2018, Books, Non-Fiction

Rule Makers, Rule Breakers (2018) by Michelle Gelfand

This is a fascinating book about how cultural norms impact our lives. You might not get that from the title, but I’d say ignore the title and look at the subtitle. (The title, to me, sounds like it’s some kind of business success book or something.)

Gelfand makes a strong case that differences in cultural norms are a main contributor to human behaviour, especially human behaviour which at first seems irrational. So-called “cultural psychology” is an important missing component in understanding human behaviour, especially given the WEIRD problem in social psychology. (Subjects are predominantly western and educated and from industrialized, rich democratic countries.) Gelfand shows how her conceptual framework can help explain cross-cultural differences but even intra-cultural and class differences. It’s pretty powerful stuff and there are moments of insight here which I really found eye-opening.

But I have a couple of issues with the book.

Gelfand doesn’t claim that the tightness-looseness divide is the only explanation of behaviour, but she sure seeks to use it to explain just about everything. I am not just its explanatory power is quite as strong as she believes, particularly given the nature of some of the studies she cites. Now, I haven’t gone through the sources, but some of the studies have really poor samples, and many of them are merely surveys. There is a lot of work here to be done, especially given the replication crisis. Is it not possible, perhaps even likely, that something deeper is going on here?

The other issue I have is one of the four sections of the book is basically devoted to business culture. I understand the utility of this chapter for managers and owners (some of whom appear to be her clients) but, for the rest of us, it’s pretty boring stuff. I actually worried the book would only be about business culture for the remaining pages and was glad when she shifted back to more universal problems.

Overall, I found the book insightful and I suspect it’s pretty important. I just want to hedge my recommendation a bit because I’m not sure the studies are quite as conclusive as she makes them sound give the sample size and the likely fact that most of them have not been replicated. Still, even thinking about sociopolitical problems in this light is more helpful than not thinking about them in this light, even if the fundamental reasons for the behaviour might be slightly different than what she claims.

For anyone interested in psychology, it’s a must read.

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