Does Stress Increase the Strength of Cultural Norms?

Carol R. Ember, Michele J. Gelfand, Joshua Conrad Jackson, and Tahlisa Brougham

desert with cracked ground and barren treeAll societies have expectations about how people should behave. But some societies appear to have more rules than others, have more people who follow the rules and have strong punishment for those who break the rules. What explains the variation? A considerable body of research supports the idea that societies experiencing higher degrees of stress, whether it be from natural causes (disease, drought, floods, storms) or social stresses such as population density or frequent conflict, have stronger norms. In 2011, Michele Gelfand and colleagues published a paper in Science based on data from 33 countries. Interviews with over 6,000 individuals allowed them to rank countries on strength of norms.  Following terms used by anthropologist Pertti Pelto, they called some countries “tight” and others “loose.” And, when they looked at a country’s history of stress, they found evidence that a variety of stressors predict more “tightness.” The question is—do these findings apply to the anthropological record?  After all, countries have high levels of complexity including social classes, commercial enterprises, and central governments. But many societies studied by anthropologists lack these traits. Do societies at all level of complexity show these same tendencies? To find out, we recently studied 86 societies around the world (mostly using eHRAF World Cultures) and rated the strength of norms across six different domains of life. General statements from ethnographers were often very helpful in this process. For example, here’s an excerpt that helped us code the Fellahin as very tight:


“Village life, on the whole, whether in religious or social spheres, is very ritually and ceremonially conscious, and almost invulnerable on this level. Greeting, hospitality, eating, praying, exchange of social obligations, circumcision, marriage, and dozens of items of life are shrouded with ritual and traditional prescriptions” (Ammar 1954: 78).

The Mbuti, on the other hand, were coded as very loose.

“There was a general pattern of behavior to which everyone more or less conformed, but with great latitude given and taken” (Turnbull 1962: 83).

“There was a confusing, seductive informality about everything they did. Whether it was a birth, a wedding, or a funeral…there was always an unexpectedly casual, almost carefree attitude. There was, for instance, little apparent specialization; everyone took part in everything” (Turnbull 1962: 110).

Our results clearly parallel the country results, suggesting that the relationship between tightness and stressors might apply to all societies. Want to know more? On our project page find the Presentations section and look for the one given at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in San Jose this last November.


Ammār, Ḥāmid. 1954. “Growing Up In An Egyptian Village: Silwa, Province Of Aswan.” International Library Of Sociology And Social Reconstruction (London. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.

Turnbull, Colin M. 1962. “Forest People.” New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster.