How culture explains our weak response to the coronavirus

The sneakiness of the novel coronavirus virus has wreaked havoc worldwide.

Although the coronavirus is a global pandemic, what’s striking is how the pathogen’s destruction has varied across regions.

Whilst East Asia has largely got a grip on the virus, Europe is still reeling. The United Kingdom recently pipped Italy to claim Europe’s highest death toll, with a tally that dwarfs all but a handful of nations. The United States has established itself as the world’s coronavirus leader— although not in the way President Trump would want us to believe. And Brazil appears to be the new epicentre of the pandemic, with growing fears that their healthcare system will not survive the oncoming onslaught.

This all begs the question: why has Europe and the Americas been hit so much harder by the pandemic?

If your eyes are glued to the news, you’ll be able to point your finger at the guilty culprits. For example, we can blame our politicians— who were quick to dismiss scientists’ warnings and too slow to act.

Whilst there’s truth to this claim, it isn’t a sufficient explanation. After all, it doesn’t explain why our politicians didn’t take the threat seriously in the first place, nor why whole continents struggled to contain the coronavirus.

To help make sense of this, Michele Gelfand and her colleagues have recently released a preprint which explores the role of culture in our response to the outbreak.

Rule makers, rule breakers

Michele Gelfand is an American cultural psychologist, and author of Rule Makers, Rule BreakersMichele has dedicated her life’s work to solving what has long been considered an enigma: why do cultures differ?

Having conducted painstaking research across the world’s diverse societies, Michele discovered that cultural differences essentially boil down to two dimensions: how ‘tight’ or ‘loose’ cultures are. That is, whether groups prioritise order and strictly abide by rules, or if they are more permissive and disorganised.

Tight countries have many rules in places, where punishments are strictly enforced (think of Singapore, where chewing gum is illegal). Citizens in tight countries are used to a high degree of monitoring aimed at curtailing bad behaviour. In contrast, loose societies have laxer rules— and are more tolerant and accepting of transgressions (think of Italy and Spain).

Crucially, Michele found that these cultural differences are not random. Rather, countries with the most draconian laws and harshest punishments are those that have historically faced a barrage of existential threats.

Throughout our evolutionary history, we humans have faced hostile forces of nature. These persistent foes include famine, natural disasters, invasions from rival tribes— and you guessed it— outbreaks of infectious disease.

Because these threats are present to varying degrees, our cultural practices and social norms have evolved accordingly— tightening up in the presence of existential threats, which provides protection against danger. In contrast, societies that have faced fewer threats have experienced the luxury of loosening— cultivating social norms that favour freedom and self-expression.

As with all things in life, there’s a clear trade-off. Tight cultures instil order and stability, at the cost of being less tolerant and creative. On the other hand, loose cultures are open and dynamic— with the drawback of being more chaotic and disorderly.

Despite overlap, Michele makes clear that tight and loose transcends political ideology and does not correspond with the ‘left-right’ political spectrum.

A failed response

This trade-off between tightness and looseness was clear for all to see during the coronavirus’ initial exponential explosion. Famously tight countries such as Singapore mobilised an effective response early on. Meanwhile, looser countries like Italy did not initially take the threat as seriously— and as a consequence are still suffering.

Armed with their knowledge of cultural evolution, Michele and her colleagues wondered how much tightness and looseness explained countries’ initial responses to the outbreak.

Specifically, the team predicted countries that are tight culturally and have highly efficient governments would respond most effectively to the pandemic. That is, they’d have less people infected and subsequently less people dying.

Why would the efficiency of governments matter? They suspected tightness may only provide protection when governments also have the expertise and resources necessary to respond in a timely manner.

Michele’s team used a couple of tools to test this.

First, they crunched government statistics on the coronavirus worldwide, and cross referenced this with their data on cultural differences. They also fed in key economic and demographic information, which give them the ability to predict both the amount of infections and deaths from the coronavirus disease.

Like forensic accountants, they also unearthed countries underreporting coronavirus cases— and corrected for this in their analysis.

To complement their slicing and dicing, they also created a computer simulation to model how people respond to infectious outbreaks (think of The Sims computer game. But instead of Sims spreading ‘poopy pants’, they’re catching coronavirus).

Tightness saves lives

So, what did Michele and her team find?

The team found that tightness and government efficiency interacted to predict infection rates— and that this relationship strengthened with more information fed into their equations.

For the countries with inefficient governments, tightness was actually associated with slightly more infection rates. However, countries with tight cultures and highly efficient governments had significantly less infections and overall deaths.

Their algorithms revealed several other important factors that predict infections. Specifically, they discovered that developed countries with high levels of wealth inequality and older populations had the highest number of infections and subsequent deaths (which in not surprising, as we know COVID-19 is a disease that mainly kills the elderly).

To model an infectious outbreak, the team tailored the Prisoner’s Dilemma (no, this isn’t the dilemma governments faced when releasing prisoners early to prevent the pathogen’s spread. Rather, Prisoner’s Dilemma is one of game theory’s iconic strategic games).

During the early stages of the simulation, tight and loose cultures exhibited similar levels of cooperation. However, as time passed and The Sims zombie apocalypse was in full swing, big differences emerged. Automatons in tight cultures found it easier to copy each other’s cooperative behaviour— and therefore had higher rates of survival. In contrast, those in loose cultures didn’t fair so well.

Their simulation suggests that tight cultures may mount a more effective response to epidemics because people in tight cultures are more likely to conform and copy people’s survival strategies. If this is correct, tightness may only be effective when social norms championing cooperation are established early on in a pandemic. If they aren’t, tightness may not provide any additional protection.

Surviving the pandemic

As this paper yet to be published, one needs to be careful commenting on it. However, appreciating both the rigour of the research and the extraordinary circumstances we now face, drawing practical implications from their paper seems justified.

Reflecting on Michele’s grand theory, what screams out is the need for Western democracies to tighten up accordingly.

Several European countries have experienced intolerable suffering from the avalanche of coronavirus cases, and had no choice other than imposing draconian measures. Conversely, countries such as the United Kingdom have adopted a more hands-off approach— where the rules that have been put in place are more lax and less strictly enforced. Coincidently, the United Kingdom is now one of the world’s worst affected countries.

Bar a miracle, we’ll be living with the coronavirus for some time to come. For nations such as the UK to overcome the pandemic, we’ll need to tighten up our cultural practices to minimize disruption and protect vulnerable people from future outbreaks.

To dispel any misconceptions, I am not advocating for our governments to become more autocratic— far from it. Authoritarianism was controlled for in their study, which didn’t actually slow the rate of infections. While it’s important for governments to promote practices that stop the virus spreading, Michele’s team argue that heavy handed responses to the pandemic may cause irreparable harm. Also, the excessive use of force can hamper innovation— which becomes increasingly important when devising long-term solutions.

Rather, we should aspire to what Michele has coined ‘cultural ambidexterity’. That is, we should retain the positive aspects of our loose cultures— such as tolerance for diversity and greater creativity— whilst also having the flexibility to tighten up when necessary.

Think this can’t be done? Look south to Australasia.

New Zealand is one of the loosest countries in the world. Yet under Jacinda Ardern’s leadership, Middle Earth mobilised an effective response to the coronavirus early on. New Zealand now has one of the lowest death rates among Western nations, and Kiwis are even bracing themselves for coronavirus ‘elimination day’.

The tight-loose seesaw

Whether it’s business partners or family members squabbling, Michele has found clashes between people leaning tight or loose is a major source of conflict. Noticeably, ‘tight-loose’ clashes have become defining stories of the coronavirus in the UK.

Days after Boris Johnson ordered Britain to “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”, Derbyshire Police received a stiff telling off for using drones to shame people for visiting the Peak District (you could call this ‘meta-shaming’). On the other hand, a steady stream of social media posts complained about people flouting the rules— and the reticence of the police to enforce them.

More recently, the justifications provided for Dominic Cummings’ coronavirus road trips were frankly absurd— and have scorched political capital and damaged the public’s trust in the UK Government. Although Boris Johnson is betting this saga will blow over, this breach may undermine the restrictions in place and the next phase of the government’s strategy.

To successfully navigate the pandemic, we must ensure that the rules in place are properly and consistently enforced. However, we also need to calibrate our tightness to reflect the actual level of risk— tightening the rules when cases flare up, and relaxing them once the threat from the virus wanes.

Reopening for business

As Europe and the United States begin easing restrictions and reopening for business, risks abound.

Management gurus are purporting that the work office ‘is now dead’. Although there’ll certainly be long lasting changes to the way we work, declaring the end of the office is not clear-cut. Although the pandemic has demonstrated that whole companies can successfully work from home, there are several reasons why people will want to meet their colleagues and clients in person (at the end of the day, we are social primates).

By understanding the hidden forces of social norms, business leaders can tilt their companies towards the ideal tight-loose balance in the age of the coronavirus.

I’ll provide a couple of examples.

Before the pandemic, people who came into work sick were frequently deemed more loyal and dedicated employees (particularly in tight corporate cultures, where taking time off was seen as slacking). However, this is nonsensical. Not only does coming into work sick jeopardise your recovery and therefore productivity, it also risks spreading the illness to other employees. In the wake of the coronavirus, this social norm needs to be flipped: no more brownie points for coming into work sick, but rather ostracism for putting other people’s lives at risk.

Whilst we need to tighten up our hygiene standards, we also need looseness to foster innovative working practices. If we cannot resume business without causing a resurgence of infections, we face a bleak future of continuously stalling and restarting our economy.

A team of Israeli scientists have proposed a rather ingenious solution to this dilemma, by exploiting a key property of the coronavirus: its ‘latent period’. On average, there is a three-day window between someone being infected with the virus and actually being able to spread it to others.

The scientists’ solution is to work in two-week cycles, in a system dubbed ‘10:4’. In this arrangement, people work on the job as normal for four days straight. Once they’ve passed this latency period and are therefore possibly infectious, they then work from home in isolation for ten days. The scientists’ models suggest that this two-week working cycle can drastically reduce infection rates, causing cases to drop off a cliff.

Time will tell whether this working arrangement is actually effective. But it precisely this kind of innovative thinking that’ll help us overcome the coronavirus.

So far, the coronavirus’ sneaky strategy has paid off handsomely. However, if we can adapt our social norms and become culturally ambidextrous— tightening up our hygiene standards whilst retaining our creativity and innovativeness— we can play the virus against itself and resume some normality.


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Article updated on the 4th June 2020.

3 thoughts on “How culture explains our weak response to the coronavirus”

  1. Very thought-provoking. I would, however, be interested to know what are the tests or criteria for classifying governments as efficient or inefficient. Can these labels be applied objectively? And how does the conceptual model account for dynamic responses? Eg, the UK gov’t recognised fairly quickly that Public Health England was pretty useless, and so the task of constructing Nightingale hospitals was turned over to the British Army – the modus operandi switched from bureaucracy to command and control. This suggests that even “loose” culture can learn and adapt to circumstances.

    Like

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