The sale of marijuana is largely tolerated in the Netherlands, but can get you the death penalty in Malaysia. Chewing gum is widely popular in the United States and strictly regulated in Singapore. Conformity has high value in South Korea, not so much in Brazil.
While it's obvious that social and public values differ widely between countries, an international team of researchers has taken an intriguing new look at which cultures are more or less restrictive and perhaps identified some reasons why.
"There is great potential for cultural and moral conflict between the two" types of cultures, said University of Maryland psychologist Michele Gelfand, lead researcher of the new study. The more people understand the differences, the more we know what to expect, she said. "It helps us to become less judgmental."
Understanding what the researchers called "tight and loose" cultures is critical in a world of increasing global interdependence, they wrote. "From either system's vantage point," the authors said, "the other system could appear to be dysfunctional, unjust and fundamentally immoral, and such divergent beliefs could become the collective fuel for cultural conflicts."
The researchers conducted 6,823 interviews in 33 countries, asking about the strength of social norms, how well people understood what behavior was expected and how people react when someone behaves in an inappropriate way. They defined tight nations as those where everyday practices limit permissible behavior and loose ones as places that encourage a wide range of allowable behavior.
Threats to security, frequent natural disasters and high population density tend to be factors in a country having a more restrictive culture that places more restraints on its citizens, the researchers report in Friday's edition of the journal Science.
Pakistan, with high population density and an ongoing history of conflict, was deemed the "tightest" country on their list, which didn't include every country in the world. Malaysia, India, Singapore and South Korea followed Pakistan.
At the loose end of the scale was Ukraine, though the interviews there were conducted in Odessa, one of the country's more cosmopolitan cities.
Joining it among the "loosest" cultures were Estonia, Hungary, Israel, Netherlands and Brazil.
"Israel is a very interesting case," Gelfand commented. "Israel has a lot of threat and conflict and yet they are a very loose culture."
She thinks that's because it is a young country and includes a lot of immigrants from Eastern Europe, which is among "looser," or less restrictive, regions.
In addition, she said, the Jewish tradition allows for a lot of debate and discussion, which can ease restrictiveness.
The "findings are consistent with other research suggesting that population variability seeps deep into the workings of human minds," commented Ara Norenzayan a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, who was not part of the research team.
For example, Norenzayan noted, research suggests that religion thrives when "threats to human security, such as war or natural disaster, are rampant, and declines considerably in societies with high levels of economic development," as well as low infant mortality, more income equality and greater access to social safety nets.
The interviews covered both working adults and students and asked people about behaviors ranging from kissing in a bank to eating in a classroom. Respondents were also asked to rate how justifiable certain behaviors are: such as claiming government benefits to which you aren't entitled, avoiding paying for public transportation, cheating on taxes, and homosexuality, prostitution, abortion, divorce and others.
Cultures can change, Gelfand noted. For example the United States tends to be a less restrictive society, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there was a discussion about more rules and tighter restrictions were imposed at airports and elsewhere.
Their rankings of the 33 countries studied, from "tightest to loosest" were:
Pakistan, Malaysia, India, Singapore, South Korea, Norway, Turkey, Japan, China, Portugal, former East Germany, Mexico, United Kingdom, Austria, Italy, former West Germany, Iceland, France, Hong Kong, Poland, Belgium, Spain, United States, Australia, Greece, New Zealand, Venezuela, Brazil, Netherlands, Israel, Hungary, Estonia and Ukraine.