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Episode 103
Featuring Michele Gelfand

Demetri Kofinas speaks with cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand, who argues that the world’s cultures can be classified into two categories by virtue of their norms. This episode is full of eye-opening insights for development professionals, policymakers and those working in international business.

In this week’s episode of Hidden Forces, Demetri Kofinas speaks with cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand, who argues in her latest book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, that the world’s cultures can be classified into two categories by virtue of their norms. She offers a lucid explanation of how and why cultures become tight or loose, outlining their different societal attitudes. This episode is full of eye-opening insights for development professionals, policymakers and those working in international business. 

According to Gelfand, tight cultures have a large number of social norms that enforce order and conformity and tend to evolve in nations that face many natural and human-made threats. Loose cultures, on the other hand, have more lenient norms and tolerate a wider array of behaviors. They generally face fewer chronic threats – but may tighten up temporarily in the event of an acute threat. Furthermore, says Michele, tight and loose cultures each have advantages and disadvantages and it’s possible to modify a nation’s norms in order to address protracted social problems. This is also true in the private sector. In a particularly relevant part of the conversation, Michele describes how businesses also develop tight or loose cultures and how a cultural mismatch can doom a merger or undermine cooperation among a corporation’s divisions. The example she provides is that of Chrysler and Mercedes Benz, but Demetri also raises the example of AOL-Time Warner, perhaps the most prominent failed marriage of the late 90’s stock market boom. 

“Tight” cultures, like Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Germany, embrace rigid norms and mete out harsh punishments for those who deviate. “Loose” cultures, including New Zealand, the United States, and Brazil, are more tolerant of a wide assortment of behaviors. According to Dr. Gelfand, when countries, families, companies, and US states all act in accordance with their divergent conceptions of “normal,” misunderstandings and conflict often arise that help to explain many of the phenomena we encounter in daily life, business, and politics.

The overtime to this week's episode includes a conversation about changing cultural norms in the workplace, as well as how the norms in some western countries began to change after terrorist attacks. 

This overtime segment, as well as the transcript and rundown to the full episode, are available to audiophile, autodidact, and super nerd subscribers through the Hidden Forces Patreon Page. All subscribers also gain access to our overtime feed, which can be easily be added to your favorite podcast application. 

Producer & Host: Demetri Kofinas

Editor & Engineer: Stylianos Nicolaou

Subscribe & Support the Podcast at http://patreon.com/hiddenforces

Join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at @hiddenforcespod

Publication Date: 10/07/2019

Michele Gelfand is a cultural psychologist, best known for being an expert on tightness–looseness theory, which explains variations in the strength of social norms and punishments across human groups. She is currently a Distinguished University Professor in Psychology and the RH Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park. Gelfand uses field, experimental, computational and neuroscience methods to understand the evolution of culture and its multilevel consequences for human groups. She is the author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the World (Scribner, 2018), co-editor of Values, Political Action, and Change in the Middle East and the Arab Spring (Oxford University Press, 2017), The Psychology of Conflict and Conflict Management in Organizations (Taylor & Francis, 2013), and The Handbook of Negotiation and Culture (Stanford University Press, 2004), and is the founding co-editor of the Advances in Culture and Psychology Annual Series and the Frontiers of Culture and Psychology series (Oxford University Press). Gelfand studied at Colgate University, where she graduated with a B.A. in psychology in 1989. She graduated from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 1996 with a PhD in social psychology and organizational psychology.

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