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Michele Gelfand

Distinguished University Scholar Teacher of Psychology

University of Maryland College Park

Co-sponsored with the Binghamton Religion and Spirituality Project

Culture’s Constraints: Differences between Tight and Loose Cultures

Monday, October 28, 2013
Academic Building A G008, 5:00 PM


Great strides have been made over the last several decades in understanding values across cultures, yet there has been little systematic attention to cultural variation in social norms. In this presentation, I will focus on a neglected dimension of culture, namely differences between nations that are ‘tight’–have strong norms and high sanctioning of deviant behavior – versus ‘loose’– have weak norms and low sanctioning of deviant behavior. Early anthropological research showed the promise of this distinction in traditional societies (Pelto, 1968) and our research illustrates the importance of this distinction in modern nations. Situating our work within an eco-cultural framework, we found evidence that tightness-looseness is afforded by a broad array of ecological and human-made societal threats (or lack thereof) that nations have historically encountered. Ecological and human-made threats increase the need for strong norms and sanctioning of deviant behavior in the service of social coordination for survival, whether it is to reduce chaos in nations that have high population density, deal with resource scarcity, coordinate in the face of natural disasters, defend against territorial threats, or contain the spread of disease. Nations with few ecological and human-made threats  have a much lower need for social coordination, affording weaker social norms and much more latitude in what is considered appropriate behavior. We also illustrate how tightness-looseness is implicated in broad versus narrow socialization in societal institutions (autocracy, freedom of the media, criminal justice systems) (Arnett, 1995), the strength of everyday situations (Mischel, 1977), and psychological processes that simultaneously support and reflect the strength of norms and sanctioning in the larger societal context.  Field, experimental, and computational research will be discussed.


Michele J. Gelfand is a Professor of Psychology and Distinguished University Scholar Teacher at the University of Maryland, College Park and an affiliate of the RH Smith School of Business. She received her Ph.D. in Social/Organizational Psychology from the University of Illinois.

Dr. Gelfand’s work explores cultural influences on conflict, negotiation, justice, and revenge; workplace diversity and discrimination; and theory and methods in cross-cultural psychology. Her work has been published in outlets such as Science, the Journal of Applied Psychology, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, and the Annual Review of Psychology. She is the co-editor of The Handbook of Negotiation and Culture (with Jeanne Brett, Stanford University Press) and The Psychology of Conflict and Conflict Management in Organizations (with Carsten De Dreu, Erlbaum) and is the founding co-editor of the Advances in Culture and Psychologyseries and Frontiers of Culture and Psychology series (with CY Chiu and Ying-Yi Hong, Oxford University Press). She serves on numerous editorial boards in social and organizational psychology, is a past Associate Editor of Applied Psychology: An International Review and is currently an Associate Editor of Social Psychology and Personality Science.

Michele received the Ernest J. McCormick Award for Early Career Contributions from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology and the LL Cummings Scholar Award from the Organizational Behavior of the Academy of Management. She is the Past President of theInternational Association of Conflict Management, is Past Division Chair of the Conflict Management Division of the Academy of Management, and Past Treasurer of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology. She is currently the PI on a multiuniversity research initiative to study culture and negotiation in the Middle East. She teaches courses on negotiation, diversity, and cross-cultural management.


For BU EvoS members, pdfs of the readings are posted in the blackboard group. If you have a BU email address you can email evos@binghamton.edu to get added to the blackboard group.


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