Humans are unique among all species in their ability to develop and enforce social norms, but there is wide variation in the strength of these norms across human groups. Tight cultures are more restrictive and have strong punishments for norm violations while loose cultures have weaker social norms and a higher tolerance for deviant behavior. With over $8 million in funding from NSF, the Department of Defense, and a prize from the Humboldt Foundation, Dr. Michele Gelfand has been using field, laboratory, computational, and neuroscientific methods to understand the evolution of such differences their consequences for nations, states, organizations, teams, and individuals.
In a 2011 article in Science, Dr. Gelfand advanced a multilevel theory of the strength of social norms and tested it across 33 countries and over 7000 individuals. She and her collaborators provided the first measure on the strength of social norms around the globe and using archival data dating back to 1500 AD, showed that tighter countries tended to have higher historical rates of ecological and human threats such as natural disasters, territorial invasions, pathogen prevalence, and population density. Dr. Gelfand postulated that when societies are affected by ecological threats, large-scale coordination and norm adherence is critical for survival. She thereafter applied tightness-looseness theory to understand cultural variation within the U.S. 50 States, moving us beyond the simplistic “red-blue” state distinction. In a 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) paper, she and her student Jesse Harrington showed that differences in tightness-looseness across the 50 states are accounted for by many of the same historical and ecological conditions that account for international differences in the strength of social norms. Tightness-looseness not only accounted for statewide differences in personality, but also predicted which states had the lowest percentage of minority owned small businesses and which states had the highest rate of patent applications and EEOC claims of discrimination. Gelfand has also used computational methods to examine evolutionary dynamics of tightness-looseness, which was recently published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. In other research, Gelfand reconciled an age-old debate in psychology, sociology, economics and political science regarding whether societies should foster latitude or constraint. With her collaborators Jesse Harrington and Pawel Boski, she showed in a PLOS 1 paper that in fact, either extreme is highly detrimental for societies—nations that had excessive latitude or constraint had higher suicide rates, heart disease, depression, and civil unrest, and lower happiness. More recently, Dr. Gelfand received a grant from the MINERVA program to examine the neuroscientific underpinnings of tightness-looseness. Using N400 EEG and fMRI techniques, she and her collaborators are examining how culture affects neural responses to norm violations as well as how societal threat affects brain synchrony and behavioral coordination.
Dr. Gelfand recently published a multidisciplinary special issue on Culture in Current Opinion and co-founded the Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution which she launched after hosting a workshop at UMD on how to integrate research on culture from biology, computer science, anthropology, psychology, and linguistics. The Society now has over 1000 members and the first conference will take place at the Max Planck Institute in May 2017. See the Society's website to join!