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Rule Makers, Rule Breakers

How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World

In Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, celebrated cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand takes us on an epic journey through human cultures, offering a startling new view of the world and ourselves. With a mix of brilliantly conceived studies and surprising on-the-ground discoveries, she shows that much of the diversity in the way we think and act derives from a key difference—how tightly or loosely we adhere to social norms.



Praise for Rule Makers, Rule Breakers 

“Groundbreaking…Anyone interested in our cultural divides will find tremendous insight here.”

—Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of Enlightenment Now

“A brilliant and timely book….Michele Gelfand has exposed a universal fault line running beneath nations, states, organizations, and even families. Cultures that face threat and uncertainty seek order and precision. Cultures with firmer footings revel in ambiguity and risk taking. This idea, at once so simple and so powerful, will forever change how you see the world.”

—Daniel H. Pink, bestselling author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing and Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

“Endlessly impressive…In figuring out what causes various tribes and factions to clash and sometime come to blows—whether at the U.N. or in a stadium’s upper deck—Gelfand has left no cultural stone unturned. To read this book is to see both yourself and your neighbor for the first time—guided by rules of which you’ve both been unaware.”

—Susan Cain, bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking

“Completely fascinating….[Gelfand] reveals how political divides, happiness and suicide rates, and the coexistence of crime and creativity can all be traced to a fundamental but neglected dimension of social norms. You’ll never look at a workplace, a country, or a family the same way again.”

—Adam Grant, bestselling author of Originals, Give and Take, and Option B with Sheryl Sandberg


“A delightful, insightful, and fascinating look at the remarkable diversity of human customs— where they come from and how they shape our lives.”

—Daniel Gilbert, bestselling author of Stumbling on Happiness


“Offers a powerful new way of seeing the world. Gelfand's deceptively simple thesis becomes increasingly compelling as her research unfolds across politics, class, and organizational behavior. Best of all, she provides a new toolkit for change."

—Anne Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of New America, former director of Policy Planning for the State Department, and author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family

"Remarkable. Not just an enlightening book but a game-changing one. By uncovering the inner workings of tight and loose cultures, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers suddenly makes sense of the puzzling behavior we see all around us—in colleagues, family, and even ourselves."

—Carol Dweck, bestselling author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success


“Fascinating and illuminating…Rule Makers, Rule Breakers sheds light on everything from why we embrace new ideas to how culture makes us who we are. We all build order into our days, but as Gelfand shows, some of us like hewing to a line, and others enjoy crossing it.”

—Jonah Berger, bestselling author of Contagious and Invisible Influence



Excerpt from Rule Makers, Rule Breakers 

               It’s 11:00 pm in Berlin. Not a single car is in sight, yet a pedestrian waits patiently at the crosswalk until the light turns green. Meanwhile, 4,000 miles away in Boston, at rush hour, commuters flout the “Do Not Cross” sign as they dart in front of cabs. To the south, where it’s 8:00 pm in Sao Paulo, locals are frolicking in string bikinis in public parks. Up in Silicon Velley, it’s mid-afternoon and T-shirted employees at Google are playing a game of ping pong. And in Geneva, Switzerland, at the Swiss bank UBS, which for years mandated a 44-page dress code, executives burning the midnight oil have barely loosened their ties.

               We may tease Germans for being excessively orderly or Brazilians for showing too much skin, but we rarely consider how these differences came about. Far beyond dress codes and pedestrian patterns, people’s social differences run deep and broad—from politics to parenting, management to worship, and vocations to vacations. In the past several thousand years humanity has evolved to the point where there now exists 195 countries, and more than 7,000 languages and many thousands of religions. Even within a single nation, such as the United States, there are countless differences in fashion, dialect, morals, and political orientation—sometimes among those who live in close proximity. The diversity of human behavior is astonishing, especially since 96% of the human genome is identical to that of chimpanzees whose lifestyles, unlike humans, are far more similar across communities.

               We rightly celebrate diversity and condemn division, yet we’re shockingly ignorant of what underlies both of these things: culture. Culture is a stubborn mystery of our experience and one of the last uncharted frontiers. We’ve used our big brains to accomplish unbelievable technical feats. We’ve discovered the laws of gravity, split the atom, wired the Earth, eradicated fatal diseases, mapped the human genome, invented the iPhone, and even trained dogs to ride skateboards. But somehow, despite all of our technical prowess, we’ve made surprisingly little progress in understanding something equally as important: our own cultural differences. 

               Why are we so divided, despite the fact that we’re more technologically connected than ever? Culture is at the heart of our divisions, and we need to know more about it. For years, policy experts and lay people alike have struggled to find a deep underlying factor to explain our sprawling, complex cultural traits and distinctions. Many times we focus on superficial characteristics that are the "symptoms of culture." We try to explain our cultural divides in terms of geography, thinking that people behave the way they do because they live in blue states or red states, in rural or urban areas, in Western or Eastern nations, in the developing or developed world. We wonder if culture can be explained by differences in religion or our different “civilizations.” These distinctions have typically left us with more questions than answers because they miss the deeper basis of our differences—they don’t get at the underlying primal template of culture.

               A more compelling answer has been hiding in plain sight. Just as simple principles can explain a whole lot in fields such as physics, biology, and mathematics, many cultural differences and divides can be explained through a simple shift in perspective.


Recent Press

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August 10, 2022

Rule Makers, Rule Breakers


Michele Gelfand discusses her book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World

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August 23, 2021

A Failure of Fear: Why Certain Nations Flunked the COVID-19 Threat Test

Behavioral Scientist

An important lesson from the pandemic comes from a surprising source: the dodo, a flightless bird that went extinct four centuries ago.

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April 30, 2021

A Conversation with Michele Gelfand

Making Sense Podcast

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April 11, 2021

Fareed's Take: Society's role in Covid's spread


CNN’s Fareed Zakaria examines cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand’s argument that key distinctions among countries are whether they are “tight” or “loose” cultures and compares it to how world leaders handled the pandemic.

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February 21, 2021

How cultural differences have affected Covid-19 outcomes


The impact of Covid-19 has been felt across the globe, however different nations have taken different strategies and gotten very different outcomes. New research suggests key cultural differences may have played a big part in how different parts of the world have recovered from the virus. NBC’s Joshua Johnson spoke with Michele Gelfand, a Cultural Psychologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, about her research.

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November 22, 2020

The psychology of Covid-19 stubbornness: why some American’s refuse to follow the rules


The CDC has issued a warning asking American’s not to travel this Thanksgiving as coronavirus cases surge across the nation. Despite warnings, mask mandates and other guidelines many still refuse to follow the rules. So what’s behind this psychology of stubbornness? Joshua Johnson spoke with cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand to find out.

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July 10, 2020

How A Country's History And Culture Can Predict Its Success In Combating COVID-19

GBH News

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July 7, 2020

Listen to Dr. Gelfand on The DCRO Risk Governance Podcast

The DCRO Risk Governance Podcast

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June 25, 2020

SIETAR USA Webinar - Tight versus Loose: A Key to Unlocking Our Cultural Divides


Watch Dr. Gelfand's webinar on tightness-looseness for SIETAR USA

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June 12, 2020

Listen to Dr. Gelfand on EPIDEMIC with Dr. Celine Gounder

EPIDEMIC with Dr. Celine Gounder



Book Resources


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Share Your Tight-Loose Story

In my lab, we are researching the differences found across cultures all over the world. Our lab is particularly interested in social norms, and how some cultures have more restrictive or permissive norms than others. If you have stories to share about your tight-loose cultural experiences--we would love to hear them! Of course we are excited to hear about cultural phenomena of any kind.

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