Find Your Way #5

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The Coronavirus is everywhere, impacted everyone and affected everything. We know what we have to do and we know how to do it.

In the United States, the question remains:

Will we?

Last week, there were several reports of young people truly going YOLO and congregating in bars across the country to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Spring Break, and being young and care-free in general.

A doorman wears a mask while accepting money from patrons celebrating an early St. Patrick's Day on Clark Street in Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood on March 14, 2020.

Our ability to survive this pandemic depends on our ability to be vigilant, to follow the rules, to self-quarantine and distance ourselves.

So how could they be so reckless? What can explain their abhorrent behavior?

As always, psychology provides an answer.

Dr. Michele Gelfand, a Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park has spent her career researching cultural and social norms; the often-invisible rules that we all agree to follow. These norms are the social-glue that allows us to build cooperative and thriving communities. They are the ties that bind us together.

Gelfand’s research, which she shares in her book has found the intensity of social norms, the strength of the ties, varies greatly between countries. Some countries social norms are tight: they have very strong social norms that are heavily enforced. Other countries have loose social norms: they have weak social norms that are viewed as suggestions rather than iron-clad laws.

Tight vs. loose societies explain why jaywalking is almost encouraged in Boston, Massachusetts and why it’s a jailable offense in Signapore.

Gelfand’s research has shown there are pro’s and con’s to tight and loose cultures. Loose cultures are more creative, more inclusive, tolerant and promote individuality and self-expression.

Tight cultures have more social order, higher levels of self-regulation and are more synchronized.

So how does this apply to the global pandemic?

The two countries who have made the most progress combatting Covid 19, China + South Korea are both tight cultures. They have leveraged their strength of coordination and self-discipline to control the pandemic within their borders.

As you may have guessed, the United States is a loose culture. Of course some states have tighter norms than others, but overall, we have much more permissive social norms than other countries impacted by the novel Coronavirus.

Being a loose culture, which has been one of our biggest advantages as a country, now becomes one of our biggest challenges.

Luckily, Gelfand’s research has shown that countries develop tighter norms when under threat, be it from invasion, natural disaster, or pandemics. The Coronavirus will make us more tight and more vigilant in enforcing rules that will keep everyone safe.

The question remains: can we get people who have enjoyed our loose culture to adopt in time?

Here’s hoping so.