New Delhi : A team of psychologists has a theory as to why some countries ban controversial books at the drop of a hat and others are more accepting of, say, same-sex marriages.
Also See | Uptight Nation (PDF )
A study published in this week’s edition of Science journal says cultures with a history of war, famine and ecological distress are “tight”, or less tolerant of infraction.
India was the third most rigid nation in the study’s ranking of 33 countries, after Pakistan and Malaysia.
The Indian government recently banned a controversial book that explored Mahatma Gandhi’s sexuality as well a biography of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. India’s more than 5000-year history has seen several ethnic groups settle as well as invade the subcontinent, influencing attitudes and having diverse cultural effects on its citizens.
Michele Gelfand, a professor at the University of Maryland, teamed up with researchers from each of these countries, including two from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.
They surveyed 6,238 people, including 222 in India, encompassing a broad expanse of socio-economic groups.
Participants were asked to judge the appropriateness of 12 common behaviours such as arguing, eating, flirting, singing and kissing set in 15 everyday situations such as while at a funeral, job interview, doctor’s office or a public park. In these 180 behaviour-situations, tighter cultures on average considered fewer behaviours as appropriate across situations than other nations. For instance, these countries in general didn’t rate kissing in a public park as appropriate.
“We found that there is good agreement within a country of what behaviour is considered appropriate and using separate tests we found that this correlated well to whether people perceived the existence of clear-cut social rules of what could or couldn’t be done given certain situations,” said Gelfand in the study.
In the next step, the researchers prepared a score chart that ranked the tightness of cultures and found that they correlated well with a nation’s history of natural disasters, territorial threats, disease and other problems.
The researchers reason that the collective attitude of a nation—or culture—is well-mirrored in individuals and an adaptation to historical threats.
“We think that those nations who are constantly threatened probably evolve more rigid social constructs over time, as a survival mechanism. So when in trouble, it may make more sense to stick to a prescribed plan of action and be constantly watchful,” said Gelfand. “That also explains why a tight culture might see a looser people as fundamentally different from them and vice-versa, and both consider the other’s customs as flawed.”
Gelfand and team found countries such as Japan, Korea, Singapore and Pakistan are “tight” in their customs whereas countries such as Ukraine, Israel, Brazil, and the US are “loose”.
“We also found that the psychological makeup of individual citizens varies in tight and loose societies,” Gelfand said. “For example, individuals in tight societies are more prevention focused (attentive to rules), have higher self-regulation strength (more impulse control) and have higher needs for order and self-monitoring abilities than individuals in loose societies.”
These attributes, Gelfand said, help people adapt to the level of constraint or latitude in their cultural context, and at the same time, reinforce it.
Gelfand said knowledge about these cultural differences can be invaluable to many people—diplomats, global managers, military personnel, immigrants and travellers—who have to traverse the tight-loose divide. “When we understand why cultures, and the individuals in those cultures, are the way they are it helps us to become less judgemental. It helps us to understand and appreciate societal differences.”
The Indian researchers involved with the study didn’t respond to emails and couldn’t be reached on phone for comment.
“This study does well in that it encompasses a wide range of cultures instead of previous similar studies that focuses on specific groups and takes them as representative of the entire country,” said Ara Norenzayan, a professor in the department of psychology, University of British Columbia, who wasn’t involved with the study.
“However, it still remains to be seen whether these individual responses are hardwired or whether they develop over time in response to different situations,” Ara said.
Graphic by Sandeep Bhatnagar/Mint