The researchers found a wide variation in the degree to which various societies impose social norms, enforce conformity and punish anti-social behavior. They also found the more threats experienced by a society, the more likely the society is to be restrictive, the authors say.
“There is less public dissent in tight cultures,” said University of Maryland Psychology Professor Michele Gelfand, who led the study. “Tight societies require much stronger norms and are much less tolerant of behavior that violates norms.”
“Tight” refers to nations that have strong social norms and low tolerance for deviation from those norms, whereas another term, “loose,” refers to nations with weak social norms and a high tolerance for deviation from them.
The research further showed that a nation’s tightness or looseness is in part determined by the environmental and human factors that have shaped a nation’s history–including wars, natural disasters, disease outbreaks, population density and scarcity of natural resources.
Tight and loose societies also vary in their institutions, with tight societies having more autocratic governments, more closed media and criminal justice systems that have more monitoring and greater deterrence of crime as compared to loose societies.
“We also found that the psychological makeup of individual citizens varies in tight and loose societies,” Gelfand said. “For example, individuals in tight societies are more prevention focused, have higher self-regulation strength and have higher needs for order and self-monitoring abilities than individuals in loose societies.”
These attributes, Gelfand said, help people to adapt to the level of constraint, or latitude, in their cultural context, and at the same time, reinforce it.
“When we understand why cultures, and the individuals in those cultures, are the way they are, it helps us to become less judgmental. It helps us to understand and appreciate societal differences.”