US officials have been implementing a wide range of public health measures to mitigate the damage being wrought by the deadly new coronavirus. While social distancing, better hygiene, and flat-out travel bans may help, we have yet to address one of our biggest vulnerabilities: America’s traditionally loose culture. The decentralized, defiant, do-it-your-own-way norms that make our country so entrepreneurial and creative also deepen our danger during the coronavirus crisis. To fight this pandemic, we can’t just shift our resources; we have to shift our cultural patterns as well.
Already we can see signs of panic and egocentric behavior. To protect themselves, many Americans are hoarding supplies. Some have even resorted to stealing masks and hand sanitizer from hospitals. We see a disorganized response from state and local governments, delayed and inconsistent reactions from US universities, and until Wednesday — when President Trump banned travel from Europe — a very hands-off approach to an immense collective threat.
America’s disorderly response to the coronavirus reflects our cultural conditioning over the last several hundred years. In a paper my colleagues and I published in Science several years ago, we classified countries in terms of how much they prioritized rules over freedom. Tight societies, like China, Singapore, and Austria have many rules and punishments governing social behavior. Citizens in those places are used to a high degree of monitoring aimed at reinforcing good behavior. Loose cultures, in countries such as the United States, Italy, and Brazil, have weaker rules and are much more permissive.
Differences in tightness and looseness aren’t random. Countries with the strongest laws and strictest punishments are those with histories of famine, warfare, natural disasters, and, yes, pathogen outbreaks. These disaster-prone nations have learned the hard way over centuries: Tight rules and order save lives. Meanwhile, cultures that have faced few threats — such as the United States — have the luxury of remaining loose. They understandably prioritize freedom over constraint, and they are highly creative and open, but also more disorganized than their tight counterparts.
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