Full Q&A: ‘Rule Makers, Rule Breakers’ author Michele Gelfand on Recode Decode
Gelfand studies why some cultures desire rules, why others avoid them and what gets the best results.
On the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand joined Kara in studio to talk about her new book, “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our Minds.”
A distinguished professor at the University of Maryland, Gelfand studies why different cultures (in families, in different countries and within companies) accept different levels of rule-making. On the corporate level, she said an overly strict rule-abiding culture can lead to PR disasters like United Airlines dragging a paying passenger off one of its planes. But that doesn’t mean the inverse is the right way to go, either.
“I think we can nominate places like Uber that were loose but then were characterized as being really exceedingly normless,” Gelfand said. “Those contexts are also unsustainable, and they need to introduce some structure into them, which I call structured looseness … Tesla might be another good example of this because they took creative … Incredible place, but there’s a lot of production problems.”
“It’s interesting because innovation, which is of course high-tech, it requires both tight and loose,” she added. “It requires the creativity, but if you don’t have the people who are going to implement it, the tightness that helps to actually scale it up, then it could have problems.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Michele.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor at large of Recode. You may know me as someone who believes rules were made to be broken, except for the rules I make, which you had better fucking follow, or else. But in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is Michele Gelfand, a cultural psychologist and distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland. She’s the author of a new book called “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our Minds.” It’s about why countries, societies, businesses and individuals follow rules and why others do the exact opposite. It’s a perfect topic for tech people. Michele, welcome to Recode Decode.
Michele Gelfand: Great to be here.
Let’s talk a little bit about your background. How do you get to be a cultural psychologist? What does that mean?
I took a major pivot when I was in college. I was premed, and then I went abroad to London. I was sort of a sheltered Long Island kid who saw New York and the world through that famous New Yorker cartoon. Went to London, and I was totally shocked by the sounds and the jokes.
You still have the Long Island …
I got the Long Island accent.
You do. You do. I grew up in Long Island. I don’t have one at all.
I know. I’ve escaped from Long Island, no offense to people there.
I remember calling my father. This actually made a huge impact on me, this one phone call. I said, “Dad, it’s really weird,” he’s from Brooklyn, “that people just travel from London to Paris to the Netherlands on the weekend.” And he said to me in his quintessential New York accent, he said, “Well think about it like it’s going from New York to Pennsylvania.”
The next day, literally, I booked a trip to Egypt. I’m like, “Pop, it’s like going from New York to California.”
From then on, I started really studying, informally, culture, this omnipresent force that is invisible all around us. It’s like two fish in the water, they say. They’re all swimming along, and one older fish comes up and says, “Hey, boys. How’s the water?” And they’re like, “What the fuck is ‘the water?’”
That’s what we live in. We live in this water. We have no idea how it’s affecting us.
I went back to Colgate, I was an undergrad there, and I started to say, “Hey, can I make a career out of studying culture? Use the best scientific tools to study it.” Unfortunately, I had to go to Champaign-Urbana to get my PhD, but it was a great run with Harry Triandis, who founded the field of cultural psychology.
The things you study are whatever you want, correct? Talk about the range of things you can study.
Yeah. I’m interested in “culture,” very broadly defined. It could be national culture, it could be state culture, it could be organizational culture, it could be even culture in the household, like how much does your household focus on rules versus have more permissiveness, something I’m constantly negotiating with my teenagers. I wanted to know is there a common principle that we can identify.
Like in physics or in biology, there’s pretty simple principles that help understand phenomena, and that’s why I set out to really understand rule makers and rule breakers. It turns out that the psychology of that is very similar across all these different contexts, antecedents and the consequence of the trade-offs that they provide for groups and individuals.
Let’s talk about that concept in your book, the idea, because it’s a concept that’s big in Silicon Valley, of rule breakers, or they think they’re rule breakers …
Although, I think they’re rule makers. Talk about those two, the rule makers and rule breakers, and then this tight and loose cultures, we’ll get to that in a second. But what were you thinking when you were doing this book?
I traveled the world, and you see these interesting contrasts where you’re in Germany and you see people, in general, waiting very patiently on the street corners, even when cars are not around. And then you go to New York City, maybe San Francisco, and you see people jaywalking with babies in tow.
In San Francisco, they’re looking at phones while they’re jaywalking with babies in tow.
That’s right. Like they’re almost going to get killed.
Or you go to Singapore. Have you ever been there? It’s called the “fine nation” because you can get fined or punished for things like spitting or chewing gum, and then you take a short plane ride over to New Zealand, and people are walking barefoot in banks. I had a reporter call me and say, “Why do we do this?” It’s a very permissive culture.
I started seeing some of these contrasts, so I wanted to try to actually assess it with surveys first, in this case it was across 30 nations, try to put countries on a continuum. Even though all cultures have tight and loose elements, their rule makers and rule breakers, some cultures — in our data, Japan, Germany, Austria, Pakistan — had much stronger rules. And other cultures — like New Zealand, Netherlands, the United States in general, Brazil, Greece — they were much more permissive.
I was really interested in, why did this evolve? It has to have some functionality. So, I started measuring, as I was collecting this data across 30 countries, 7,000 people, the history of these nations. How many times has the place been invaded in the last 100 years? Japan has had a lot of conflict. Germany’s had a lot of conflict. United States, we’ve had our conflicts, but we haven’t been worried about Mexico or Canada invading us for centuries.
I also measured population density. How many people per square mile? Places like Singapore have 20,000 people per square mile. Places like New Zealand have 50 people per square mile, more sheep per capita than people. Even as far back as 1500, like, how many people were living in these places?
And I measured natural disasters, mother nature’s fury. How many times have you had to deal with disasters that other places don’t have to succumb to?
That decimate your population.
The idea is really pretty simple. I predicted that groups that have a lot of threat — whether it’s human-made invasions or natural-made — will need stronger rules to survive. They need to coordinate. In those contexts, these are collective action problems. We need people to follow rules, we don’t want defectors, and actually, that’s what I show, that across the board in general, tight cultures tend to have more threat, loose cultures have much less threat.
I then was looking at the trade-offs of these kinds of things, like what does it confer to groups? It turns out to be a pretty simple principle — applies to nations, to states, to organizations, to households — that tight cultures give a lot of order. Loose cultures are pretty disorderly. But a flip side, loose cultures are very open and tight cultures have a lot of problems with openness. Just as an example, crime is much lower in tight cultures.
There’s a great “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” show that was like, “Japanese police officers need more of what?” Everyone’s guessing maybe they need higher salaries, more vacation time. It turns out they need more crime because there’s very little crime, so they try to egg people on to commit crimes …
Because they’re so bored.
They also have more synchrony. Synchrony’s a really powerful principle. More uniformity. Even if you go around the world and you look at city clocks, you’ll find that they’re more likely to say the same time in places like Germany. If you’re in Greece or Brazil, you’re not quite sure what time it is. Things are more disorganized.
Also, there’s more self-regulation in tight cultures. There’s less gambling, less debt, they’re even less fat. We actually measured this. And that makes sense, because when you have stronger norms, you have to really manage your impulses a lot, so that has a benefit of order to help with those kinds of threats.
A flip side, loose cultures have much more openness to different ideas, they’re much more creative, to different people and to change.
As an example of one of the weird experiments we did, we sent RAs [research assistants] around the world wearing warts on their face. I bought these. You can buy them easily online. Or tattoos and nose rings, or just their normal face. And they asked for help on city streets around the world, or in malls asking for help in stores. Across the board, when people look “normal,” everyone helped them in different cultures.
Without the giant wart.
No difference. But tight cultures were much less likely to help people who look different. They’re kind of threatening to the order. In loose cultures, much more friendly and open.
We could see this trade-off of order and openness that cultures have. Then we started to look at this at the state level. Can we look beyond blue versus red? Is tight/loose something that we can differentiate in our own nation? Not all nations have this kind of variability. But we then set out to do that and then look at organizations and households.
I do want to mention that there’s exceptions, of course. Every theory has their exceptions.
Places like … Israel is a good example of a place that’s pretty threatened but it’s exceptionally loose and wildly creative. And it’s really important to look into that context and see why might that be the case? One of the good reasons for this is that it’s pretty diverse, so diversity pushes toward looseness. The other is that the religion promotes debate.
There’s a kind of funny joke like, there’s three Jews talking about something, ten opinions. I know this, actually.
That’s an oldie but goodie.
My daughter was getting Bat Mitzvahed, and she starts disagreeing with her Torah portion when she’s reading me her speech. I’m like, “Sweetie, why are you doing that?” She’s like, “Well, the rabbi told me to do that.”
There’s no set rules, and I think that that is what’s overriding some of the threats. That’s a really cool exception to think about.
When you’re thinking about that … I talk to a tech and media, largely a tech audience, but others too. The imagery of tech is as rule breakers, and if you look at innovative cultures around the world over history, they tend to be that. Can you talk about that and if that changes, how that changes?
Yeah. In the book, rule makers or breakers, I have a whole chapter on organizations. It’s also this hidden dimension of organizations, as it is with nations, so we have some industries where you need a lot of rules, like in airline industries or nuclear power plants or in the military. They have more threat. They have more coordination issues.
On the flip side, places like tech, advertising, clearly startups, they really have much less threat and they have more diversity and they have more mobility, so they’re much looser. One of the interesting things I think, though, that I write about is what I call the Goldilocks principle. It’s basically as it sounds. It’s all in moderation, not too hot, not too cold. In organizations, even if organizations veer tight or loose for good reasons, if they get to the extreme, they have serious problems. I think that’s one thing we see.
Well, talk about that. They get to … ?
For example, United has to be tight, but obviously people were following rules blindly and they needed to introduce some discretion into that system, some looseness. I call this flexible tightness. You don’t want to change the whole organization. You don’t want people in that industry to be making up all sorts of shit. You want them to be following some rules.
Right. “Maybe we’ll open this door.” On the flipside…
And I think United’s trying to do that after that PR fiasco.
Which is when they were dragging their customer off.
Or were they killing the dog? I forget which one of the many airlines.
Both! And then there’s the flip side of cultures that get exceedingly loose, and they also have problems. I think we can nominate places like Uber that were loose but then were characterized as being really exceedingly normless. Those contexts are also unsustainable, and they need to introduce some structure into them, which I call structured looseness.
I think it’s a dynamic construct where companies and industries, they veer tight or loose, but then when they get too extreme they have problems. Tesla might be another good example of this because they took creative … Incredible place, but there’s a lot of production problems.
It’s interesting because innovation, which is of course high-tech, it requires both tight and loose. It requires the creativity, but if you don’t have the people who are going to implement it, the tightness that helps to actually scale it up, then it could have problems. I think identifying some of the types of people … The people and the practices and the leaders of these organizations are very different.
That’s another sort of general principle. When companies try to merge that vary on tight/loose, they have huge problems, and I write about the price tag of those mergers in the book. There’s a lot of other interesting applications of this, whether it’s … Again, it’s dynamic, so people try to merge to get new strengths of looseness or tightness, and then they find, “I can’t stand these people.” How do you negotiate this ahead of time? We should be negotiating culture versus just thinking it’s all technical, like we’re gonna gain a lot of advantages technically from merging.
Right, so you’re trying to find people to complement you, and it doesn’t always result in that.
Yeah. You could look at like Amazon and Whole Foods, which clearly looks like a match made in heaven, but they come from very different worlds in terms of tight/loose. If ahead of time they can identify, well, we respect the culture of Whole Foods. It’s pretty loose. But let’s figure out where we need to be tighter there but allow looseness in other contexts to maintain itself. Likewise with Amazon. It veers tight. Where are places we could introduce some discretion there?
I think these are the kind of things that you can negotiate ahead of time. You can sort of sit down and do an assessment, a cultural diagnosis, of where the tight and loose domains are in these organizations, and I think it would make for a far more successful merger.
I want to drill down more into tech. You mentioned a bunch: Tesla, Uber, Facebook — you didn’t mention Facebook yet — Amazon.
Most of tech sees themselves as rule breakers, when in fact you’re right, those successful ones are much tighter than you think about. Can you just talk about that and what changes as they get bigger and more powerful? Because they continue to see themselves as rule breakers when in fact they make all the rules and they run the show, and they don’t ever see themselves that way.
Yeah, it’s so interesting. I think what happens is — and I write about this in the book — there’s a serial startup phenomenon where the whole goal is to get bought out and to scale up.
But then you enter those organizational cultures, they’re just so different and they’re so rule-oriented, and they need to be because they have much more coordination. I think that’s what we find is people then, coming from a loose standpoint, people think they’re irresponsible and they’re kind of crazy and don’t have any discipline.
On the flip side, people coming from the startup culture are saying they’re just so rule-bound and they’re not fluid enough. And they don’t anticipate these problems, and then a lot of people leave. I think this is the same issue of mergers.
What’s interesting about the places like Facebook, like you’re saying, they do make the rules. It’s clearly the case that they didn’t anticipate the human psychological issue that happens on the internet. I remember reading your awesome New York Times article about how Zuckerberg should have take some humanities in college to understand. Actually, he should have taken psychology.
All of them. He took none of them.
For years, we’ve known that when people are not monitored, when they are online and they’re not accountable, they do all sorts of weird stuff. It’s the online disinhibition effect that we’ve seen in research in the early ‘80s even that was looking at what happens when you’re in face-to-face versus you’re on online communication.
Or you can’t see them.
You can’t see someone. It produces a huge amount of …
That’s right. You torture people when you can’t see them. Is that right? You torture people when you can’t see them. You’re more willing to cause more pain when you can’t physically see someone.
Yeah. You don’t see the cues of the social presence of people.
What’s so fascinating is that for years, for millennia, we’ve operating face-to-face, first small-scale societies where we create rules, and we keep each other accountable. Then we sort of scaled up with the Industrial Revolution …
Which is bad and good things, because if you can see someone, you can be discriminatory, etc., etc.
Yeah. That’s right. The internet has that lack of social presence, also has all sorts of benefits of being free and open, but it has a really serious downside of excessive looseness. In the book I talk about context where we need to think strategically about how to use social norms to better the planet. Sometimes we need to tighten up. Sometimes we need to loosen.
The internet is a good example that it’s a context that I believe we have to have more of this Goldilocks principle. It’s because of this psychological lack of accountability, people do all sorts of terrible things on the Internet. Americans are really kind of, you know, not all, but many people feel like we should err toward freedom, but reality is that both extremes, as I mentioned, are problematic. I think that’s where we see that there was this unanticipated … we didn’t realize the impact that the internet would have on human behavior. We live online all the time now.
Why didn’t we realize? Why didn’t these leaders realize it? When I’d love to first talk about is the idea of one of the things they talk about in tech a lot for sure, and I think a lot of places now, but tech was the first group to really talk about it out loud is, “this is our culture.” This is “don’t be evil,” or whatever Facebook’s is … but they all talk about how they’re building a culture, and it’s critically important for their identity to have that. That wasn’t around. You didn’t think of cultures before. I think tech was the first place that just touted it so heavily.
I think philosophers for centuries have been pondering how much freedom should we have versus constraint. You see people like Plato or Confucius or Hobbes that say, “We need rules to coordinate, we can’t just let people go.”
Then you have the flip side: John Stuart Mill and other people, even Freud was kind of verklempt over a lot of rules, thought they’d cause a lot of neuroses, and I think that those debates never entered that tech world. It was never like, “You know what, this is gonna be a totally free world. We only see the advantages of that.” And there are many advantages. Economic efficiencies, openness, except that we kind of underestimated people, again, psychologically, people are not just gonna …
Do their best.
Interact with people outside of their echo chambers.
So I think there was this sense that the focus on the positive, and I think that’s respectful in a lot of ways. That the internet has done so many things for the world and high tech in terms of that openness, but it’s lost … it’s gonna spiral out of control because of lack of rules and the accountability.
I think what’s exciting is to see that it’s starting … Humans are kind of adaptive. You’re starting to see that we live online. We have to make it more of a normative place, and we’re starting to try to figure this out. Kind of trial by error. Reddit is a great example. They really promote open discussion, as far as I can tell, but in a really want people to debate, they don’t want to squelch dissent, but they also say, “Look guys, we gotta …”
Yeah, that’s right, recently. “We gotta get rid of people …”
Because they were down in the nasty lane for an awfully long time, for growth. Because all that debate started it. How does that enter … I just recently interviewed Nicole Wong, she used to work for Google and Twitter, and she was talking about how we need to introduce a slow food movement into the internet. Many people feel that tech has exploded because of this lack of rules, because of looseness, because of anything goes. When you have that culture, it’s very hard to throttle it back, for sure. Or you think of yourself that way, almost continually.
Because we live in this new world, this is where our lives are taking place now. So like we did in the Industrial Revolution, we figured out a way to coordinate and have rules that helped people to cooperate across hundreds if not thousands of people. Now we have the same problem. The issue is that we just kind of didn’t realize it’s gonna happen. You know, we didn’t think about the psychology of the internet.
So why now? Why didn’t they …?
I think because people are focused on the …
They certainly took the money.
Yeah. I think that it was a process of, that this is getting so successful technically, it’s providing a lot for the world, but really what it’s also doing is it’s now inhibiting us as our communication, our elections, all because we have no norms and rules. And that’s why we see that it’s starting to happen bottom-up, because people want to live in a world that has some kind of respect and etiquette and they’re starting to push back.
I talk to my kids about it, “How do you identify norm violators? Let’s talk about this.” Have a course on it. Let’s have our driver’s license, as the co-founder of the internet said. Let’s kind of be mindful that this is our new world.
But then it also has to come from top down. That’s where you see, the United States is really struggling with this. How much should we be regulating the Internet? I think we need that Goldilocks balance.
They don’t at all.
And it’s just … people don’t think about the psychological consequences, and now we’re catching up with that. I predict that we’re gonna start having these dialogues, we’re gonna try to negotiate this in healthy ways. That’s the whole …
I think one of the things was from the beginning, this group of people was allowed complete immunity, and it’s in law. Now that’s getting chipped away, but when you’re allowed complete immunity, you tend to … I think there’s a bright line between that and what happened to Facebook last year.
In the election. They just weren’t minding the store, at all. And people … they say they were, but the results seem to be very obvious that they didn’t even … in the design of it they never thought of it, they never thought of it one minute, because they had no strictures on them.
That’s right. I mean that kind of … Looseness thrives on that kind of lack of rules and having less accountability. It produces so many great things, but I think it’s catching up with us. We’re starting to realize, “Wow, change happens so quickly that now we’re just really at a loss. Okay, we gotta step back and figure out how we’re gonna regulate the internet.”
I think the problem often is that Americans really have a hard time with constraint. You know, you see in Europe there’s much more acceptance of, “Okay, we need some rules.”
They want the rules.
They want the rules. You know, I think the balance is we don’t want to become, in my view, like China. There’s millions of people monitoring the internet and squelching dissent. It’s clearly excessively tight. But we’re at the opposite end of the continuum, with the extreme looseness. It’s unsustainable, and so that’s why these conversations here in Washington.
I don’t blame people like Zuckerberg. I think they’re not psychologists. They didn’t understand what this freedom is going to do to people. Maybe Plato and Hobbes and people would have. So maybe he should also read some of that stuff.
Maybe he should learn about it. I think it’s part of your … See, I have an opposite thing. I think it’s part of your … If you have that much power you have the responsibility. If you really care. Unless, then you’re just a despot of some sort, that you don’t care about the impact. So if you actually purport and say you care about the impact, then you should be highly educated on these things.
Yeah, and I think now, that’s happening. That accountability that says, “Look, you have power, with that comes responsibility.” Actually, in the book I talk about power and looseness, and it’s no question that people that are in high-powered positions have more of a loose mindset. People who are minorities, who are lower-status individuals, they live in a tighter world. They’re subject to more strict punishments for the same behavior.
We have research on this. You tell people in banks that Jamal or Leticia did something bad in the organization, like came late or missed a meeting, versus Lauren or Max or Brad. Even bank managers — I’ve published a paper on this — they view these behaviors very differently. So it’s taken, it’s another layer of this. It’s taken a while to say, “You’re in a high-power position, you’re living in a looser world where you have less constraints and you needed to tighten up.”
Right. And when you think about those rules … in the next section I want to talk about some of the things people in tech and power should be reading in terms of shifting that. But when you talk about this Goldilocks issue, is there an ability to do that? Because it seems to me we just veer from one to the other, back and forth, over and over again.
Yeah, I mean, we do at the national level. In our research, you can see that places that get incredibly norm-less invite tight forces. Because it’s unsustainable to feel like, this is so anxiety provoking. Erich Fromm talked about it in the ‘40’s, it’s why people even right now are interested and supportive of populist leaders. Because they feel so much threat and they want a return to the social order. So there’s that kind of … extreme looseness, however people feel it, whether it’s exaggerated or not, a threat invites tightness.
Except that the rule … The person they’re thinking for a rule maker is actually a rule breaker.
That’s right. It’s unbelievable to see, like, how is it possible that someone like President Trump is … He’s a crazy norm violator. It’s really interesting. We take norms so for granted that we just can’t believe the norms he’s violating, because we’ve taken them for granted in every other presidency.
I think that it’s because of his perceived power and because he’s not kept accountable by his own party. Accountability makes people behave themselves more. Watched people, accountable people are more norm-abiding. But also I think that even his supporters, my hypothesis would be that they’re willing to overlook these kinds of norm violations because they’re expecting him to return them to a tight, safe order.
So it’s kind of hierarchy of needs, like, “Yeah, you can do all that weird stuff, but that’s not really why I’m rooting you on, ‘cause I’m looking to get back to a safe place.” I mean, it’s amazing to think about the complexity of the world these days, compared to when I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s: As a kid, there were so few choices. There are so many disruptions now.
Right. No, there were two, three stations, two televisions you could buy, and stuff like that.
And that complexity is just totally overwhelming for some people. They want a tight social order. It’s what’s explaining what’s happening in Brexit, in Hungary. I mean, what we have is a situation where these leaders are not only capitalizing on real threats that people perceive, like the working class. We have research on the working class. They’re definitely tight, because they have a lot of threat. Rules matter to them. When we asked the working class to give us five word associations for the word “rules”, they come up with positive words …
Whereas the upper class comes up with, you know, these are a nuisance, like “goody two shoes.” When we bring in …
Right, right. What are the positive ones?
Like things like “structure” and “order.” When you’re in a context where you could fall into poverty very easily, when you would go into a dangerous job and you know you could get hurt, rules matter in that case.
We did a really interesting experiment. We brought 3-year-olds into the lab, like working class, middle-class kids. You can’t really ask them about rules, but you can have them interacting with a puppet. This guy called Max the Puppet, and he’s playing with them and he’s abiding by the rules, but all of a sudden, Max the Puppet becomes a violator. He starts violating all the rules of the game.
And he’s announcing like, “Oh, I’m playing the game.” I think it’s called “daxing,” and then we simply observed the kids, we videotaped them and look at how they react. And the working-class kids, by 3 years old, they are disturbed by these violations. Their parents are thinking about, what kind of life is this kid gonna have and how can I help them to survive that kind of conduct?
So the big-picture point is some groups are definitely threatened, but these leaders also activate threat. They are doing threat experiments on us and they are making it out that the world is a disaster and something dangerous is going on, is what Trump will say. And our research shows that that tightens people up. That in itself. You can tighten …
They crave fascism, then, essentially.
Yeah, they want … it’s evolutionary. This is the problem, is that it’s an evolutionary principle. When you’re under threat, you want strong rules and you want strong leaders. It’s something very healthy. It’s real … We’ve done computer science models. I could partner with evolutionary game theorists, we can see that when threat is increasing, groups evolve to have stronger rules and punishments, because they couldn’t survive without them.
The problem is that when we are having fake threat, that is being targeted to people who are already very threatened, and we know in our own experiments if I brought you into my laboratory and started talking about terrorism threats or natural disasters, that you would tighten up. And we’ve seen that. Within minutes, we can make this happen. Now it doesn’t mean that people stay that way, but we have a … right now, a big threat machine happening in our country and in many other places.
Are we entering that era of rule making now? Or are we about to go into another … because I would assume it goes up and down, correct?
I think it’s something that is dynamic, but what we have now is a situation where we have a lot of problems deciphering what’s real and what’s illusory, in terms of threat. Because when we have threat we want stronger rules and we want stronger leaders. That makes a lot of sense, but right now we’re in a situation, because of our own leaders but also because of the internet, because we really can’t discern what’s real and what’s illusory.
In our research, we can see clearly that when people feel threatened, they want tightness. We see that in the United States. When we went and we measured … before the Trump election, we measured how threatened people felt and that predicted how much they wanted Trump to be elected. And the same thing in France, they wanted tighter cultures. So it’s a really pretty common principle. So I think we are tightening up, and we’re trying to now have a conversation about how much threat do we really have?
So talk about the impact of the internet, because it does … the information coming almost constantly and not sourced as well. It’s not trusted, necessarily.
Yeah, and I think that echo chambers that results from — homophily, we call it, by people.
What’s the word?
Homophily. Fancy psychological babble.
Say that again.
Okay. It sounds like a Jewish dish.
Yeah, it sounds like Gefilte fish.
’Cause you said verklempt before. Homophily.
Homophily. It’s basically “birds of a feather flock together.” You know, we’re in our own echo chambers all the time, and that makes us just stereotype people that are different.
I’ll just give an example. We did this very simple technique where we collected daily diaries from people in the United States and people in Pakistan. And they have really extreme stereotypes of each other. Pakistanis think Americans are half naked all the time. They don’t just think we’re loose, they think we’re exceedingly loose. Americans think Pakistanis …
If they think of Pakistanis at all.
Yeah, if they know where it is.
And if they think of it in any way, whatsoever.
Yeah, that’s right. That’s right, because we’re really …
“Aren’t they Indians?” You know …
I mean, there was the question of like, “Where is that?”
Ugh, they don’t know where it is.
They don’t think about Pakistanis as playing sports or reading poetry. They think about them as excessively tight. So what we did was a very simple intervention to get them out of those echo chambers, because they just meet in the media. They don’t see each other for their daily lives. We randomly assigned people in Pakistan …
They “meet in the media” is a really good point.
Yeah, they, I mean, we can easily within a week …
They’re bad. Big bad wolf. We basically gave them, for a week’s time, in Pakistan, daily diaries of Americans. They were not edited, so people were still waking up with their girlfriends and still drinking more. Americans saw daily diaries of Pakistanis. They were still in the mosques more, but they saw so much broader range of situations that they were in.
By the end of the study, the cultural distance that they perceived between each other was dramatically reduced. The stereotypes that they had of each other was dramatically reduced, and they said things …
This is the We Are the World thing, right?
Well, they said, “Look, we know we’re different.”
It’s a small world after all, essentially.
Yeah. It’s a small … They say, “We know we’re different, but now we see we have so much more in common.”
And I think we need to do that kind of daily diary intervention here.
So the internet doesn’t put commonality … I think that’s … It really doesn’t.
That’s right. I think it’s a psychological element that we miss that people are going to want to be around people who agree with them. It helps them to feel like they are valid, their opinions are valid, and I think we need that kind of direct interventions.
How do we get that? Because I’ve written this many times, it’s weaponizing. It weaponizes everything. There’s nothing that doesn’t get amplified or weaponized in some fashion. Whether it’s the First Amendment, whether it’s differences, cultural differences, whether it’s anything, and then it repeats and repeats and repeats itself. So how do you get to that concept of commonality?
Well, I think we have to …
Or is it impossible? Is it a system designed to separate?
I don’t think so. I think that when we have examples of people who are sitting across the table from each other. I wrote about it in the book, in Texas, people that were really against immigrants who sat across from immigrants, who said, you know what? I really like America. I love America. I want to also maintain my own culture, but I’m here and I have the same desires. They spent a lot of time together in this one example.
That’s physical time.
Physical time. It’s also challenging each other. It’s not easy. You also have people speaking out against these stereotypes. Mollie Tibbetts’ father was a really good example, when people were making it out, making this extreme event of this non-documented immigrant.
This was a tragic situation, but then there was all this generalization to all immigrants, and her father said, “Guys, that’s bullshit. This is not about an immigrant. This is about a crazy person.” Just like when we look at a neo-Nazi and say they reflect white people. So there are people that are standing out, and I do believe that.
But how do you do that in a highly digitized culture of people addicted to these things? Because the internet, the original problem in the internet is that we would learn about each other, this would bring the world together, and I interviewed Jaron Lanier, who I love this interview that he did where he talked about, this is the biggest human experiment, experiment on humanity that they’re talking to each other, but it’s not working. Maybe it’s too much for people to have access to everything because then you get access to nothing. They’re not equipped emotionally to see everything.
Yeah, well that’s also because the norms are so loose. Maybe when we can tighten up.
Such as what?
We can have norms of respect that we’ll be able to talk to each other more.
Why didn’t these companies put it in in the first place? I know why. I think it’s because they never felt under a threat themselves, and therefore they never … one internet, pretty big executive, if I said his name you’d know, and he’s like, “I had no idea.” He just recently got attacked a lot.
And he’s like, “I had no idea.” And I’m like, “Welcome to the world of women, people of color, gay people, older people.” I was like, welcome, welcome, and everyone has their levels going on down.
I guess I have a little more of a different view on this because I think that psychology is ignored all the time. When people send people abroad, for example, big companies who are smart, they don’t send people who are culturally intelligent. They don’t think it matters. They don’t even think about the cultural element, the psychological element of the fit of these people of these cultures.
It’s the same with this context, people underestimated how norm-less this context was going to be and what kind of problems that was going to have downstream. They just don’t think about psychology. I think that’s my interpretation.
So what should they, finishing up, what should they think about? Talk about some of the things they should read. As you know, I want Mark to read more humanities, I want them all to read it.
Well, I would say Goldilocks.
Okay, why? Goldilocks because just right.
Yeah, balance, that we need to have a balance. We need to live in a world where we have freedom and constraint at the same time. We need to create a culture of the internet where we feel safe and we feel accountable.
At the same time. Now I’m not saying that’s going to be easy, but I think with dialogue and with discussions on this, and not the blaming people. Really to just say, let’s start over now. Let’s figure out how we’re going to create. Well, maybe that’s a little optimistic.
Really? They got all the money. They took all the money. They can’t, no. They just have to fix the frigging thing.
Yeah, I definitely think they are accountable to fixing it.
I don’t want blameless. I want blame. I like blame because I think it gives you a context of, they always want to move to solution without discussing how it got there in the first place.
Yeah, okay. Yeah, I understand that, and I think that they have to be made accountable. They have to be tightening up their shops. There’s no question. Just like we talked about with Tesla or with Uber. They were loose and it was really helpful for a lot of things. Just like the internet has produced a lot of positive things, but they got excessively loose, and now they’ve got to backtrack and they have to be accountable. I totally agree.
Yeah. All right, so Goldilocks. Just right.
Well, Goldilocks. I would say the book.
The which one?
“Rule Makers, Rule Breakers.”
Yeah, I know, I got that, but.
Yeah, I mean I think some of the psychology literature on what line behavior looks like.
Give me a good example.
Sarah Kessler? I can actually provide some references to put online for you guys. Just about what lack of accountability does to people. I would say some of Adam Galinsky’s work — he’s at Columbia — that focuses on how power leads people to do all sorts of weird things. You’d think that people, for example, who are in power positions would be more responsible, but they’re not because they live in a looser world, and I think that they have to understand the psychology of power better as well.
One interesting thing about these internet moguls is they think they’re not powerful when they are. It’s the most vexing thing. I do it all the time.
Yeah, that’s outrageous. That’s …
No, no, literally though. “I have no power.” I’m like, “What? Are you kidding?”
That’s like the fish in the water.
You have $64 billion, you do, you’re not, “Oh I’m just a normal person.” I’m like, “No longer. You’re not a normal person.”
But that’s like the fish in the water. They don’t understand. They’re totally not understanding the context, and I think that’s a very interesting way to wiggle out of accountability, actually. So that’s one thing is to say this is what power produces in people.
In laboratory studies, people who are even thought to think that they’re powerful over people will steal the last cookie. They’ll do all sorts of things that are anti-normative. There’s studies out of Berkeley that showed that nicer cars, people who have Mercedes and other nice cars, they’ll be much more likely to cut off pedestrians than a plumber’s van.
So it’s about being mindful about how power affects our behavior, but also about why we need accountability on the internet, why we need more rules.
Well, people, they also promote a situation, doing anything because it’s a part of your creativity. I think they worry about innovation being squelched, and innovative cultures are looser, they’re more tolerant, they’re …
But they’re also, the best ones are also tight, because they’re able to come up with great ideas, and in a sense it’s a sequencing. Okay, we have to have a loose mindset here, but then we have to have a tight mindset as we’re trying to implement.
And any household is the same Goldilocks thing. When I’m raising two teenagers I’m like, okay, what domains need to be tight? I think most of us, it’s a threatening context want everything to be tight, but then you’re like, wait a second, maybe we can negotiate this. What domains in that house have to be tight or loose?
Of course it’s complicated when your spouse has a different opinion about this, but I tell my kids, I’m like, you could be slobs around the house, that’s a loose domain, but you better be nice to your sister, you better do well in school, try hard at least. These are things that I think healthy systems have a balance of both freedom and constraint of rules, rule making and rule breaking.
Should these rules be just regulation? Should they just be imposed? Or is that the inevitable result?
I think it’s got to be both. In the book I talk about it’s got to be bottom-up. We’re living in this world. We have to as individuals create a new normative system just like we did over the course of our human history as we had to navigate different contexts. This is a new world and individuals should be accountable. They’re should be kind of a … one of these driver-type tests. Content should be unregulated, but the way that we speak to each other, the rules that we abide by have to be stricter.
What was interesting about, say, the recent debates over say Alex Jones, and I took the stance like, throw him off, he broke rules.
I thought so too.
You know what I mean? Which was interesting, and all the internet people are like, we should promote… I’m like, no, no, no, he can talk, he just can’t be on the widely available on your platform if you have those rules. What’s wrong with some rules of the road?
That’s just the American sort of distaste of rules, and I …
It was fascinating, and literally they had no cogent, intelligent argument except to keep it open.
As if we’re going to go down this slippery slope. I think this is why Goldilocks is really important. I think in our research we can see that cultures that are either wildly loose or wildly tight have higher suicide rates, less happiness, more instability. The extremes are really bad and the internet is a context that has gotten extreme, so we half to give up some of that freedom for some order, and it’s a principle that we have to negotiate, and both bottom up and top down.
So to finish, can you give me three things that these leaders and this industry, I’m just going to use tech since this is what we cover, should do. Three things immediately you see, given all that’s happened with the elections, with everything else, you don’t have to focus on one company, but what are the three things people in tech should think about?
Well, I think that they have to first of all understand the psychology of unaccountability and step back and see now they understand why this is happening, because I think without understanding why they won’t be able to really be committed to solutions. So they have to understand why this norm-less environment has evolved in the first place.
I think the second thing is they need to take action to create more rules, and I think getting rid of that guy was a great idea. I think encouraging forums online to be more regulated and to kick people out is something that’s going to be really healthy for all of us, for our kids, for us, everyone.
And I think they need to work closer with the government. We’re all sort of confused about what’s going on because it happened so fast, but now is the time we have to decide, do we need more regulations? Probably yes, I would say. We didn’t expect that this would be the case, but I think this is now why we have to cooperate across Silicon Valley and Washington. I know there’s a lot of conflict over this, but I believe that it’s time to just make that happen. Yeah.
They don’t have a choice now. They’re not going to have a choice now. And what part should they keep?
Again, this is a balance of creative/loose mindset while also realizing that we need some rules. I don’t think it’s impossible to have the kind of balance. I think that people start stereotyping if we have any tightness then we’re going to be so restricted we’ll never be able to be creative, and that’s just not true. The best contexts have some kind of balance.
It’s such a trope, though, in innovative cultures that you can’t have anything …
Yeah, I think that that’s right, but I think that we can see what happens when places get too extreme, like Tesla, like Uber, and we could start thinking, okay, we do need some structure in that looseness, and that’s good for innovation. In laboratory studies of creativity, the groups that have some structure but also a lot of freedom do the best. The ones that have total freedom don’t do as well. So I think that the psychology literature could be really informative.
All right, great. This has been great, Michele, and thank you so much. This is Michele Gelfand, she’s the author of a book “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our Minds,” which you can get all over the place, and she’s also a professor. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Yeah, thanks for having me.