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The Secret Life of Social Norms: Michele Gelfand (Transcript)

Full text of cross-cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand’s talk titled “The Secret Life of Social Norms” at TEDxPaloAltoSalon conference. In this talk, Michele journeys through human cultures as she describes how tight and loose cultures wire our world.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Michele Gelfand – Cross-cultural psychologist

For 30 years, I’ve been studying a fascinating puzzle. It’s omnipresent… but it’s invisible. We rarely recognize it. It’s distinctly human… No other species has it. It produces a lot of cooperation… but also a lot of conflict.

This puzzle is culture. Culture is a powerful force all around us, affecting everything from our politics to our parenting, for our nations, to our neurons. And we need to know more about it.

We’ve used our big brains to accomplish many technical feats. We’ve split the atom. We’ve mapped the human genome and we’ve even discovered the laws of gravity.

But what if we could discover the laws of culture, the secret codes that are driving our differences, then maybe we can create a better planet for us all.

Truth be told, I wasn’t always so interested in culture. I was a sheltered kid from Long Island with a classic new Yorker cartoon view of the world. There’s New York. We acknowledge there’s New Jersey, but then there’s basically rocks, the Pacific Ocean and the rest of the world.

This view of the world was challenged when I ventured off to the UK for a semester abroad. And I remember experiencing massive culture shock and calling my father and among other things, I was confiding with him, how puzzled I was that people were traveling from London to Paris or to Amsterdam just for the weekend.

And my dad in his quintessential Brooklyn accent said to me, it’s just like going from New York to Pennsylvania. And that metaphor gave me so much comfort that the very next day I booked a low budget trip to Egypt. I figured it just like going from New York to California. My dad was not very happy.

But in my travels around Egypt and rest of the world, I started to recognize how powerful this forces of culture. But I knew so little about it. And by extension, I knew so little about myself.

So I ditched my plans to become a medical doctor. And I got a PhD in cross-cultural psychology. I wanted to use the tools of science to understand these deeper cultural codes. Since that time I’ve been traveling the world, trying to understand lots of puzzling differences.

So for example, in Singapore, why are people fined for things like chewing gum or not flushing the toilet, or walking around their homes naked with the curtains open?

Go over to New Zealand in contrast, and you’ll see people walking barefoot in banks. You’ll see them decorating their fences with large quantities of bras. New Zealand is also the only place that I know that has its own national wizard. This guy here is actually a fired professor who went to the streets of New Zealand and was lecturing on everything from rugby to religion.

And rather being punished as a deviant, the prime minister asked him to be the official wizard of New Zealand, and he was charged with keeping the country entertained, which he did. He’s found building large nests on libraries and hatching himself from eggs in art museums.

Other puzzling trends can be seen all around the world. Why do Germans wait very patiently at street corners when there’s no cars in sight, when in New York or New Jersey, you see people jaywalking with great frequency, even with kids in tow.

In Germany, they’re also inventing other incentives to keep people staying put. It’s called street punk, and you might not be able to see it right away, but you see this guy here is playing a game of electric Ping-Pong on the street corner with the dude across the street. And actually this game tells them when the light is going to change.

On other serious notes, why is it that in the Netherlands, you can smoke pot openly whereas in Indonesia, you can get the death penalty for that same behaviour?

Or closer to home, there’s other trends that elude us. Why are we giving our kids more and more unique names? As an aside, one of my colleagues was in a supermarket and asked where the candy was and they said she doesn’t work there anymore.

And why are we getting fatter and fatter in our country? Is there anything that can help us explain these kinds of diverse patterns. These examples, and many more reflect something very fundamental: How strictly groups abide by social norms.

All groups have social norms or rules or behaviour. We follow them constantly. And actually we rarely stop and think about how much we need social norms. I’d like to do a thought experiment with you right now.

Imagine you live in a world where people drive on either side of the street as they wish, or they ignore traffic lights. In this world, you’re in your favourite restaurant and people are chewing with their mouth wide open. They’re burping really loudly, and they’re stealing food from each other’s plate.

Or imagine you board an elevator and people are facing the back and they’re shaking their own blinders on each other. Or in this world imagine that sex is not reserved for private places. People do it on airplanes, on buses and in movie theaters.

This is a world without social norms or any agreed upon standards for behavior. Luckily, humans invented social norms to aboard these kinds of scenarios… to help us predict each other’s behavior… to help us coordinate. They’re the glue that keep us together.

But what I found is that this glue is stronger in some groups than others. Some groups are tight, they have strong norms and punishment for deviance. Other groups are loose. They have weaker norms and they’re much more permissive. And it turns out that this distinction is really important in understanding behavior all around the world from abroad at home.

I first discovered this difference in a large study that I did with colleagues from around the world, the results of which were published in the journal Science. What we found was that just like we can classify people in terms of the personalities, we can also classify groups in terms of the strength of their norms.

So tight loose is a continuum. Some groups like Japan and Singapore, Austria, and Germany, bear tight. Other groups like New Zealand or Brazil, Greece, or the Netherlands bear loose. And what we found was that tight and loose confers really important trade-offs for groups that we don’t recognize.

So tight groups have the corner on order. They have lot more law enforcement and also security, and they have much less crime. There’s a great, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me show on NPR where Peter Sagal is asking the audience, “What if Japanese policemen need more of?”, and we’re all guessing, “Do they need higher pay? Do they need more vacation?”

Actually, they need more crime. Japan is such low crime that these police officers in some places were trying to egg people on to commit minor crimes because they were so bored.

Tight cultures also have more uniformity in what people wear and what people drive, and even in their city clocks. I analyzed how similar the clocks were in city streets, all around the world. In tight cultures, they’re almost identical city clocks. But in loose cultures, they say something very different and you’re not entirely sure what time it is.

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