Saturday, January 16, 2021

Review of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: Tight and Loose Cultures and the Secret Signals that Direct Our Lives by Michele Gelfand

This review was written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = Sociology

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Cultures coordinate behavior.  The type of social norms and how they are enforced are determined by culture.  Fitting on a spectrum between tight or loose cultures.  Tight cultures are rule makers and have little tolerance for deviance.  Loose cultures are rule breakers and are highly permissive.  Each type of culture has its advantages and disadvantages, a tight-loose trade-off.  Knowing the distinctions enables people and business to understand how they need to operate to successfully coordinate behavior to obtain desired results and prevent conflict.  Tight and loose cultures see and judge each other differently, which if not properly handled can end up with conflict.  

Social norms are learned by observing how others behave.  Behaviors that are rewarded and punished signal desired norms.  Some norms appear to have no logical meaning while they are still being followed.  Social norms can act like shortcuts to morality, overriding individual judgments of what is right or wrong.  Seemingly random, social norms are rather an evolved social function for cooperation.  With cooperation, the human species has succeeded in making grand accomplishments. 

Loose cultures are generally open but have disorder.  Loose cultures tend to be rule breaking, but rule breaking creates a feedback loop that facilitates more violations. Tight cultures are more conforming but less tolerant of deviants.  Individuals in tight cultures downplay their uniqueness because coordination is easier if everyone is like everyone else.  This is a tight-loose trade-off.  For some organizational needs, a loose culture would be advantageous, but a loose culture would be disadvantageous with other organizational needs and vice versa for tight cultures.  Tight cultures have more self-control, while loose cultures adapt to change more quickly.  

Social norms are responses to ecological and difficult circumstances.  When there is a threat, strong social norms are needed for cooperation.  Strong norms are needed to prevent individuals from going rogue.  Fewer threats result in less need for coordination.  Being exposed to diverse perspectives makes people more tolerant of a wider range of behavior.  When individuals, organizations, and countries need to work with those from a different cultural background, conflict can occur.  As tight and loose cultures have different modes of behavior, they create different behavioral expectations.  Different cultures break each other’s expectations, creating conflict.  Knowing the different cultural types can prevent conflict and facilitate coordination.  

Most of this book is a lot of minor examples and experiments which contrasts tight and loose cultures.  Many examples are short and not detailed, which sometimes makes it difficult to read as it can prevent an understanding of how this example interacts with its related cultural aspects in different settings.  There is a plethora of experiments, but although they do highlight certain lessons, they have a problem with replication and generalizations.  Much like in all social sciences, examples and experiments need to be appropriately questioned into how they fit in any particular context.  The majority of the book is an exposition of the differences between tight and loose cultures, with not enough about how they interact.  Gelfand recognizes the difficulties of interaction between tight and loose cultures, and writes about the conflict the interactions can create, but not much is written about to overcome that conflict. 

Gelfand suggests that goldilocks cultures can be beneficial in obtaining the appropriate advantageous for a particular organization.  Extreme tightness or looseness prevents the advantageous aspects of the alternative cultural type.  Knowing how to negotiate with different cultures facilitates appropriate expectations.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book
•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?
•What are rule makers / rule breakers? 
•Why do we follow social norms?
•How are social norms learned?
•Are social norms moral?
•What is the tight-loose trade-off?
•What are the benefits and disadvantages of a tight culture? How about for loose cultures?
•Is there a goldilocks condition between tight and loose for cultures?
•Are cultural aspects permanent? 
•How do cultures change their cultural aspects?
•What can cause a culture to become loose? How about become Tight?
•What role does gossip play in social norms?
•What happens when tight and loose cultures interact?

Book Details
Original Title:  Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World
Edition ISBN:  9781501152955
Pages to read:   206
Publication:     2019
1st Edition:      2018
Format:           eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    4
Content          4
Overall           4