Michele Gelfand on Rule Makers, Rule Breakers
Oct 28 2019

Rule-Makers-Rule-Breakers.jpg Psychologist Michele Gelfand talks about her book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Gelfand distinguishes between loose cultures and tight cultures--the degree to which culture and regulation restrict behavior or leave it alone. Gelfand explores the causes of why some cultures are tighter than others and the challenges societies face when culture is too tight or too loose. She also applies these ideas of cultural tightness and looseness to corporate mergers and family life.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Oct 28 2019 at 11:51am

The “2% of people make minimum wage” comment about misperception is incredibly unhelpful. The only people that receive exactly minimum wage are those that have been hired at minimum wage and have never, at their current job, received a raise of any kind (not even a penny!). It doesn’t tell us that 20-30% of hourly workers have their wages set close to and in reference to the minimum wage. That journalists think it is 20% earning minimum wage isn’t a misperception of the exact level of hourly wages at $7.25 (and not $7.26!, which is a sufficiently large difference to cause the journalist to be wrong here) — it is actually a fairly accurate perception of number of people that earn close enough to the minimum wage that the difference is typically not very meaningful when you are looking or talking to them.

It’s just an annoying statistic that conveys essentially nothing except the number of people that were hired at minimum wage (probably in a fairly noncompetitive market) and have never received even a single penny raise from their current employer. That that description fits 2% of employees isn’t shocking and that journalists wouldn’t have a good sense of what percentage of people they talk to earn at least one penny more $7.25  but not significantly more is also not shocking.

Russ Roberts
Oct 28 2019 at 3:55pm

I guess it depends on what you mean by “close to” the minimum wage. Here is a CBO study of the distribution of hourly wages. Check out figure 7. Can be misleading because the vertical axis is truncated but over time, men and women in the 10th percentile are not very close to the minimum wage by my measure of “close to.”

Oct 29 2019 at 10:24am

“30% of all hourly, non-self-employed workers 18 and older — are in that ‘near-minimum-wage’ category'”and “89 percent of minimum-wage workers are paid more than the federal $7.25”. Excluding 89% of people making minimum wage (by using the federal minimum wage) and then saying journalists are off on their estimates of minimum wage earners by 90% (only 1% more than 89%) and then attributing the 1% difference to a great misperception just seems unhelpful.

Also, from your own CBO study, the 10th percentile (so well above 2% from the interview) of both men and women are within 20% of even the federal minimum wage (and for women the 10th percentile is just 9% above the minimum wage),  which I would certainly classify as near.



“After analyzing public-use microdata for 2013 from the Current Population Survey (the same monthly survey that underpins the BLS’s wage and employment reports), we estimate that last year about 20.6 million people — 30% of all hourly, non-self-employed workers 18 and older — are in that “near-minimum-wage” category. That includes 8.8 million people in states with minimums above $7.25, and 11.8 million in states where the federal rate applies.

This broader group of low-wage workers looks much like the approximately 3.3 million hourly workers who earned the federal minimum or less last year. (The $7.25 rate doesn’t apply to tipped workers and a few other categories.) Altogether, nearly 24 million workers would potentially benefit from a minimum-wage increase to $10.10.”


“The Upshot piece explores how the share of workers being paid exactly the federal minimum wage is relatively small. There are two reasons why this is the case. First, the article observes that 89 percent of minimum-wage workers are paid more than the federal $7.25, because 29 states and some 40+ cities and counties have set their own minimum wages above the federal floor.”

Benjamin Schoenberg
Nov 1 2019 at 9:13am

Big fan Russ, loved the beginning of this conversation.  However, I think the application of Michele’s t-l cultures loses some of its persuasiveness outside of the analysis of organizational behavior but still found it all interesting.

I am persuaded by the data that continuing to raise the mw will push a portion of the labor pool out of the job market.  However, the rational claiming folks who make under 7.25-12$ an hour (w-out benefits), who feel they cannot catch up with their necessary bills, actually have a perception problem when compared to those making similar wage levels relative to inflation in the 1970’s, seems rooted mainly in ideological principles not an evaluation of absolute material progress/condition.  It is an interesting conversation and I respectfully suggest you find an interlocutor to nail down some of the dimensions of.  I took a morality, economy and material progress elective in my undergrad econ class and loved it.  However, it was ultimately difficult to consensually “measure” what we meant as a class by material progress in absolute terms.  I would love to hear a conversation around the sticky dimensions of this issue because our current politics is a zero-sum method to “solving” a problem that calls for a quant/qual approach and some consensus.

Oct 28 2019 at 6:35pm

I’d say that around 2 dollar/h are pretty close. Also strange that the minimum wage (in real terms) isn’t higher now than in 1979 according to the data you reference. Seem to support the standard findings on the stagnation of lower wage workers in the us.

Oct 30 2019 at 12:37pm

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.  If you consider someone making 27% more than that “close” that is your choice to do so, but it seems like a big difference to me.  I’m 5′ 9″ tall, and I wouldn’t consider myself “close” to the same height as Shaquille O’Neal who is 7′ 1″ and that is only a 23% difference.

Oct 28 2019 at 7:01pm

The fact that the traditional gatekeepers are no longer the only deciders of who the experts are seems exciting and democratizing! The internet has allowed anyone to become an expert.  Media, higher education, banks and other gatekeepers no longer have a monopoly on bestowing the expertise label. The people—not the gatekeepers—decide. If you can successfully build an audience or a loyal client base on a platform, you are an expert (and usually deservedly so).  There are people who act like experts and dupe a ton of people on the internet, but is that any different in the real world? A lot of the real world false experts receive their expertise labels from the traditional gatekeepers.  Today, it seems the battle to regulate the internet is waged by the traditional gatekeepers who, consciously or unconsciously, exaggerate the dangers of false expertise so they can restrict the internet’s ability to democratize expertise and create competitors.

Oct 29 2019 at 8:55am

Are populist leaders a way for people to seek order and tightness? It seems so but it is contradictory, populists are against institutions.

Oct 29 2019 at 4:19pm

This was an entertaining listen, but I didn’t come away with any new insights.

I don’t think the tight/loose distinction has near so much explanatory power as Michele seems to think.  Her attempts to tie this concept to current phenomena like Trump, Brexit, and the immigration controversy were forced and unpersuasive.

I also don’t think the public’s inability to guess the number of illegal immigrants or minimum wage workers is much cause for alarm.  In neither case is the public’s concern really driven by the exact number.

Tom Murin
Oct 30 2019 at 5:23pm

My thoughts exactly. No real takeaways here – and I doubt that their measurements are very accurate.

We’re not going back to trusting “experts” – so many of them have been exposed as being anything but.

Al McCabe
Nov 7 2019 at 2:48am

I agree.  This was far more about everyone’s stereotypes and biased views than any real data.

For example, American TV/Movies/Plays are all very narrow in their world view right, all governed by the strict rules of PC dogma.  They only replaced one set of stereotypes and prejudices for another.  Certainly the societal punishment for going outside the lines is harsher now than McCarthyism or even WWII censorship ever was.

Earl Rodd
Oct 29 2019 at 5:59pm

Very interesting podcast. The section about Israel was most interesting!

There was a statistic I found fascinating: It was noted that a poll of Republicans showed a serious overestimation of the % of the population that is illegal aliens. Yet, it was also noted that a similar study of journalists showed an even greater overestimation of how many people earn minimum wage or below. And yet, a poll of random Republicans includes people with no quantitative sense about anything, whether relevant to their world view or not, but the journalists should know something about the numbers! (I also wonder how many respondents among Republicans confused illegal immigrants with immigrants?)

The discussion of fear driving tightening of culture was edifying. As I thought about this, I think that the phenomena of “tightening” due to fear may come about on a particular issue whether the person in general is more “tight” or “loose”. I think of the fear of cataclysmic warming (world  will end in 10 years) and the demand for authority to drastically change our entire modern life without regard to consequences. Yet the people asking this tightening may well be considered “loose” in culture!

This discussion gave voice to something I encountered in my own life some months ago. I am part of a prayer group that prays for the nation and its people. One day reading about various issues of the day and responses, I realized that while it is easy to poke fun at “snowflakes” (e.g. cataclysmic warming), whether they are right or misinformed is not all that matters. The fear is REAL and this changed my whole way to pray, especially for young people. It’s so easy to think the fear of my youth, nuclear war, was more likely than today’s fears. Maybe. But the fear is still real.




Ezra Brand
Oct 30 2019 at 5:14pm

I too found the discussions about Israel especially interesting. Israel was discussed three separate times in this episode. A few possible theories/factors regarding Israel’s looseness are mentioned by Michele and Russ. Two additional possible factors that weren’t mentioned: Israel’s Ashkenazi/Russian-sphere cultural background (Russians are known to be blunt and informal), and Israel’s communal/communist past.

Ezra Brand
Nov 6 2019 at 10:39am

I wanted to expand on my comment on possible factors for Israel’s looseness a bit more: I would posit that Israel’s Ashkenazi background is vital for understanding its loose culture. It’s not so PC nowadays to stress the fact that the modern state of Israel was  conceived by and initially populated by Ashkenazi (meaning, Eastern-European) Jews, but that’s a reality. Ashkenazi Jews are the still the dominant ruling and cultural class in Israel, though that’s been slipping since the 70s. I think stressing Ashkenazi Jewish culture vs. non-Ashkenazi Jewish culture (sometimes called “Sefardi” or “Mizrachi”, both terms are historically problematic) is important, since the cultures were historically very different.

Israel’s Ashkenazi background is important for the following few factors:

Eastern Europeans are arguably relatively blunt and informal. Gelfand in her books points out the Ukraine is a “loose” country; Ukraine was where a huge number of Jews lived (it’s a big part of the historical “Pale of Settlement” where Jews were required to live).
The Ashkenazi community was relatively meritocratic and non-hierarchical, since academic achievement was so emphasized. Intellectual cleverness and learning is prized, even by young people of lesser pedigree (of course, pedigree was still extremely important, I only mean relative to other contemporary cultures).
Related to these first two factors, humor and informality are striking aspects of Ashkenazi culture, and is well-known. It is no coincidence that a huge percentage of American comedians and humorists in the past century were Ashkenazi Jews, far out of proportion to their percentage of population. And the fact that Israeli leaders often have dimunitive nicknames that are used by everyone in the population has its roots in Ashkenazi culture.

Al McCabe
Nov 7 2019 at 2:50am

The American public estimates on average that 23% of Americans are gay or lesbian, little changed from Americans’ 25% estimate in 2011, and only slightly higher than separate 2002 estimates of the gay and lesbian population. These estimates are many times higher than the 3.8% of the adult population who identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in Gallup Daily tracking in the first four months of this year.


Oct 30 2019 at 11:53pm

“How can we get back to trusting institutions and people with information?”
How can the public return to a state of ignorance after knowing what Dan Rather and others like him did? I think that the genie has left the bottle a thousand times and there is no “make institutions great again.” The revolt of the public is a symptom of poor leadership, not due to the “normlessness” of the Internet.
The bit at the end about “pluralistic ignorance” was interesting as a counterpoint to Timur Kuran’s idea of preference falsification (covered well in The Portal podcast). For Gelfand it is up to “powerful leaders” to have conversations that shift norms (although people are “acting on a norm that does not exist”). For Kuran, a false preference is subject to breaking points in which people as a whole realize what they individually knew all along, generally acting against the current leadership.
In addition to Kuran, this podcast has lead me to re-listen to Munger on Permissionless Innovation (10/30/17). 

Marilyne Tolle
Nov 1 2019 at 5:40pm

In some sense, there is a fine line between “pluralistic ignorance” and “preference falsification” – I take the latter to be a reformulation of the former.

My understanding of preference falsification is that it describes a situation when people keep their private beliefs to themselves (because they think these beliefs are unpopular) and endorse different beliefs in public to conform with the perceived status quo, thereby “falsifying” their private preferences.

Kuran gives as an example the fact that it took decades for the Soviet Empire to collapse as people hid their private preferences (belief in private ownership) and endorsed collectivist preferences in public because everybody else did (and also because their lives were at stake if they didn’t).

The publicly endorsed beliefs are self-reinforcing because everybody believes that everybody else believes them. That is pluralistic ignorance – often described as “no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes”.

The breaking point is usually triggered by an event that pushes a few people to reveal their private beliefs, setting off a larger wave of preference revelation and eventually the collapse of the status quo.

Harry Robinson
Oct 31 2019 at 8:57am

Surely the ruling class’s or oligarchy’s, as some call them, ability to manipulate their culture to achieve their political and economic objectives, has a huge effect on society. I think her analysis is much more appropriate for micro-economic situations than macro of socio-economics.

As an example, some people try to blame social ills on the lack of a mass belief in God. Even if it were true, you just can’t prove it. The problem is you can’t disprove it either.  The same with anthropogenic global warming. It much easier to just keep making the claims, as the mainstream media does to get readers, and more and more people are believing it, despite the scientific evidence to the contrary.

An interesting discussion and surely something we should all be cognizant of.  Just be careful with trying to apply it specifically.

It would be interesting to see the effects of a lack of foreign aid to Israel and other countries.  I wonder if they are ever going to pay back all the countries that have given them aide? I argue that foreign aid promotes more authoritarian governance and thus more social and military conflict.

Nov 5 2019 at 4:43am

I found this to be a very good discussion.  I think it puts a name on something that we instinctively understand but is not often expressed.  I can remember years ago someone of the older generation saying that we cannot recognize homosexuality because, isn’t that when the Roman empire started to disintegrate??  An interesting argument and I’m leaving out the detail, but the point was actually the fear of the negative aspects of having a looser culture.  I think it explains much about the polarization of our society today.

On the other hand, I wish you had not strayed into that weird mini-conversation about experts. Anyone who has a job has to be trained and is technically an expert.  So why are we so against “experts”?  The discussion was completely unqualified.  A 15 year old is an expert? Well, then so is a 5 year old, because we are all experts on ourselves and our environment. And yes, we can learn from everyone, but isn’t that a “duh”?.  Randomly putting down some experts because you don’t like them, or because they are sponsored untrustworthy institutions, is a facile type of conversation about a worrisome topic.  What do we even have an education system for if we don’t need experts?  Let’s all just get jobs on the basis that we are “people persons”!  (And some people, by the way, actually are experts in being people persons and do have good salaries because of it, but let’s not kid ourselves that that’s all the expertise one needs for every job.)  Why are we sending are kids to university then (or is it just the “signalling” we’re after)?  Right now, there is a big problem in our government that experts are NOT being listened to.  And then you worry about fake news?  If everybody is an expert, then actually there is no such thing as fake news.  I would prefer that this topic would be handled seriously in your programme than as a weird throwaway that sends very mixed messages on a very big problem of our time.

Comments are closed.


EconTalk Extra, conversation starters for this podcast episode:

  • Loosen up?, by Owen Holzbach. Originally published Mar. 13, 2023.

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:

TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: September 5, 2019.]

Russ Roberts: My guest is psychologist and author Michele Gelfand, distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland. Her research interests include cultural norms, negotiation, conflict, revenge, forgiveness, and diversity. She is the author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, which is our topic for today. Michele, welcome to EconTalk.

Michele Gelfand: Thanks for having me.


Russ Roberts: Let's start by talking as you do in the book about the diversity of cultures and norms: how we dress, behave differently in different contexts, and the expectations we have of each other's behavior and how important that is.

Michele Gelfand: So, you know, I'm a cross-cultural psychologist and I'm interested in culture because it's such a puzzle. It's omnipresent, it's all around us, but it's invisible. It's like the story of the two fish who are swimming along and one fish says, "Hey, how's the water boys?" And they swim on and one says to the other, "What the hell is water?" And what's fascinating to me as a cross-cultural psychologist is that often it's the case that the reality around us is the most difficult to see. And for fish, that's water. But for humans, that's culture. And social norms are these--is a good example of an aspect of culture that we totally take for granted--these unwritten rules, behaviors, sometimes become more formalized and we take them for granted so much that we don't realize that we couldn't operate without them.

Like, imagine a world where you walk out into the street and most people are naked. They just decide not to wear clothes. Or you see people in restaurants stealing food off each other's plates and burping loudly. Or imagine you walk into an elevator--I've done this many times--and you face backwards. We know humans develop social norms to avoid these kinds of scenarios. We need social norms to coordinate and predict each other's behavior. And so it's a fundamental aspect of our sociality, social norms. But while all groups have social norms, some groups have much more strict social norms that are adhered to, and if you're not adhering to them, you're punished more strongly. I call these tight cultures. Other groups are much more permissive. They have weaker norms, they have more latitude, they have a wide range of behavior that's permissible, what we call loose cultures.

And I've been studying this distinction between tight and loose across modern nation states and preindustrial societies all to understand what the logic is around why tight and loose differences evolve and what consequences they have for human groups; and also how we can use this distinction to better our world.

Russ Roberts: Let's talk about an example I don't think you talk about much in the book, which is changes in tightness and looseness over time. So in the United States, I'm 64, so I have some idea of how dramatically different norms are today than they were, say 30 and 40 years ago. But certainly, you know, stereotypically in the 1950s, we used to think of that as a very, a much tighter or more rule-oriented and rigid time. And today there's more self expression, there's more room for exuberance, there's more tolerance of diversity, it feels like, across many, many dimensions of life, whether it's sex, race, gender and just sitting in the parking garage--one of the things I like to do that my kids wish we lived in a tighter culture. But do you think that's true? And do you have any thoughts on why?

Michele Gelfand: So it's a great question. And in fact, we have a paper that just came out a couple of months ago, in Nature Human Behavior that addresses exactly that question. We developed measures of tightness, looseness using computational linguistic methods. And we can track norms over the last 200 years in the United States.

And we can show exactly what you just intuited, is that norms have become much more loose over time and tightness has decreased. And what's fascinating is that this is covarying with an important trade off for groups, what we call the order versus openness trade-off. So what we know from our research that was published at the national level, at the state level, and many different levels of analysis is that groups that have strict norms have more order. They have less crime, they have less--they more monitoring; they have more synchrony and more uniformity. Even in the city clocks that are on city streets, they tend to say the same time. Loose cultures are not entirely sure what time it is because the clocks say something very different.

And they also have more self control, tight cultures. When you're in a context where there's a lot of strong punishments, you're trained from a very early age to monitor your impulses. And so there's less debt; there's less obesity, there's less alcoholism in tight cultures.

Loose cultures struggle with order, but they corner the market on openness. And our research shows that they're much more creative. They're much more open to different people, different immigrants, races, religions, and they're more open to change. So back to your question, what we could see is over the last 200 years as looseness is increasing in United States, we have this con-commitment [concomitant?--Econlib Ed.] increase in creativity and openness but decreases in order. And, in terms of debt, for example, or in terms of school attendance and other types of trends.

And we see this as a trade off--order and openness--again, not just in the modern era, but also when we code ethnographies in the pre-industrial era, we see the same exact trade off. And it doesn't mean that you can't try to achieve both, but that's another thing that we can discuss on, and how do you balance tight and loose for the maximal benefit of both of those criteria.


Russ Roberts: Now, you point out in the book that there are differences in tightness and looseness across states in the United States. And certainly most people would agree without having to see the data that California is a looser culture than West Virginia or even the District of Columbia where we're sitting today doing this interview--doing this interview face to face. And one of the fascinating things to me about the American economy is its innovativeness and its creativity. And obviously Silicon Valley, there are other places in America--Austin, Boston--there's a handful of places that are known for being particularly creative.

And I've always thought that one of the great advantages that we have in the United States and in California is that we let people get really rich, and we also let them lose all their money. So what's great about the venture capital world is that there's a lot of skin in the game. You can make it, you can build a unicorn, a billion dollar company, and you can also lose your shirt. And that's too bad. There are no bailouts. It's fantastic. So do you think it's that venture capital that allows that creativity to express itself in economically productive ways? I think without both those things--the venture capital and that creativity--you don't get a Silicon Valley.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. That's a really interesting question. I mean, just kind of backing up: When we were first starting to study this construct of tight-loose, we wanted to see, how does it relate to GDP [Gross Domestic Product], for example, or economic types of factors? And what we found at the national level is there's no direct linear relationship between GDP and tightness and looseness. You can have tight cultures that are super rich like Japan. You can have loose cultures that are poor--in our case this includes places like Brazil or Greece. And you can have all sorts of combinations. So it's not the case that loose cultures necessarily--

Russ Roberts: There are a factors. Yeah. There are. Good.

Michele Gelfand: That's right. And I think that, but your point is, said that these kinds of economic types of facilitators can help creativity, for sure. It helps people to go from rags to riches. With that said, what's super interesting in some of the recent data we collected on creativity and American creativity in general is that loose cultures really have a great benefit in terms of creating ideas, but they're not necessarily greatest at implementing them. So you think of innovation, it involves two different things that relate to tight-loose. One is creativity--the one that's really helpful when you have whose norms. But the other is: tightness helps you to actually scale up and implement. And those two factors are what I say we need to be ambidextrous about. I call it tight-loose ambidexterity--that leaders in companies need to actually have the kind of vocabulary of both tight and loose and help to deploy them as needed.

When I was interviewing people in the Silicon Valley around their jobs, they said, "You know, we are--we love looseness, we love to start up companies. We love to get bought out. But then we can't stand the people that bought us out. And we could become serial starter uppers." And it's fascinating, because I'll often--again, it's so invisible, we don't recognize how tight and loose is going to play out in our organizations, in our marriages, in our politics, etc. And one of the reasons I wrote the book is to try to kind of articulate this construct and show how it operates in different contexts so we can anticipate these struggles that we have that, had we known and been more culturally intelligent about, we might actually have better outcomes in various different contexts.


Russ Roberts: Let's think about the economy as a whole--tried to think about when I was reading your book until just now sitting here. In a way, a free market economy is the ultimate loose economy. It's spontaneous. It's responsive. Information is flowing in a very decentralized, non-top-down, instead rather bottom-up, way that allows an incredible flexibility. So we don't worry about most things that are going on in the economy at the, what we would call microeconomics level, because they get taken care of. The profit incentive and the loss incentive work very, very powerfully to do that. And yet, at the same time, if you don't have some institutional structure around that--what we could call tightness, certain rules, rule of law, property rights and so on--again, you don't unleash the value of that ambidexterity.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, that's exactly right. Actually, in the book, I call this the Goldilocks principle of tight and loose because for centuries, economists, philosophers, psychologists, all weighing in on what's better, freedom over constraint. You have people like Plato and Confucius and Hobbes, they're like, "Oh, we need constraint." Then you have people like John Stuart Mill or Freud who thought that rules are terrible, they make us neurotic. And, he was neurotic obviously. And for centuries we were like, 'Which is the answer? What's the right answer?' And you know, I don't think there was a lot of data out there. And we could see that actually: Too much freedom or too much constraint are bad for economies. They're bad for happiness. We can see this; we call this a curvilinear relationship. We see it with depression. We see it with blood pressure. Suicide, even.

Durkheim would have predicted this. I don't think he had as much data on it, but he argued that cultures that get too loose have no constraint, want to escape from anime, from normalousness. On the flip side, countries that are to repressive, on the opposite stream, also are really struggling--called this fatalistic suicide. And we can see that curvilinear relationship: extremely tight and extremely loose have massive dysfunctions. And we also see pendulum shifts between the two. For example, after Arab Spring, we can see that this very tight culture went to the opposite extreme to total normalousness. First you see people screaming, 'Freedom,' on the street, but actually they were really experiencing tremendous disorder. On the ground in Egypt we measured this and in fact people who perceived a lot of looseness wanted the Salafi government or the muslim government to take over again, something we call autocratic recidivism. It happens all the time because people can't tolerate extreme looseness as they also can't tolerate extreme tightness. And the balance is where I think a lot of the benefits are.

Russ Roberts: And of course we see it in parenting. My wife and I always--and she's a high school teacher--so we talk a lot about how teenagers really like rules. And I think they do. They like expectations. They like to know what's expected of them. And you know that as a college professor--I used to be one--where they want to know what's going to be on the exam, what counts, how much, and they don't like this free form. I used to grade back[?] homework. She'd say things like, 'Well, you should decide for yourself how you're doing.'

Of course, that's not what they want. They want assurance and they want a certain structure. At the same time they hate being controlled. They need a form of self-expression. And I think one of the great challenges as a parent of teenagers, which I have been and I know you have been and are, it's--there's a real dance there and it's not straight forward. You don't want to be an autocrat, but you also don't want to be a Woodstock kind of household either. Usually, it depends on the house I guess. But--

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, actually you--

Russ Roberts: And the kids.

Michele Gelfand: You have a great intuition on this because research bears that prediction out. There are--extremely helicopter-like parents and extremely laissez-faire parents produce maladaptive kids. What I've been doing in my household is to actually talk about the domains in which we need to be tight and the domains that we can be looser in and to negotiate it with my kids. And you have to do that with your spouse. I mean, I veer, also say, honestly, I veer moderately loose. My husband veers moderately tight. He's a lawyer in industries where there's public accountability, and you have to be tighter. He gets all hysterical over how I put the dishes in the dishwasher and leave towels on the bed. And what we did was we said, 'Okay, what domains in our household do we want to have a lot of rules on and what ones could we give up some more slack?' And we talked with the kids about it. And so it's an ongoing negotiation, but it actually kind of gives a little more clarity around this.

And my kids were talking about how--it was funny: they said, 'You know, if we didn't treat each other well, mom would beat us.' I mean, they know I would never beat them. But being respectful is a tight domain. Working hard in school is a tight domain. Healthy lifestyles, tight domain. But we negotiated that they can be slobs around the house. Like that's one domain that you close your door, I'm not going to look at your mess. Your bedtime is up to you. And I think what's interesting is that not all families would solve this issue, tight and loose, in the same way. And in fact, some households need tighter rules. In the book I talk about the working class is much tighter. They need rules to avoid falling into poverty and to deal with dangerous occupations and neighborhoods. So each household is calibrated in some ways to the degree of threat that they face. But with that said, the extremes are bad. We know that.

And so negotiation over those domains--not just in households; it could be in organizations. When I look at mergers and acquisitions and I study them, we can see that often it's the case that tight and loose organizations are really attracted to each other for various reasons, but when they actually merge, they have massive problems. And, we need to sort of diagnose what domains can we give up some more autonomy in, if you're a tight culture; and what domains can you have more structure, if you're a loose culture. So there's all sorts of discussion of this in the book around how do you negotiate tight and loose in your daily lives, whether it's your household, your organizations and so forth.

Russ Roberts: If you've been in a Silicon Valley company and seen people play ping pong, not at lunch during the middle of the day, you know, or riding around on their bikes on campus at their company, and think about how that would play in other parts of the country--and the answer is, it will play badly. I'll never forget a student group I was supervising, and they were doing a consulting project for a very old-line St. Louis corporation. And they had to set up recommendations for the business process. It was an assembly line supply-chain issue that they were improving. And they had some really thoughtful insights. And they decided to start their--they were MBAs [Masters of Business Administration]--and they decided to start their presentation talking about how they thought it was a mistake that the company had parking places with people's, the executives', names on them.

And I said, 'You know, I understand that that might bother you, but do you really think that's the most effective way to start your presentation? Do you want your recommendations to be adopted or not adopted?' 'Adopted.' 'Do you think that's going to maybe distress--?' 'Yeah, I guess it would.' But more than that, of course, it was just a total disconnect, a cultural disconnect about how a company should be run for a group of 25-year-olds versus a group of 50-year-olds who've been doing it the same way forever.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. I think this is a really important point, that what we want MBAs to be is culturally intelligent. Not just intelligent, not just emotionally intelligent, but having CQ [Cultural Intelligence]. And we know that organizations vary reliably[?] on the people, their practices, and their leaders in tight and loose organizations. And tight cultures tend to have people who are more careful and more risk avoidant. And they have more standardization and efficiency and hierarchy to help coordinate; and they have leaders who are calling the shots. And loose companies have different people, practices, and leaders. They have people who are more open and more impulsive and risk-taking. They have more flexibility, discretion, and dogs walking around in some cases and ping pong; and they have charismatic and visionary leaders who are driving the ships.

When you actually have these places merge--we've actually recently estimated the price tag on these mergers in a recent Harvard Business Review article--big differences in tight-loose in company culture can really cost a lot of money. We also look at what we call moderators, so: what context is this even worse? or better? And turns out that in high tech it's really bad as compared to manufacturing when you have big tight-loose differences. It turns out that when the acquirer is a tight culture and acquiring a loose culture, it also has even worse outcomes in terms of ROA [Return on Assets]. But the most important thing is that leaders can anticipate these differences and they can help to merge these organizations--again, helping tight organizations become more flexible. We call this flexible tightness. And helping loose organizations have more structure. We call this structured looseness. Even in the Apple and Whole Foods merger recently, there were a lot of tight-loose elements of that--

Russ Roberts: You mean Amazon.

Michele Gelfand: Amazon, yeah. Amazon and Whole Foods. There were a lot of problems in that merger that had a lot of tracing to tight-loose differences with Whole Foods being a sort of egalitarian structure that was evolving in a context where they wanted a lot of latitude and discretion. And Amazon clearly is, runs a tighter ship. And they really had a lot of strategic compatibilities, but they had a lot of cultural incompatibilities and suffered as a result at first. And again, these things are things that are invisible. It's only when you merge, you start seeing this cultural iceberg. And I think it's important for people to get more culturally intelligent about these differences because they have a certain logic.

And, for example, tight organizations tend to be in industries that have a lot of threat. Airlines, nuclear power plants, hospitals--they need rules to coordinate. We don't want these people making all sorts of weird decisions all the time. And in high tech, these are contexts where there's less threat, more mobility, more diversity. So it makes sense that they evolve to be looser.


Russ Roberts: But it's an interesting paradox that there are organizations that, for reasons of safety, just human life preservation plus risks to the company, obviously. But you have to have some really strict rules that are not negotiable, not just not negotiable, they're enforced relentlessly.

Michele Gelfand: That's right.

Russ Roberts: But at the same time in those organizations, not all of them that you mentioned, but in a lot of them, you want incredible creativity. I'm thinking about a pharmaceutical company where it's a risk of death, at any time, if you don't treat the materials carefully. At the same time, you need people to feel that they're in a freewheeling, intellectually open place to think of new stuff. So that's a big challenge.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, that's exactly right. This is where the tight-loose ambidexterity is really critical. And a lot of times, there's variation within a company in terms of tight and loose units; but when they try to interact with each other, they have a lot of problems. Even when tight companies like manufacturing places that I've interviewed people at, want to loosen up. They want to be more innovative. Number one, Americans tend to be impatient. We are--even de Tocqueville noted that about us--they think that it can happen pretty quickly. But tight cultures have a lot of inertia. It's hard to change them, for good reason: they operate in a lot of threat. So risk avoidance is important in these contexts.

But then they typically might bring in, like, an R&D unit that's pretty loose and they have so much conflict. They have different deadlines. They have different ways of thinking about the world, and they don't anticipate them. Even when some organizations try to loosen up a practice, like a performance appraisal practice that's gotten too bureaucratic, sometimes they go to the opposite direction and give too much freedom, and then people are lost. So it takes a lot of calibration to change from tight to loose, and loose to tight. And I give some examples of this in the book that hopefully will be helpful.

Russ Roberts: I guess there's a Hayekian issue here of, again, of top-down versus bottom-up. Most of us imagine that a good organization is one that is able to marshal the knowledge that individuals have at the ground level, whether it's a commander in the battlefield compared to the general back at the headquarters, whether it's the player on the field compared to the coach. And great organizations successfully unleash that information. Economies do it through prices. But corporations, which are inherently a top-down phenomenon, try to do that by stepping back and leaving room for that looseness to express itself. And I think that's really hard for those organizations in general and is why it's so rare. The coach who can step back and say, 'Freelance on the court'--you know, Phil Jackson of the Lakers was famous for being able to do this; I don't know if it's actually true--but didn't have as many set plays and rather would let the players create on the court with what they knew is their skills better than he could know, and who they were playing. And I think that's--I often worry I romanticize that as a Hayekian economist, but I think there's obviously something to it.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, I think it's--tight and loose is dynamic, organizations are dynamic. Leaders who are anticipating shifts that they need to make are the ones that can really produce the best organizations. And it's not always the case that people can do that. I was talking to Bob Herbold at Microsoft and he was telling me stories about, in the olden days, where they were really, really loose at Microsoft; but they needed to really tighten up. And people were really resistant to these changes. And we talked through like how do you get people--

Russ Roberts: So they lost a lot of people probably.

Michele Gelfand: That's right. They lost people because it was a mismatch between their mindsets, their tight and loose mindsets in the organizational context. But they needed to make a shift. The military is also now in an interim position. I'm doing some work for the Navy where they need to run a tight ship. They're not going to have a--

Russ Roberts: So to speak, is the word.

Michele Gelfand: So to speak. But they also recognize that maybe this has been counterproductive. Maybe making people wear certain types of socks and having certain types of haircuts is maybe not really productive to allowing those creative juices to flow. That, the idea was that traditionally that if they learn to follow those rules, they'll follow the more important rules on the battlefield. But now there's a lot of questions on that. And, how do you get leaders to run that tight ship but insert some discretion in non-safety domains? So, this is the same thing we were talking about with households. The leaders have to negotiate that and help make those changes.


Russ Roberts: Now, a lot of the research you report in the book is--it's across an enormous range of domains. Families, countries, states. And, one of the challenges of this kind of work obviously is there's some ambiguity or what we might call subjectivity about what is tight and loose. So we're having I think a fantastic conversation about it, but when you get down into the research level, you can't just wave your hands and say, 'Oh, that looks loose to me. That's pretty loose.' Or, 'That's somewhat loose.' 'That's not loose at all.' You actually have some kind of way to--you're trying to analytically implement it. Let's talk about some of the challenges of that and how you, for example, if you were surveying me, which you also do in the book, you talk about looking into the mirror and asking yourself whether you're a tight or a loose person. And, of course, what my kids would say about me would not necessarily be what my spouse would say, my wife would say, or what I would say about myself. But I think it's really interesting to think about one's own comfort with norms and rules versus being more spontaneous and free.

But, how do you measure that? What are some of the different challenges and how you've tried to deal with that?

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, I just want back up and say that I use this metaphor that Dahlia Lithwick used on the Chaos versus the Order Muppet. So you have, basically, Chaos Muppets, like Cookie Monster and Animal that like disorder. And then you have those sort of Order Muppets, like Kermit the Frog and Bert, that like to collect paperclips and like structure. And those are muppets that each of us are kind of instantiating. Some of us prefer those kinds of rules and we like order; and others don't notice rules so much, and we are more impulsive and we embrace ambiguity. And we have a tight-loose mindset quiz on my website where you can sort of see where you fall in this default. And it does actually have some interesting correlates in terms of age and gender and culture.

But just backing up, I mean in any scientific endevour--you know this as well as I do--you need to measure your construct. You need to provide validity that this construct is measuring what it purports to measure because it's not observable necessarily. And my approach to this as kind of a scholar or more generally is to use multiple measures. That you can't rely on any particular measure to assess a construct. You want to be able to see the predictions of your theory borne out in a lot of different contexts.

So, for example, I'll just give you a sort of brief quiz. Like, is a library tight or loose?

Russ Roberts: Tight. An old-fashioned library: the one that Donna Reed is in, in It's a Wonderful Life. She's my archetypal librarian.

Michele Gelfand: Or, symphony, tight or loose?

Russ Roberts: That would be tight.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. You know, you could think about rock concert.

Russ Roberts: Loose.

Michele Gelfand: Okay. So you know--

Russ Roberts: Although, rock concert in one set, in one physical hall, it's going to be different than out in the outside. It's just really interesting.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. So you can see why, sort of, like, still like sort of nano, there may be overlapping distributions. But in general, what we think about, when we think about tight and loose, is what's the range of behavior that's permissible?

In a library, the restriction of range, or in an interview like this, the restriction of range is pretty high. I can't just start dancing and singing. I'd love to. I'd like to break out some bourbon in the middle of interview or when I'm giving a talk. Colloquia in universities are pretty tight, those situations. Because we restrict the range of variation that's permissible.

In loose cultures and loose situations and loose households, there is a wider range of behavior is permissible, that's not punished. So we can measure, for example, tight-loose in terms of the range of behavior that's permissible. And we've done that across 30 countries. And what's fascinating is that, while it's true that the rank order of situations is pretty universal, libraries in all cultures are tighter than being on city streets. In tight cultures, there is a really restriction of range in many situations. And the tightest of cultures is like living in a library a lot of your life. I mean that's an extreme kind of note--

Russ Roberts: That's a great way to think about it.

Michele Gelfand: But we can also--I also want to look at this construct and in ancient preindustrial societies. We can't survey people, unfortunately, back then. We could code ethnographies though. I mean, this is stuff that gives you a lot of gray hair. It just takes years to do because you need to get reliable coders to read ethnographers' hundreds of pages and look at domains like socialization, law and ethics, gender, sexuality--you name it--to look at what is the level of norm strength and punishment in this context. What's really nice is to be able to then look at the level of agreement to factor-analyze, which is a fancy way of saying, seeing if there's any covariation across these domains. And we can measure it reliably with ethnographies. We can measure it with dictionaries, as I mentioned.

And so, part of my quest, and even we can look at it in the brain, we've been doing that recently. We can create, basically, artificial societies with computational models to test predictions on tightness in some really super-interesting ways that I can get into. And in any event, but the broader principle is that I like to be kind of methodologically--I don't want to say promiscuous--but mythologically broad, and try to apply as many tools of science to understand this construct and see whether the predictions are borne out: whether they're homologous across different levels and contexts.


Russ Roberts: Well, listeners will not be surprised that I worry about when we use the tools of science for things that might not be so scientific with--it's maybe not a good thing. But we will come back to that later. I want to ask about--we talked a little bit about the transformation of the United States over the last 60 or 70 years. I feel like something else is going on right now. It's a weird thing. I think we live in incredibly tolerant times in the sense that many, many things that would have been socially unacceptable 50 years ago in terms of how people dress, how they address each other, how they interact with each other are allowed.

And my favorite example is just that your waiter tells you their first name or waitress, and that's weird for 1950. So a lot of things like that, from the small to the large, have changed.

And at the same time, I feel like in the last 5 to 10 years, there's been a real tightening. And you see it in, if you read the Metro section in the Washington Post, which I look at occasionally, I subscribe mainly to keep--to have someone to put a piece of plastic down in my driveway once a day. I don't often read it. I find myself not reading it, but I do get it. You know: that you'll read a weird dispute. There's a dog park in Chevy Chase--

Michele Gelfand: I saw and read that. And they're not allowed to bark.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And I'm like, 'What the heck?' I mean, how have we gone from a world where--it's like, 'Well, hey, you've got a dog or whatever it is; I understand; it's not a big deal, I'll cope with it,' to where we're, it's like, 'I want somebody to stop you so I don't have to cope with it.'

And it feels like that's happening in a lot of places. A lot of zoning issues where people don't want certain kinds of people, certain styles of people. You know, I understand that if your neighbor in your apartment building is renting out their apartment for Airbnb and they love to rent to drug-using, rock-loving, rock/goth-music loving, whatever, who just up till 3:00 in the morning, that there's a real imposition of cost. But I feel like lately it's, like, 'I don't like the way you think about things.' Or, 'I don't like the way read.' 'I don't like your kind of pet.' And there seems to be a desire for tightness--to use your vocabulary, which I think is useful--that I didn't perceive even five years ago.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. This is a fantastic question. And I think it speaks to a kind of a broader point that tight and loose is dynamic. It changes over time. And, one of the big predictors of tightness in our data is the degree to which people feel threatened. And it makes a lot of sense. So, in our paper that was published in Science, like, the nations that had the most threat, whether it was from Mother Nature, I think Japan, like, chronic natural disasters; or really high population density, like in Singapore, 20,000 people per square mile; or, a human threat, like the fear of invasions: we measured how many times as a nation had been potentially invaded over the last hundred years. And we can link it to how tight the country is.

And the basic principle is that when you have a lot of collective threat, you need rules to help to coordinate to survive. And we've borne that out with computational models, too, in other contexts. But what's really remarkable is that what we've found is that threat doesn't have to be real to really entighten people. I can bring people into my laboratory and I can manipulate fake threat, which I do--whether it's pathogens or population density on campus or terrorism. And it produces the same immediate tightening: wanting stronger rules, wanting autocratic leaders to lead the show. And it's an ancient, I think, evolutionary kind of principle that works for some groups.

And of course nowadays we see this big shift between the rural locations that are really threatened in manufacturing, and global cosmopolitan areas. This is an axis that's shifting around the world. We have leaders who, as you know, activate threat and they target threatened communities and they use that not just now in many, many years across millennia to tighten groups and get popularity. In the recent election, we measured how threatened people felt; and sure enough, people who felt threatened wanted a tighter society and they thought Trump can deliver that. Same with, in, France. We actually just developed a new threat dictionary so that we can sort of track threat online, to look at its impact on whole societies and groups.

So that's just to say that, you know, there is--people are feeling a lot of uncertainty and a lot of perceived threat. Whether it's real or imagined, it produces the same psychology. We are clearly--Steven Pink would argue with that we're much less threatened than we were hundreds of years ago. Not to say that we shouldn't[?] be vigilant to threats, and he would argue that too, but ironically we should feel safer. But threat can be real or imagined, and it has the same effect.


Russ Roberts: So here's a place where I'm a little bit uneasy with the broadness of this dichotomy. So, like, this is a silly example--obviously, I think. Maybe you'll correct me. But, if the United States, since let's say 9-11, feels "more threatened" or because of immigration and whether it's real or not, they feel more, some, a large group of Americans feel more threatened: You wouldn't be suggesting that they would be more likely to keep their room neat? Do you see that kind of juxtaposition that they'd adopt a tighter culture, say, in their home life as a way of feeling more secure? Even to make it--let's get away from the United States. In wartime when people, not just have an imagined threat--there are people dying around you, there's an existential threat to, say, your country or your group. Do people look for tightness elsewhere because they can't have it in the world writ large?

Michele Gelfand: I mean, it's a really awesome question. We don't have research on that, but what I would suggest is that in those times of chaos, people want order, and they'll create it in any ways they can--psychologically or real and objective sense. And again, we could see that when groups loosen up, they get more creative and they lose some order in terms of having higher debt. When they start tightening up, they sacrifice creativity for order.

And for example, we see that nowadays. I've been doing research on misperceptions of immigrants. And not surprisingly, there's a huge misperception of the number of immigrants. Some people estimate--Republicans, in our sample--estimate that 19% of the population is illegal immigrants. And not surprisingly, that psychology--

Russ Roberts: Probably not true.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, I mean, the estimate is actually 3%, from the Pew Foundation. So, the point is that people misperceive threat, and it has the same impact in them wanting stricter rules.

Now, how they implement that could be very diverse. So I think your point is fair. There's not one way that people do that. But one way that it does impact, for sure, is ethnocentrism and feeling like out-groups should not be allowed in. We have--a lot of research is coming out actually this Friday in a journal, PloS ONE, that shows that when there's threat, groups tighten and they, the first thing that happens is they become much more ethnocentric toward a wide variety of people. And this--a simple logic is that these people are threatening the order in the country.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, it's a good thing to be worried about in general, right? Chaos can be dangerous. Certain kinds of castes, cultural castes, I think are healthy, but not everybody agrees with that. But I do think it's a fascinating issue, an order of the top-down, autocratic kind. There is, sometimes--I agree with you-- a thirst for it. I think we also want to be clear that it's sometimes manipulated, so, by the people who have an interest in getting power and who like controlling other people. And I think--you're looking at immigrants. I look at economics, economics data. The public perception, say--my favorite example of this would be what percentage of the public earns the minimum, of the workforce, earns the minimum wage or less?

When I would survey journalists, the median answer would be 20%. Pretty consistently by the way. The actual answer at the time was about 2%. And that's way off, by people who are supposed to be educated. These aren't arts critics by the way. These are people writing about the news--science, business, and economics reporters. Now you can debate whether 2% is meaningful number or not. There are--obviously there are caveats you can add to it. I think it's probably less than 2%. But you could say that. There are a lot of things to say about it. But the idea that people misperceive and that it's in the interest of those who would exert control to encourage that misperception--

Michele Gelfand: That's exactly right--

Russ Roberts: across economic policy, foreign policy seems to me--it's deeply troubling to me. Really--and there's an arrogance to that troublingness. I mean, it's like, 'Yeah, I know how it really is and you don't. So let me protect you because you're being manipulated.' So, I'm always a little bit worried that I'm over paternalising the public that way. But there's some truth to it.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. I think that your point is really the biggest threat we're facing right now, which is fake news and the collapse of trust in experts. And that's exactly what we need to be negotiating this country, is how to kind of get back to trusting institutions and people who have information, and calibrating. And I think the internet obviously has been part of this problem. I talk about in the book that the internet is a Wild Wild West of normlessness.

And I actually advocate that we need to have more of a Goldilocks principle on the internet. Some people really vehemently disagree. I think there's some evidence that the internet is getting a little bit tighter in an appropriate way. Like on Reddit, where people are, they're thrown out if they're really super inappropriate. I mean, psychologists have known for decades that if you are anonymous online, that you do all sorts of weird things, like that unaccountability[?accountability?], which is a strong kind of force of tightness and following rules, is absent completely on the internet. And actually, again, I know people argue that people like Zuckerman should've known that--

Russ Roberts: Zuckerberg. Yeah.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, Zuckerberg. That they should have known that. And I say, no, that this is a psychological principle. And I think that the point here is that we're trying to navigate these false truths, false threats in many different contexts. And again, it's in many ways it's producing a lot of tightening, which is what's concerning to me.


Russ Roberts: Let's digress for a minute. It's a little bit away from your book, but I think it's such an interesting question, and I'm sure you've thought about it. You were bemoaning, a minute ago, the loss of trust in institutions, the death of expertise. I think this is an incredibly important part of our world right now that, we all sort of say what those two sentences say, but I don't think we've thought enough about what that unleashes and liberates. And, it's interesting. Those two words are very different. 'Unleashing' sounds scary, right? Unleashing means letting a monster that was in a cage or on a leash get loose. 'Liberating'--that sounds good. So I have a lot of tension in my own view about that death of expertise. A huge part of me celebrates it because I think expertise is overrated, but I see that the cultural implications of that are a little bit scary right now.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, I agree. I mean there's certain contexts like TED Talks--

Russ Roberts: You are an expert on the show by the way.

Michele Gelfand: Thank you.

Russ Roberts: So you have a natural desire to see expertise reestablished. So, be careful.

Michele Gelfand: Well, I'm kind of both. I see--like, I love TED Talks for that exact reason. I love your podcast and many podcasts for that reason. Because, it opens up expertise to anyone. I was in a TEDx Talk and there was a 15 year old up there giving their talk; and I thought this is perfect. Like I love to learn from anybody in general.

Russ Roberts: What a great world. Yeah.

Michele Gelfand: That's a great way of unleashing a lot of expertise. Now with that said, when it comes to the economy, when you're talking about this, or when it comes to immigration and the actual numbers, there's where you have to be a little bit worried about how people are really creating their facts as they see them and not trusting anyone. So I think there is certain contexts where that unleashing expertise is really helpful and some where it's really problematic.

Russ Roberts: But it is clear that a lot of people are uncomfortable with this unnormed internet, unnormed culture. Some of it's age-driven; and Brexit is an example where obviously there was an enormous gap between old and young in how they viewed these issues. It's more on the one issue--I think it's really complicated. It's just same as what's going on in United States. I think people point to the issue they want to talk about. But, I think in the case of Brexit, I think there were a lot of different things going on; but one of the things that was going on is: what does it mean to be English? And there are people who don't care. And they were a bunch of people, mostly older than younger, who care a lot and don't want to see that-- the norms around that--revolutionized.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. I mean there's a couple of points on that. I mean, one is that I do think that one of the biggest problems we have in the United States and probably in the United Kingdom also is that we're not really understanding the threat that certain groups feel. We just let people do whatever they want. Germany is an example of a place where there's a big cushion for the working class. There's standardized certificates that people can earn and go from company to company. We, really, as a loose society don't have that kind of structures.

Russ Roberts: In the United States.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. And I think that--

Russ Roberts: And our educational system is radically different in terms of how much freedom you have to develop your passion at an older age. A lot of systems outside the United States, you got to commit and you're in it.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. There are strengths and benefits. But I think that the point that I think is [?] important is that: we need to help groups that feel threat. There's real threat out there; and they are really being challenged by AI [artificial intelligence] and by the loss of their communities. And we need to get out there and help out. In the book, I talk a lot about partnerships between academia and organizations and government. And, you know this--we need to have more collaboration to help groups that feel threatened, or else we're going to have populism. And I think this is the same case in the United Kingdom. So, some threat is real and some is imagined, but we need to kind of cope with the fact that we're not really doing much about that. And we as a society in the United States, I'm talking about, need to kind of help on that.

I think the other issue raised is more symbolic threat, which has to do with immigrants threatening a way of life and a national identity. And what I think is super-interesting is that what we have is these echo chambers where people are not interacting with the other. And, but once they do start to realize that, 'Wow, this person looks different, they sound different, but they really value American culture.' We know that people who come to the United States by far want to integrate. They might want to maintain some of their traditions, but they want to integrate in the society. And people misunderstand that because they stay in their own corners, they don't interact with people. So what we need to do is get more of that kind of interaction across cultural lines. And we know that, from social psychology, that real meaningful contact can help do that.

In some of my work recently, I've been doing that through daily diaries. Like what happens if I just assign someone who is from a different culture, a daily diary from someone that they never interact with? That they stereotype very, extremely. And we did this in the United States and Pakistan. We found that after a week of people reading each other's actual diaries unedited, that they had so much more of an understanding of their real lives. We meet in the media, we meet in these very stereotypical contexts. And, we need to find ways, whether they're daily diaries or other kinds of contexts, to meet at the other, and really understand in a real way what their lives are really like, what their values really are like. And that, hopefully, would have more of an impact on reducing that symbolic threat, which is different than actual threat of occupations in the economy and so forth.


Russ Roberts: So I'm going to raise something that bothers me about your book, even though I enjoyed a lot of it: and that is that you mingle, and I wish you hadn't, but you mingle regulations that come from the state with the norms that emerge from no one's controlled. That, various norms of say, civility, or politeness, or just kinds of behavior--what's acceptable--there are no rules. There's no regulation about singing in a parking lot. Most people feel it's inappropriate. A parking garage--

Michele Gelfand: It might be in Singapore, but yeah.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, it's true. You're right, there could be a law in that case. But in general, and let's talk about variations across states in the United States. No state, as far as I know, has a law or regulation about whether you can sing in a parking garage. And I made a mistake, I said 'a lot.' It's a parking garage where the acoustics are really nice and I like to sing. And so that's just sort of left up to the individual. And, if you violate a norm, even though it's not regulated, generally people would look at you a little bit funny. Singing on the Metro would be another example. You just, there might be a regulation on that about certain types of noise, but it's a whole part of, enormous part of human life, this unseen thing you're talking about, which I'm deeply fascinated by : which are these norms of what's acceptable outside the library that are not regulated by the institution you're physically in. But just, what you do, as you say, in an interview, face to face like we're doing now or at a dinner party or so on.

And those terms are different over time and they're different across borders. And I want to keep them separate from governmentally-imposed examples. So, for example, Singapore is a tight country and a lot of that tightness comes from the government. But it may also come from the informal norms. But, I would want make a distinction between those two. You don't, generally. Defend that.

Michele Gelfand: Okay. I can understand why you're kvetching about this. And you know, the fact is that for most of the book, I keep it separate. But there are certainly contexts where informal rules and norms become formalized and instantiated in law. And, in fact, Singapore is the good example of this case where I talk a lot about that. But that also happened in Germany. There's a lot of rules in Germany around dogs barking and around when you can mow your lawn and so forth that started out as informal and became instantiated in more formal means. So, I think tightness can be both top-down: In the case of Lee Kuan Yew, as a good cross cultural psychologist, he looked at Singapore. In his autobiography, you can see, he said, 'Guys, you know, we have a lot of threat. Like, we need rules to coordinate. And we're going to ban gum by the way, because people are throwing the gum on the ground and it's causing massive problems.' This happened in the late 1980s.

Russ Roberts: Did this really did happen?

Michele Gelfand: This did happen. It's not fake news.

Russ Roberts: What do you mean, 'massive problems'?

Michele Gelfand: So, I mean, think about living with a context of 20,000 people per square mile, compared to, let's say New Zealand has 50 people per square mile and has more sheep per capita than people. And, you know, people when--I don't chew gum, but apparently people have this habit of just throwing gum on the ground. And it was becoming a national catastrophe. Gum was, like, covering up sensors on elevators and trains. And, Lee Kuan Yew just said, 'Guys, like there's so many miles per capita: We're going to have to just ban this tasty treat except for medicinal purposes.' And yes, and at first people thought this is ridiculous. But, of course Americans think it's ridiculous.

But it makes sense in that context. Not all cultural differences make sense, but that's an example of something where, you know, it wasn't becoming normatized to not do that. So we have to get some more strict controls in contexts where there's a lot of threat. So I understand your kvetching, but in most cases we can keep them informal. But there is certainly the case that walking naked in front of one's curtains in Singapore has also become against the law. You'll get a fine for that. It might be an informal rule not to do that in most places. But, the point is that I don't think that it's that problematic because sometimes tightness is imposed from top-down.

With that said, I think what's fascinating is to think about the context where it's really top-down. Let's take Iran. You can then identify domains of massive looseness that start developing in the underground, whether it's in caves, and in a tremendous drug culture, and in ways that rebel against that top-down tightness that you might not find in other contexts. Japan has some underground tight-and-looseness as well. And all cultures have tight and loose elements. They need to have them. If they don't, like we said, with Goldilocks, they really start collapsing. But I do think it's fascinating to kind of think about what happens when you have this top-down control--that when tightness becomes formalized.

Russ Roberts: Well, the reason--besides the fact that I think they're very different--the reason I'm particularly interested in that distinction is that when a regulatory norm--excuse me--a regulatory rule is relaxed, it makes room often for a private norm to emerge. And otherwise sometimes that norm can't emerge. The norm will often emerge with a lot more flexibility than the rule, than the top-down, state-imposed rule. And I think that's something we often forget about. You know, there'll be some social problem; people say, 'We need that to be fixed, and the way we're going to fix it is a rule that forbids it,' forgetting that we often want some nuance.

Obvious example, speeding. Right? I don't mean the fact that actually nobody keeps 55 [miles per hour--Econlib Ed.]. They keep 62, right? The real speed limit is not 55 in the United States in those areas where it says 55. And when it says 65, it's not 65, it's 71 or 72 or maybe 73. But what I mean is that there are often cases where--I mean, obvious example: You're giving birth, you want to speed to the hospital, and you should get a break. But that red light camera, it sees--

Michele Gelfand: Doesn't know you're giving birth.

Russ Roberts: Exactly. There's no little scrolling message on the top of my car saying, 'I'm on the way to the hospital.'

Michele Gelfand: And also I think that your intuition is correct. I do think it's a little bit Western in orientation. We've live in a relatively safe context where we don't really need these things. When I look at China as an example, my sense is that, I mean we look at China think, oh, many Americans think, 'Oh, they're so over-controlled and they hate it. They must, life must be miserable.' Actually, it's unclear whether that's the case. In fact, in cities that are extremely highly densely populated where people are, have some proclivity to cheat or to defect, the government stepping in and tightening up in ways that people are really happy about. They want, in many ways on the internet there to be people who are monitoring to avoid being humiliated by people on the internet.

There's some sense that people support a lot of--we Americans like to break the rules. We don't like rules. There's this whole middle class, upper class mentality, ideology around rules. There's books written about it, incessantly, about how we should break the rules as part of our DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid]. For good reasons.

Russ Roberts: Ask for forgiveness, not permission.

Michele Gelfand: Exactly.

Russ Roberts: I'd break that rule and--

Michele Gelfand: And even have to see children's books on promoting anarchy. So I just--my point is mainly that I think it's important, particularly in this increasing globalized era, for us to be mindful that our own ways of thinking about the world in terms of rules is quite biased in terms of the kind of ecologies[?] and histories that we've had as groups. And our biggest challenge is to start to understanding why other cultures vary the way they do. We really are humans; and--Herodotus said this--are very ethnocentric. We not just look at other cultures, and sort of are perplexed by them: We think they're wrong, the way they do things. So this is why cross-cultural psychologists try to really understand what are the deeper cultural codes that drive our behavior beyond red versus blue or east versus west, rich-poor, and so forth.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about a country that I know a little bit about relative to the United States compared to, say, other foreign countries, because I've spent a reasonable amount of time there, which is Israel. Which I think is kind of a challenge to your model; and you can see it as much at one point in the book.

You know, you suggest that countries that are under security risks and attack and where security is a real issue, they tend to be tighter. Israel is a famously loose culture in so many dimensions. One of which is, ironically, the military. They're famous for having a non-hierarchical military. I think most Americans, maybe not Israelis, but most Americans would say that Israeli parenting is much looser than American parenting. Israeli schools are looser.

And, you know, the sort of cheap, dime-store, armchair psychology response to that is the opposite of your book, which is, 'Well, life is dangerous there. Everybody has a relative who's died in one of the numerous wars Israel has had to fight. And so let's at least let the kids have some fun while they can, because soon they're headed off to the army for three years and they might die in a war.' So that kind of works opposite your story. So give me your thoughts.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. And by the way, I love exceptions. I mean, I would say let's bring 'em on. The Netherlands is another example. It has a lot of, as you say[?], a lot of other threats--

Russ Roberts: Threats, yeah.

Michele Gelfand: And it's pretty loose, obviously. It's one of the loosest places. It had the first multinational company. It's had most tolerance, for centuries, for people who are immigrants.

California is another good example. I mean, it's a place that's pretty loose, but it has quite a bit of threat also.

Russ Roberts: Earthquake--

Michele Gelfand: Earthquakes, etc. You can know it from being out at Stanford.

So the point is that, you know: All theories have their exceptions. The key is to sort of zoom into those contexts and figure out what's going on. And Israel's a fascinating context. And again, it's important to look at other variables that might be counteracting and overriding that threat. There's a couple of candidates. One is that, this is something that I say we don't have empirical support on, but it comes from my Israeli colleague who says that Jews learned not to follow the rules for good reasons. Coming into Israel, after the Holocaust; following rules; people realized this is bad news.

Russ Roberts: Interesting.

Michele Gelfand: Another explanation, which I have more data on, is that diversity actually predicts looseness. And Israel has been historically a very diverse place. And the reason is that it's harder to agree upon rules when you have a lot of diversity. That's, I've found is up to a certain point in cultures that are extraordinarily diverse, like in Pakistan or India, that things get a little bit more tight.

But what I would nominate as the top Family Feud answer to this, if anyone knows the Family Feud out there, that really what accounts for why Israel maintains its looseness, even though it's getting tighter in certain areas like in every country, is religion. And I would nominate Judaism for this. And many people know that--especially who are Jewish--that when you have three Jews in a room, you have ten opinions. You can't agree on any opinions. There's a tremendous amount of dissent and debate in Judaism. And, when you again have a lot of debate, you can't tend to agree on a single rule. And Judaism is an extraordinarily interesting religion in that sense. I mean you read the Torah and every other line, there's another interpretation of one word.

Russ Roberts: The Talmud, you mean?

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. Or for me. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: No, but the Talmud is a collection of those different opinions of the--

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, but I'm talking more about even when you read a Haggadah, you know, you can still on Passover--which is your prayer book--there's so many different opinions.

Actually, a very funny story is my daughter Hannah was being bat mitzvah'd and she was reading her speech about her Torah portion. And she starts disagreeing with it at some point. I had nothing to do with this. And I said there, 'Sweetie, why are you disagreeing with your Torah portion?' And she said, 'Mom, the rabbi told me to.' That, to me, is the essence of why it's harder to enforce tightness in Israel: because the religion, the diversity overrides that. Now I will say that there are some domains in Israel that are very tight that are really interesting because all loose cultures also have tight domains. And the one that's super-tight in Israel is the norm to have very large families.

And this obviously is a norm that developed based on some reasonably important historical circumstances. But Alon Tal, who's an environmentalist at Tel Aviv University, was arguing his recent book, This Land Is Full, that this norm is butting against sustainability in Israel. That in fact, the Arab birth rate has gone down in Israel and that Israelis are still surpassing this and that they need to negotiate this tight norm. My understanding is if you don't have kids in Israel, you're better off being a criminal. That's an extreme statement. But, the point is that Tal and I had a workshop recently in Israel last February to talk about these issues and there's a tremendous amount of resistance to cutting back family size. But this is a really interesting question: is how do you harness the power of social norms? How do you loosen norms that are probably gotten too tight? How do you tighten norms, like we talked about in the internet, that have probably gotten too loose?

Toward the end of the book, I talk a lot about different cases of what we've invented social norms and we can use them to make a difference in the world. But, we have to really start understanding the power of them and how to enact change around norms. And I give a lot of different examples that go on either of those different directions, tightening when you're loose and loosening when you're tight. And I think that's what's exciting to me about understanding the psychology of norms for bettering our planet.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I really disagreed with the discussion of population, not so much as in Israel, but for the world at large. I don't think overpopulation--I don't think there is such a thing. I don't think that's a useful term, especially given how much more effective we have become as we've gotten wealthier as a world in preserving resources and using them more efficiently. And I think it's a great example of where norms have evolved to solve problems from the bottom up.

So, an obvious example would be, if you talked to somebody in 1900, said, 'The population of the world in 2019 is going to be 7 billion people.' That person would say, 'Well, there's going to be a lot of mass starvation.' If you'd added, by the way, that instead of 40% of the United States working on the farm, it was going to be 2%, they say, 'Well, of course, there's going to be--there will be riots in the street, murder, chaos, etc.' And there isn't. And there wasn't. It's because there's some self-regulatory feedback loops that help deal with that.

So, I think those--a lot of the norms that we don't see, certainly in the economic sphere, solve a lot of these problems that look like they need a tighter world.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. I mean, it's various different perspectives on--I agree that humans evolve miraculously to different contexts and they do it through social norms in large extent. Our transition from, you know, small scale societies to interacting with strangers on a, you know, incredible basis was something that was facilitated by norms.

We could argue that, and I do make this argument that I am optimistic we'll be doing that on the internet, which is the new place we are living. But, at the same time we can kind of expedite the process. The world's becoming far more complex. I think you could probably agree with that--that in terms of entropy, in terms of like just the simple amount of choices. Like, you look at like the 1970s, the number of restaurants in Manhattan that were from a different ethnic and cultural background, the number of choices we have is just unbelievable.

And that creates a lot of uncertainty and a lot of work--

Russ Roberts: And that's why we need so much looseness. Because complexity is impossible for any one person--any genius, any head of Singapore, head of the United States--to cope with. So we need to let all the wisdom of the crowd bubble up and solve those problems adaptively.

Michele Gelfand: You're here at the Hoover Institute. You know, I think that, again, I don't disagree with that, but I also think that we can be mindful and use the power of social norms to expedite change. I have some ideas that we've been around, you know how we fight carbon with culture in one section in the book on climate change. I mean, clearly, we need to develop norms that help us to coordinate across cultural boundaries. We don't want a world that's all tightening up individually. That's one scenario I talk about. We have a problem in the United States, I think, around the issue of freedom of a constraint. We have this sense that everything should have this kind of freedom: it will work itself out. And that's a really nice American idea in a context where we've been very safe--

Russ Roberts: or it used to be--

Michele Gelfand: and we've been separated by two oceans from other contexts. And I think that this idea of sacrificing security for liberty is something we really struggle with.


Russ Roberts: Well, I'm going to give--I'm going to give a story that goes against my bias. Which I think you'll like and let you react to it.

So, when we go out to California in the summer, we are confronted with our Palo Alto garbage can, which is a small, it's bigger than a bread box, but not much. So they give you three things. They gave you the world's smallest garbage can, which holds basically one bag of kitchen-sized waste. They give you an enormous recycling box, bin, whatever it is, a rolling, giant thing. And they gave you a compost, natural waste of thing for your gardening and food. And you've got to compost and you've got to recycle, because, essentially if you have four kids, as we would often have out there in the summer, because we couldn't deal: we couldn't just have that one little garbage can. Otherwise, we'd bank multiple bags of garbage. And, by the way, there's an enormous norm, that I think you'd probably find if you put your bag of garbage on top of the can, or your neighbors will pick at your house; or it just--it's bad.

So when we got to California, we are compelled by regulation, a top-down rule to behave differently.

So, what I want is confess, and I hope my wife's not going to be too upset about this, is that we have started composting in Maryland even though we have a healthy sized garbage can, which--now that we have, we're empty nesters right now, so we have plenty of space in our garbage can. It's bigger and we don't produce as much waste. But we're composting.

And, even crazier my wife's going to start a garden soon. I think it's really just so she can use the compost. I'm not even sure. That's not true. She likes the fresh herbs and other things she's going to grow there. But, even stranger, and this is a deep personal revelation and confession: I don't mind the composting, I kind of think it's kind of cool and that never would've happened without the top-down nudge. So I'm just going to--

Michele Gelfand: That's interesting. That's kind of--you kind of see both going up bottom up to top down and vice versa. I think it's fascinating, you point out, even California with its great looseness has domains that are pretty tight. Which is--those values that are super-important, which in this case are the environment, get very regulated.

Russ Roberts: --water--

Michele Gelfand: I was in Portland twice this year, once where I realized that this really huge regulation around putting salt on the road. Again, because of the concern it is going to harm things. On the flip side, I was just out there recently giving a talk at Powell's; and I learned that because there's so--

Russ Roberts: That's a book store?

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, that's a bookstore. And I learned that because it's such a freewheeling culture that they're having a hard time--I haven't validated this, but this is what people were telling me--that they have a hard time getting enough people to become police officers because they can't pass the drug tests. And there's tremendous amount of looseness--

Russ Roberts: That's the greatest story I've ever heard.

Michele Gelfand: It's really unbelievable. I mean there are--apparently they have to lower the standards and they don't have to have a college degree now. And in fact, in the hotel I stayed at, I thought, you know, you could smell weed everywhere. There's homeless everywhere. It's such a bastion of looseness, Portland. But again, every context, we can zoom in and see some element of tightness. And in this context, it's predicted by what values are really important.

Another example that internationally is New Zealand. So, New Zealand in our data is pretty loose. People tend to walk barefoot in banks; there's even a national Wizard that was appointed by the President to entertain the country. This is a true story. This guy that was a fired professor and was lecturing on everything from rugby to religion, and, just, the prime minister asked him to become the wizard; and he did, and entertained the country. But the point is--

Russ Roberts: I'd want to do that just for the business card.

Michele Gelfand: Oh, he has a license. I found his driver's license and it says Wizard on it. This is not fake news. But you know, it's interesting: in New Zealand there's very tight norms around being egalitarian. They call it the tall poppy syndrome. If you are trying to stand out--American individuals are extremely competitive, and we like our kids to stand out. We like everyone to stand out. In New Zealand, people who stand out get knocked down. It's a very strong norm. So, there's all sorts of--even in Germany, there's other--it's much looser in terms of some norms as well.

By the way, I want to mention another interesting, again, top-down rule that in Germany that kind of feeds into your point about top-down, bottom-up. In Germany in some cities they're developing extra incentives. You know, it's known that many Germans will wait patiently on street corners, even when there's no cars around--

Russ Roberts: Instead of jaywalking.

Michele Gelfand: Instead of jay walking.

Russ Roberts: Going against the light.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. Going against the light. You know, in New York, my hometown--

Russ Roberts: Oh, boy.

Michele Gelfand: people jaywalk constantly, with kids in tow. But in Germany in some cities they now have this new top-down system to help enforce that informal norm, which is called Street Pong. And it's a real thing. I've actually talked to the founders. And it's on the lights, where you're playing ping pong, electric pink pong with a person across the street from you. And actually what it does is shows you when is the light about to change and this is another extra incentive to have people stay put and not jaywalk.


Russ Roberts: So let's close talking about something that you talk about it a little in the book, but it's fundamentally, I think, a mystery, which is: How to change norms, the bottom-up kind. You could talk about, politically, how to change regulations and the role of political experts or consultants and marketing in the political realm and so on. But we don't know much about why norms change. We can speculate, like, you can say, 'It's going to get--when things get more threatened, maybe norms will tighten up.' But in general, norms can change. And, the one I often quote on here is that, if you go to visit the President of the United States in 1920, you wear a hat. And today you don't have to wear a hat. There's a whole bunch of--there's a thousand things like that, that aren't norms anymore. They're not rules. They're rules that a lot of people don't like, that they'd like to change, whether it's jaywalking or whether it's when you mow your lawn or it's how high you leave your lawn. And obviously housing associations sometimes get formed because they want, of course, that guy who never cuts his lawn to cut his lawn.

But I'm thinking about more subtle things. Like, to go back to Israel for a minute: It's very challenging for Americans to get on a bus in Israel because people don't queue--do not get in line in the same way that Americans do. And Americans, a lot of Americans have emigrated to Israel. Not a lot, but then there's a nontrivial number of Americans there; and it's hard for them because it's just not what they're used to. Whether it's better or worse is a different question. But let's say all Israelis decided that they wished they had a more orderly way to get on the bus. How do you do that? You can have billboards, you can have public campaigns, but of course sometimes those campaigns have the opposite effect. 'Just Say No' may have encouraged drug-taking because people like to rebel against norms. So just close with some thoughts on that if you have them.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. This is a great question and they're just--this is an emerging area of research, what we call the kind of nudge movement in psychology and behavioral economics. Much of that work is actually done in the United States, so I'm really trying to get this stuff to be going global. And it's a really complicated question. There's no simple answer. Some of it is top-down. I mean Israel, just as an example, there are campaigns to say let's be more like the British. Let's be more polite. And, look, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Russ Roberts: And less honest, yeah. In Israel after you give a talk, if somebody says--in England if you give a talk, they'll never say it was lousy. In Israel, if it's lousy, they're going to tell you.

Michele Gelfand: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, this is the [?George Yule?] speech, you know, the direct speech. I mean, the other interesting mechanism has to do with pluralistic ignorance. And, what I mean by that is that in some countries--take Jordan for example; I do a lot of work in the Middle East. And, because there's not a lot of open communication about one's attitudes, because people are following strong norms all the time, you don't actually know exactly what other people think. And there's some recent research on, for example, attitudes towards women working. If you ask people about this, which is the norm is that not many women work, individually people say, 'Yeah, I'm okay'--

Russ Roberts: In Jordan--

Michele Gelfand: In Jordan. People individually say, 'I'm fine with it.' But they think everyone else is against it. This is pluralistic ignorance.

And so part of shifting some norms, particularly in tight cultures, is to help people understand that actually they are miscalibrated about the norm, and that they're reinforcing this niche by acting on a norm that doesn't actually exist. And so I think some of that is really getting sort of the most powerful leaders to kind of help to communicate and get people to talk about their attitudes more. That helps over time to shift norms, once you kind of have the real information about what people really think. That's different than top-down approach. But I think both are viable approaches and they might really vary based on the cultural context, which is more effective.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Michele Gelfand. Her book is Rule Makers, Rule Breakers. Michele thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Michele Gelfand: Thank you.