Michele Gelfand is a Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her pioneering research into cultural norms has been cited thousands of times in the press, including in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, and on NPR.
Michele’s latest book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, was recently selected as a Finalist for the Next Big Idea Club. So we asked her to dive into the biggest ideas behind the book, what surprised her during her research process, and why conflict arises between individuals, communities, and entire nations.
1. In two sentences or less, can you sum up the “big idea” of your book?
We often think about our differences in terms of Red vs. Blue, Rich vs. Poor, Rural vs. Urban, or East vs. West, but after studying hundreds of cultures—from Ancient Athens to Alabama, Sparta to Singapore, and the Military to Silicon Valley—I’ve found that there is a deeper cultural code driving our behavior which reflects the strength of our social norms, or what I call tight versus loose cultures. By understanding the hidden logic for why groups evolve to be tight or loose, and what trade-offs they involve, we can better understand and manage our differences—from parenting to politics.
2. What surprised you the most in your research?
In my research I discovered what I call the Goldilocks Principle of Tight-Loose, namely that groups that get too extreme in either direction are dysfunctional. Nations that are too tight or too loose have higher suicide rates and lower happiness. Likewise, organizations that get too extreme in tight or loose (think United versus Tesla) or parents who are either over- controlling or too laid back (think Helicopter or Laissez-Faire) are maladaptive. Amazingly, this principle even applies to our brains and the behavior of birds and bees! In Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, I also describe how a lot of conflict and political shifts happening around the world stem in part from the Goldilocks principle, and how we can use it to anticipate and prevent them from happening.
3. Did an event from your personal life inspire or affect the book?
When I was a junior in college, I ventured off to London for a semester, my first experience abroad. A sheltered kid from Long Island, I was the classic New Yorker who didn’t know life existed outside the Big Apple, as depicted in the famous New Yorker cartoon. Overwhelmed by the strange accents, the cars driving on the left side of the road, and the British jokes I didn’t quite understand, I experienced a quintessential case of culture shock. I remember phoning my father and telling him how strange it was that other members of my study-abroad group would just pick up and go to places like Paris, Amsterdam, and Scotland for the weekend. In his thick Brooklyn accent, my father responded, “Well, imagine that it’s like going from New Yawk to Pennsylvania!” That metaphor gave me so much comfort, that the very next day, I booked a low-budget tour to Egypt. It was just like going from New York to California, I reasoned (much to my father’s dismay!). That fortuitous phone call with my dad sparked a lifelong passion for exploring cultures around the globe, and caused me to pivot from a career in medicine to one in cross-cultural psychology.
4. What would you like readers to take away from your book?
I hope that the tight versus loose distinction will ultimately change the way readers look at the world and themselves. It illuminates differences we see across nations, states, social classes, and households all through the same lens; it helps unlock clashes that we experience with our spouses, kids, friends, and co-workers on a daily basis; and it enables us to understand puzzling dynamics that we see happening around the world, from the rise of populism to the assent of ISIS. Most importantly, by understanding this hidden dimension of our lives, we can use it to better our relationships, organizations, and the world at large. Culture isn’t destiny. By tightening norms when we they are too loose, and loosening norms when they are too tight, we can build a better planet.
5. Do you have a favorite quote or motto that guides your life?
Take the “Road Less Traveled”—explore as much unknown territory as possible.
6. What is one book that you wish everyone in the world would read?
I love Buddhist philosophy and rely a lot on writings of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, especially Joyful Wisdom and The Joy of Living. These books give us very simple principles to become more content, grateful, and compassionate.
7. What was your most humbling moment?
After completing my Ph.D. and learning the tricks of the research trade, I took a tenure track position and realized that the most important job I had—namely mentoring brilliant Ph.D. students—was something I was completely unprepared for. I felt daunted by the responsibility to help these students thrive and succeed at the highest level, and I discovered that it was this task that was one of the most challenging but most rewarding part of my job. I love mentoring students and helping them to envision their “future selves.” When I get emails from my former students saying “mentorship needed” even after decades of them being on their own, I have a deep sense of gratitude.
8. What trivial trick, talent, or feat can you do to impress people?
I’m known to have endless energy and passion for working with people who are coming from very different perspectives—whether it is neuroscientists, evolutionary game theorists, anthropologists, managers or policy makers—I can easily get to the gist that connects us and find ways to work together to discover new frontiers.
9. What’s something that is really easy for most people that you find really challenging?
I’m a generalist and love to learn about absolutely everything. So I find it challenging to specialize on any one topic.