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The “Loosening of America”

Research Examines Positive and Negative Impacts of Relaxed Cultural Standards

By Sara Gavin


Photo illustration by Gail Rupert; knot photo by iStock; background image courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library

Psychology Professor Michele Gelfand's new research, based on analysis of more than 200 years of American writing, finds a "looser" United States.

The United States is considerably “looser” today—more tolerant, open-minded and expressive—than it was 200 years ago, but that trend comes with certain societal tradeoffs, finds new research led by a University of Maryland professor.

In a study published yesterday in Nature Human Behavior, UMD psychology Professor Michele Gelfand, Joshua Jackson from the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill and other researchers tracked changes in 200 years of language in published American text.

Using a computer science algorithm to map words appearing in the Google News dataset, the team established lists of words related to rule following (e.g. restrain, prevent, comply) and rule aversion (e.g. allow, freedom, choose). They then tracked how frequently people used these words through an analysis of Google Books—a repository of more than 200 billion books published between 1800 and the present.

They discovered that books contained more rule-aversion words and fewer rule-following words over this time period, suggesting American culture as a whole was loosening the strength of social norms.

“The linguistic trends we identified in books mirrored other measures we collected on societal shifts,” said Gelfand. “For instance, the number of laws passed by Congress, Supreme Court cases heard, and religiously affiliated individuals dropped significantly between 1800 and 2000, while profanity in television and film increased.”

Researchers then explored the potential trade-offs, as past research by Gelfand has shown that tight, rule-abiding nations and states tend to have less drug abuse and alcoholism along with fewer markers of creativity and openness, like patents, trademarks and artists. They collected data on four yearly measures of societal creativity—feature films produced, patent applications, trademark applications and proportion of unconventional baby names—along with crime rate, number of children in school, adolescent pregnancies and household debt.

Their results showed that years in which people used high levels of rule-aversive language had the highest rates of patent and trademark applications, unconventional names and feature film production, but also the highest rates of high-school dropouts, adolescent pregnancies and household debt.

“Changes in culture over time can have far-reaching implications for how people spend their money, generate new ideas and even name their children,” said Jackson. “That’s why it’s important to consider changes in single societies over time to understand how culture shapes behavior and psychology.”

Gelfand has spent two decades researching the tightness and looseness of cultures and recently wrote the book “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.” However, this marks the first time she has been able to examine how a single culture changes over time.

“It’s important to understand why differences in tightness and looseness arise and its consequences for groups, but we also need to be aware of how it is changing,” Gelfand said. “While the U.S. has loosened over the last 200 years, we weren’t able to look at more recent trends. It may be changing now in the other direction, given societal disruptions and the political climate.”



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