University of Maryland professor Dr. Michele Gelfand unleashed her cultural psychology brilliance on the Columbia community last night. Part of the Perspectives on Peace series that Columbia has organized since 2015, Gelfand shared insight from her recent book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. Freshman Bwogger Jordan Merrill, chaperoned by sophomore Events Editor Isabel Sepúlveda, was there to cover the event.
After spending my afternoon napping, I headed off to do what any respectable Columbia woman does at 6:00 PM on a Thursday: attend Michele Gelfand’s Perspectives on Peace lecture at Teachers College. As I headed into the auditorium inhabited by fully-grown adults, it became very clear to me that I am a toddler and also that the event should have been held in a smaller room (chairs: about 300, people: about 40).
The talk was centered around Gelfand’s new book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, the premise of which I admit I was extremely confused about until I actually listened to Gelfand speak. The moderator, Columbia psych professor Dr. Peter Coleman, started by praising Gelfand and listing off some of her not so humble accomplishments—she’s been published everywhere from the New York Times to the Economist and wrote the first cultural psychology article ever published in Science.
Expecting a very intimidating boss-lady to take the stage and annihilate us with her mind, I was pleasantly surprised when Gelfand came out super enthusiastically, and tried to relate to the audience by citing her own experience as a New York native (though she still annihilated us all with her mind). Gelfand began explaining the differences between what she calls “tight” and “loose” societies, essentially categorizing them by how strictly they adhere to rules and social norms. The “tightness” of a place like Singapore, where you can be fined for chewing gum, is borne out of threats such as natural disaster, war, or in Singapore’s case, high population density. In places like this, there is generally less crime, more security, and more uniformity. In contrast, loose societies such as New Zealand, where people can walk around barefoot in banks, generally have few threats and are generated from a desire for openness. People don’t adhere as strictly to social standards, which can foster creativity but also make for a more chaotic society.
Gelfand spent the next hour examining the effects of this phenomenon across America and the world. She went so in depth that, for a moment, the English language seemed foreign to me, and all I saw were visions of sheep roaming the banks in New Zealand. The words “strict” and “open” were used so many times that I almost forgot what they meant, and she so extensively reviewed the concepts that I feel I deserve class credits for listening and learning. The rest of the audience though, all between one and three generations older than me, seemed utterly engaged by the extremely fast-paced, well-spoken lady in front of us.
I became more interested when Gelfand started going into the effects of socioeconomic status on adherence to social norms, describing an experiment where “Max the norm violating puppet” breaks the rules while playing games with children of different economic backgrounds, Gelfand recounts how this adherence to social standards affects not just communities, but also families and businesses. When people and companies with very different “tightnesses” merge together, lots of negotiation needs to occur. Gelfand gave the example of her husband, who she feels adheres to social norms, and herself, who she feels does not (she seemed like a pretty normal person in the lecture, though), and compared it to the tight culture of Jeff Bezos’s authoritarian company Amazon merging with Whole Foods’ lax culture. Both of these marriages took compromise and work, she claimed.
At this point, I was still fascinated by the subject but was beginning to long for the cheese and wine promised after the lecture. Shortly after this feeling emerged, Gelfand and Coleman sat down in chairs, Ellen Show-style, and discussed more about her book. After a few questions and much more praise for Michele Gelfand, the conversation turned to them talking about people in positions of power getting away with bad behavior—or deviance from social norms—much more than average citizens. This inevitably led to our dearest president Donald Trump being brought up. A laughter of reassurance spread throughout the room, which happens basically any time a group of New York academics hear even hint at criticism of Trump. Here, Gelfand finally stareds giving the audience glimpses of her personal (rather than academic) opinions, from her disdain for Trump to her stance on the loose nature of the internet. Apparently, we are a “super normative species in a cesspool of anti-normative behavior” that needs to be “more controlled,” which I’m not sure how I feel about.
Gelfand had so much to say that she began running over schedule, and she had to turn the lecture over to the audience’s questions (and boy, there were questions). People got in line for minutes-long interrogations of Gelfand; I definitely heard the words “ancient Sparta” in a question somewhere. Somehow, though, Gelfand understood the exact basis of every question and answered in accordance with her eloquent and respectful demeanor.
I left the lecture, hurrying to get to a club meeting, entirely satisfied with the experience. I learned that being too tight or loose in my adherence to rules can cause “depression, high blood pressure, and in extreme cases, devotion to ISIS.” If you want to know what could happen to you, or maybe society as a whole, if you do or don’t follow the rules, it’s worth looking into some of Michele Gelfand’s work. If this means anything, I took four full pages of notes at Gelfand’s talk. This is coming from a girl who skipped her gen chem lecture this morning, the second week of classes. I also want to take this brief moment to shamelessly plug Michele Gelfand’s quiz that tells you if you are a “tight” or “loose” person. Personally, I am “moderately loose minded”—who knew! I went into the lecture ready to learn about other cultures, and as cliche as it sounds, I actually got to learn some stuff about myself.
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