Worlds Unto Themselves: Tightness-Looseness and Social Class
Harrington, Jesse Ryan
Gelfand, Michele J
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Past research has convincingly demonstrated that social classes are culturally distinct entities with their own identities, values, beliefs, and customs. In short, they are “worlds unto themselves.” In this dissertation, I argue that social class cultural differences—particularly between the middle class and the working class—are also expressed in terms of tightness-looseness, or the degree to which a cultural entity has strong norms and low tolerance for norm deviance (tight) or weak norms and high tolerance for norm deviance (loose). Specifically, it is predicted that the working class is comparatively tighter relative to the middle class. In a series of six studies using survey, archival, and behavioral methods, this prediction found support. The working class had tighter perceptions of general life and specific domains (e.g., the workplace), endorsed tighter values, perceived rules more positively, were higher in traits like need for structure, conscientiousness, and conventionalism, perceived moral “transgressions” to be less justifiable, exhibited lower creativity, and were exposed to higher ecological threat. Working class adults were also found to exhibit higher explicit bias toward socially “deviant” individuals and greater xenophobia, and working class children were quicker and more likely to protest normatively incorrect actions made by a peer. Finally, it was found that working class students exhibited poorer outcomes in their first year of college due to a greater preference for simplicity—a psychological trait related to working class tightness. Overall, this research suggests that tightness-looseness is an important cultural difference between social class groups.