarly, loose countries such as Spain, Estonia and New Zealand are some of the booziest in the world, while tight Singapore, India and China are among the most abstemious.

In cultures that have “little tolerance for deviance”, though, life can get rather hatey. Tight nations are often not welcoming of outsiders. China reportedly “ranks in the 90th percentile of countries with the most negative attitudes toward foreigners”, while in Japan “many landlords have a ‘no foreigners’ policy, and certain bathhouses, shops, restaurants and hotels deny entry to foreign customers”. Closer to home, surveys show that “almost 30% of Austrian citizens hold anti-Semitic attitudes”. Research by Gelfand and her team, involving more than 33,000 people in 19 countries, found loose nations to be the most tolerant, being “much more willing to live next to a wider range of people, including homosexuals, individuals from a different race or religion, foreign workers, unmarried couples and those who have AIDS”.

In an especially fascinating passage, Gelfand examines the causes of tightness. Her conclusion is straightforward: it’s a response to trouble. When the going gets tough, groups get tight. Each tight culture her team looked at “had (or has) to deal with a high degree of threat, whether from Mother Nature and her constant fury of disasters, diseases and food scarcity, or from human nature and the chaos caused by invasions and internal conflicts”. Take China: here is a nation that borders 14 countries, each of which it has fallen out with at some point. As well as experiencing “massive conflict throughout its history”, internally and externally, China has suffered terrible assaults by nature, having lost 25 times more lives to natural disasters, over the past 50 years, than the US. It also has relatively few natural resources, when compared with looser nations, and suffers from poor access to safe water and significant food deprivation. (It’s worth noting here that tight and loose differences can also be found across individual states of the US, with looseness found more in the north, and tightness down south.)

As I read Rule Makers, it occurred to me that you could apply the tight-loose paradigm not just to cultures, but to all human groups. I applied this to the book I was researching, The Status Game, in which I note that some political movements are tighter than others, as are some religions — even some corporate cultures. The tightest groups of all are cults: they’re extremely ethnocentric and demand absolute adherence to their rules with sometimes terrible punishments meted out to deviants. Cult members, like culture-members, tend to internalise their group’s rules. One former participant in the Heaven’s Gate cult wrote (the caps are his): “I WANTED TO BE IN [THE HEAVEN’S GATE] PROGRAM AND WANTED TO ABIDE BY ALL THEIR RULES. [Not conforming] would be tantamount to wanting to be a NASA astronaut but deciding this or that procedure didn’t need to be adhered to.” Another wrote: “We weren’t here to be programmed or brainwashed. We were here to beg to be brainwashed.”

It also occurred to me that it might be possible to view the culture wars through this lens. In The Status Game I note demographic research by More in Common that described a cohort called “Progressive Activists” as those “motivated by the pursuit of social justice” (you know who they mean). Progressive Activists make more contributions to social media than any other group, and are also the wealthiest and most highly educated group in the UK. And they have certainly tightened up over the last 14 or so years, becoming more conformist and less tolerant of those who don’t share their beliefs.

It’s significant, then, that this group has suffered a drop in perceived status: highly-educated millennials are more qualified but 20% less wealthy than Boomers were at the same age: the average millennial’s worth in 2016 was 41% less than those of a similar age in 1989. They’re finding it harder to secure jobs suited to their level of education, or get on the housing ladder, and are burdened with student debt, graduating with an average deficit of £40,000. Since 2008’s Global Financial Crisis, they’ve lived with the sense that the game of life is fixed against them; that there is major trouble afoot for their group.

Meanwhile their enemies — Brexity-minded, anti-globalisation, anti-immigration nationalists — have also endured a period of trouble. During the era of globalisation, the white working-class communities of Britain have been significantly impacted by incoming populations of black, eastern European and Muslim workers. This group feels ignored and disrespected by highly-educated politicians and much of the media-class, who dismiss them as little more than aggressive, ignorant bigots. So, they tighten up. Of course they do: they’re human, and that’s what humans do.

My analysis here is speculative. While it may be impossible to prove that tightness, fuelled by declines in relative status, is at work in the culture wars, the evidence is there. It’s also a potentially worrying augur for the future. The ramifications of the Covid economy, the invasion of Ukraine and Brexit are descending. It’s possible that all this pressure will tighten us up on a national level, as it did in the Second World War, and we’ll all move closer together; the two sides of the culture war may focus less on their own local battles as their attention moves to recession, fuel bills and winter blackouts. But if these groups continue to look inwards, neither the wealthy, educated activists nor the angry, dismissed white poor will be loosening up their mindsets, or their prejudices, any time soon.

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