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A discovery I and my team published in Science is that the strength of a culture’s norms isn’t random. Though they were separated by miles and, and in some cases centuries, tight cultures as diverse as Sparta and Singapore have something in common: each faced (or faces) a high degree of threat, whether from Mother Nature – disasters, diseases, and food scarcity – or human nature – the chaos caused by invasions and internal conflicts. Strong norms are needed in these contexts to help groups survive. And when we look at loose cultures, from classical Athens to modern New Zealand, we see the opposite pattern: they enjoy the luxury of facing far fewer threats. This safety is used to explore new ideas, accept newcomers, and tolerate a wide range of behaviour. In contexts where there are fewer threats and thus less of a need for coordination, strong norms don’t materialise…
Analysing hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups, as well as nation-states including the Aztecs and Incas, we found that cultures that experienced existential threats, such as famine and warfare, favoured strong norms and autocratic leaders. Our computer models show a similar effect: threat leads to the evolution of tightness.
This tight-loose logic also applies to regional differences within countries. We’ve shownthat US states with histories punctuated by high threat, including more natural disasters, higher pathogen prevalence and food instability, are much tighter than those that enjoyed relative safety. Similarly, communities that face financial danger – hunger, poverty, bankruptcy – and higher occupational hazards, are substantially tighter. This helps explain why those on low incomes have consistently told us they desire strong rules and leaders. In fact, when we ask respondents to free-associate from the word “rules”, low-income subjects consistently write positive words such as “good”, “safe” and “structure”, while wealthier ones write down words such as “bad”, “frustrating”, and “constricting”. These preferences arise early: in our lab, three-year-olds from low-income families were more visibly upset than peers from wealthier homes when they saw puppets violate clear rules.
Is tight better, then, or loose? The answer is, neither are. Both confer different advantages and liabilities, depending on your vantage point. Tight groups have cornered the market in social order: they have lower crime and tend to be cleaner and more coordinated. They also exhibit higher self-control: they tend to have fewer problems with obesity and debt, and lower rates of alcoholism and drug abuse. Loose groups are comparatively more disorganised and experience a host of self-regulation failures; yet they excel at openness. They’re much more tolerant, creative and flexible. Tight groups, by contrast, are far less innovative, more ethnocentric, and more resistant to new ideas. This is what I call the tight-loose trade-off; advantages in one realm coexist with drawbacks in another.