Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tight versus Loose Cultures

There's a very interesting paper in last week's Science, Gelfand et al, Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study (subscription/payment required).  They constructed a new scale (using the questions above) designed to measure how uptight the culture of a given country was versus being loose and easygoing.  They gave this survey to 6823 people in 33 countries and established that the scale was reasonably consistent (people within the country agree more-or-less on their country's value on the scale, but there is a reasonable degree of variation between different countries).

Here's a subset of their Table 1, showing a few values:

At least for me, this matches my prejudices about what kinds of places are easygoing, and what kinds of places are uptight.

Next, they studied correlations with a whole bunch of other variables:
Table S3 illustrates that nations that have encountered ecological and historical threats have much stronger norms and lower tolerance of deviant behavior. Tight nations have higher population density in the year 1500 (r = 0.77, P = 0.01), in the year 2000 in the nation (r = 0.31, P = 0.10), and in the year 2000 in rural areas (r = 0.59; P = 0.02), and also have a higher projected population increase (r = 0.40, P = 0.03). Tight nations have a dearth of natural resources, including a lower percentage of farmland (r = –0.37, P = 0.05), higher food deprivation (r = 0.52, P < 0.01), lower food supply and production (r = –0.36, P = 0.05, and –0.40, P = 0.03, respectively), lower protein and fat supply (rs = –0.41 and –0.46, Ps = 0.03 and 0.01), less access to safe water (r = –0.50, P = 0.01), and lower air quality (r = –0.44, P = 0.02), relative to loose nations. Tight nations face more disasters such as floods, tropical cyclones, and droughts (r = 0.47, P = 0.01) and have had more territorial threats from their neighbors during the period 1918–2001 (r = 0.41, P = 0.04). Historical prevalence of pathogens was higher in tight nations (r = 0.36, P = 0.05), as were the number of years of life lost to communicable diseases (r = 0.59, P < 0.01), the prevalence of tuberculosis (r = 0.61, P < 0.01), and infant and child mortality rates (rs = 0.42, P = 0.02, and 0.46, P= 0.01).

Tightness-looseness is reflected in societal institutions and practices (table S3). Tight nations are more likely to have autocratic rule that suppresses dissent (r = 0.47, P = 0.01), less open media overall (r = –0.53, P < 0.01), more laws and regulations and political pressures and controls for media (rs = 0.37 to 0.62, Ps ≤ 0.05), and less access to and use of new communication technologies (r = –0.38, P = 0.04). Tight nations also have fewer political rights and civil liberties (rs = –0.50 and –0.45, Ps ≤ 0.01). Criminal justice institutions in tight nations are better able to maintain social control: There are more police per capita (r = 0.31, P = 0.12), stricter punishments (i.e., retention of the death penalty) (r = 0.60, P < 0.01), and lower murder rates and burglary rates (rs = –0.45 and –0.47, Ps < 0.01) and overall volume of crime (r = –0.37, P = 0.04). Tight nations are more religious, with more people attending religious services per week (r = 0.54, P < 0.01) and believing in the importance of god in life (r = 0.37, P < 0.05) (20). The percentage of people participating in collective actions (e.g., signing petitions, attending demonstrations) is much lower in tight nations (r = –0.40, P = 0.03), and more people report that they would never engage in such actions (r = 0.36, P = 0.05) in comparison to loose nations.
So the picture that emerges is that places with a history of high population relative to resources, and/or a lot of external threats (hostile neighbors, natural disasters) are likely to develop a tight culture over time.  This in turn predisposes them to more autocratic political systems and fewer civil rights.

I expect that coming decades will be somewhat more difficult and stressful in developed countries than the last few decades for a variety of reasons: peaking of oil supplies, climate change, increasing competition from emerging economies, and increasing automation displacing lower skilled individuals from the labor force.

The analysis of this paper suggests that the response is likely to be for the cultures in these countries to slowly tighten - to become less tolerant of deviance, more autocratic, with less openness and weaker civil rights.  This view is consistent with an analysis my friend Southsider1 did some time back arguing that the black death in Europe caused a strengthening of state institutions of control, and that peak oil might be similar.


Anonymous said...

Good post. I have no doubt peak oil will lead to increasing autocracy.

dr2chase said...

I'm curious how that plays out here -- seems to me that in the US, energy consumption is what is conforming (only DFHs ride bicycles, put solar collectors on their roof, eat vegetarian, etc).

Auntie J said...

I'd be interested to see where China falls on that scale. They have a lot of natural resources, but a lot of people too...

Derwein said...


I find the hypothesis quite interesting and not at all difficult to believe in. Still I wonder a bit on how the discussion on methodology looks like.

I have worked quite a lot with questionnaires mostly on a national basis, but also a couple of times in international settings. Questionnaires are extremely sensitive to minor changes in wording and context. This implies that minor changes in nuances resulting from translations might affect the results. Sometimes I have wondered if it is possible at all to make comparisons between different countries based on questionnaire answers.

Although the presented questions seem rather straightforward you must be wary of possible problems from resulting from translations. To what extent do the authors discuss this and what are their conclusions. Have they in any way been able to validate their (measuring) instrument. I am not sure that the consistency you refer goes very long in regard to validating.

/ Jan

alabaster said...

I agree with Derwein's concerns about the methodology.

For example: 'social norms' appears in two of the questions. In German, a 'norm' is 'eine Regel' - the same word that is used for a rule or a regulation. Someone in Germany is much more likely to abide by 'social rules' than by 'social norms': the reason for this, I think, is that the concept 'norm' includes an assumption about average behaviour, an assumption that is absent from our concept of 'rules'. To put this another way: norms are derived from people, while rules are applied to people. There is an important qualitative difference.

I don't know Japanese, or Greek, etc., but the same problems of translation could well be present in the other countries too.

Kevthefarmer said...

Yes, well whether its a good thing or a bad thing depends a lot on who'se setting the agenda, doesn't it? If it's a genuine grassroots culture then that's no bad thing. Cultural cohesiveness makes a people brave thing Tibetans. However, if it's manipulated by clever, ambitious psychopaths, think Nazi's

Stuart Staniford said...

On the translation methodology questions, this is what they say (in the supplemental material):

We used the translation- backtranslation procedure, which is the most widely accepted method for conducting survey translations (S3). This procedure entails having the survey instrument translated from the original language (i.e., English) to the second language (i.e., local languages) by one translator, and then having a second independent translator re- translate the survey back to the original language. In cases where discrepancies between the two versions arose, the translators discussed the discrepancies and resolved them by selecting the most appropriate and understandable translation. In each nation where translation was necessary, collaborators selected the two translators and oversaw this process to ensure that the final version of the survey was translated accurately. Scales in all languages are available from the first author.
Response sets vary across nations, such that individuals in some nations are systematically more likely to provide extreme responses and acquiesce to survey items than in others (S4-5). To reduce the influence of cross-cultural response sets on our data, we used procedures outlined by Van de Vijer and Leung (S5). We used the within-subject standardization procedure that adjusts the scores for each individual using the mean for that individual across all variables (S5-6). To do so, the mean for each person’s responses
to all of the items in the survey was first calculated. We then standardized all items in the survey by subtracting each item from that person’s mean response to all items. Standardized data were used in all analyses. The results did not change substantially whether standardized or unstandardized scores were used. All data are available from the first author.

Derwein said...

Well, it seems the authors have treated the problem with language/translations and cultural differences that might affect the measurements thoroughly. Which you of course would expect since the study was published in Science.

Stuart Staniford said...

p-roc's Mom: China scored a 7.9, so tighter than pretty much all the western nations, but looser than the other Asian countries in the sample.

Auntie J said...

You know, the one objection I have to this classification system is our own subcultures here in the States: you can't really say that resources are more abundant, the further down the socioeconomic scale you go, but I think there's a pretty good case that poorer subcultures here are, indeed, "looser".

I guess it's an issue of what you're measuring, exactly. Poor people bear the brunt of any authoritarian structures' heavy-handedness, in this country, but don't tend to have "tighter" cultural structures of their own as a result.

I had always kind of hoped that as we move into a more resource-scarce time, we adopt the looser habits of our subcultures, and less of that tighter, top-down authoritarianism...

Nick G said...

So, fear makes people more accepting of conformity, autocracy and authoritarianism?

Golly, could that have something to do with the popularity of terrorism, crime, drug dealers, communists and stranger danger as topics of conversation for politicians and news organizations??

Russel Harris said...

Israel, where I live, has earned itself a very loose rating (not wholly unexpected for a Med-based culture), which seems to be very much not the norm, esp. when you consider the lack of natural resources and +60 years of conflict with its neighbours.

Your conclusion, however, is a very accurate decription of Israel's neighbours:

"places with a history of high population relative to resources, and/or a lot of external threats (hostile neighbors, natural disasters) are likely to develop a tight culture over time. This in turn predisposes them to more autocratic political systems and fewer civil rights."

It also explains why things are going wrong in my former country (South Africa): spiraling population growth and insufficient access to resources / service delivery, and the growing HIV/Aids infection rate is coausing unrest in the population. The government response: a cutback on media freedoms as well as scapegoating of the media, the former regime, and the minority white population.