How uptight is your home country? In a new study in Science magazine, researchers posed this question to almost 7,000 people from 33 nations. They found that the answer was tied to factors ranging from population density and the availability of clean water to church attendance and the death penalty.
The researchers, led by Michele Gelfand at the University of Maryland, define a spectrum called "tightness-looseness." A nation that's "tight" is restrictive, with strong social norms and "a low tolerance of deviant behavior." But in a "loose" country, anything goes. To figure out where various countries sit on this spectrum, the authors used a survey. Subjects responded to statements such as, "In this country, if someone acts in an inappropriate way, others will strongly disapprove" and "In this country, there are very clear expectations for how people should act in most situations."
The subjects' answers were compiled to create tightness scores for their 33 countries. Especially loose countries included Brazil, Ukraine, and the Netherlands. Some of the tightest countries were Pakistan, Malaysia, and India. The United States scored medium-low: less uptight than the UK, but not quite as relaxed as Australia.
But the authors were after more than a simple international report card of prudery. They wanted to know whether a country's tightness could be tied to historical and ecological factors. Do countries become restrictive after repeated struggles with disease, hunger, warfare, or natural disasters? When populations must band together to survive, do countries have a greater need for rules and structure?
The answer appears to be yes. The authors looked at many environmental and historical factors (and adjusted for countries' per-capita gross national product, since many of these factors are also tied to the wealth of a country). They found strong correlations between a country's restrictiveness and its food deprivation, lack of safe water, vulnerability to natural disasters, tuberculosis infection rate, and childhood mortality.
A country's tightness or looseness manifests in the actions of its government, as well as its populace. The authors found that tight countries' governments tend to be autocratic, with restrictions on the media and civil liberties. Tight countries are much more likely to still use the death penalty. People in tight countries tend not to attend public demonstrations or sign petitions, but they do attend church regularly.
The study's subjects were also asked about day-to-day situations. They rated the restrictiveness of different settings: Can you act however you like while walking down the sidewalk? What about at work or at the doctor's office? They also rated the appropriateness of various behaviors in these settings: Is it OK to eat in an elevator? What about on a bus? Should you flirt at a funeral? (Is this OK anywhere?) You can see more settings and situations, plus the historical and environmental factors studied, here.
A person's culture will shape his or her psychology, for obvious reasons. Someone who lives in Jerusalem and sees buses blowing up on a regular basis must have a pretty different worldview from a sheep farmer in New Zealand. To study the mindsets of people in tight and loose nations, the authors also gave their subjects psychological surveys. They found that people living in restrictive countries restrict themselves, too: They are more cautious and more dutiful, they prefer structure in their lives, and they have better impulse control.
The study does not give a comprehensive picture of all 33 nations, since samples usually came from one city or region in each country. But it offers a snapshot of lives and attitudes across the world. The authors hope that their work can help promote understanding and cooperation between cultures.
Aside from being fodder for a decently entertaining guidebook ("Chapter 9: Funerals Not to Flirt At"), this sort of information could help governments to handle sensitive negotiations. Or it might help aid workers to put locals at ease. The study is a reminder that people in different countries don't just have different views out their windows; they have deeply different perspectives, too.