For decades, Americans saw the world as a pitched battle between two opposing economic ideas: capitalism and communism. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new consensus emerged, seeing the spread of a political idea — democracy — as the central animating drama of world events. And more recently, some Americans have been tempted to see a clash of religious ideas — Christianity versus Islam — as the story of the age.
But new research suggests that our essential differences are not economic, political, or religious. They are historical, rooted in a people's vulnerability to war, disease, and other threats in the deep past. It's a powerful insight, with implications for us all.
In this view, described in the new issue of Science, the world can be divided into cultures that are "tight" and "loose."
Tight nations are places with strict social rules, less tolerance of deviance. Governments tend to be more authoritarian and intrusive. Protest is rare and frowned upon. Think South Korea.
Loose nations, by contrast, are places where laws are less draconian, conventions are more flexible, and people are less judgmental of others. Think Australia.
Researchers, led by the University of Maryland, conducted surveys of nearly 7,000 people in 33 countries, asking them what behaviors (laughing, crying, etc.) would be appropriate in a variety of contexts (a bus, a party, a bank). This yielded a tightness "score." The United States, for example, came in at 5.1, on the loose side of the average (6.5). Pakistan (12.3) and India (11.0) were at the far tight end. Countries like Greece (3.9) and Brazil (3.5) were loose.
They found that this measure of tightness, experienced at a personal level, correlates strongly with previous measures of restrictiveness in a nation's social and religious institutions.
And what determines "tightness," the research shows, is the level of threats the nation has faced. High population density, scarce resources, conflict over territory, the threat of disease — all these factors, even in the distant past, push a culture to tightness. The lower the historical threat — fewer disasters, manmade or otherwise — the more loose a nation tends to be today.
It makes sense. In places where events are more unpredictable and life more tenuous, it is easy to see how a society would come to emphasize obedience, coordination, and collective action. Over the centuries, cultures absorb these norms, and this then shapes the institutions they build and live with.
Still, this is emphatically not the way that Americans are inclined to see the world. Ours is a society that looks to the future, and discounts the pull of history.
That may be a laudable attitude, but it can lead to deep misunderstandings. It predisposes us to find other cultures confusing, to judge them unfairly, and, most important, to overlook a great moral divide among nations.
When the citizens of a loose nation, such as America, regard life in a tight nation, they find the culture not just mysterious, but ethically wrong. Why should people be so oppressed? What justification could there possibly be for squashing the spirit of individual expression?
But this is what we do not understand: When the citizens of a tight culture view a nation like America, they can experience the same feeling of bewilderment. Who are these people that disregard the rules of civilization? What we see as an inspiring "freedom," they may see as chaotic, dangerous, indulgent, even disgusting.
Michele Gelfand, a University of Maryland professor who led the work, points out that recruitment of terrorists leans heavily on the rhetoric of the decadent West. One can easily see how painting ourselves as the champions of freedom can backfire.
We Americans see our liberal ideals as morally superior, but what if they're in some sense an accident of history — partly a result of our magnificent isolation and wide open spaces?
The world's two great rising economic powers, China and India, both have tight cultures. Finding ways to cooperate across this divide is one of the great challenges we face, and the first step is to embrace a value that both loose and tight can agree on: modesty.
© 2011 Boston Globe