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  • Andrew Waite

Fish out of Water

Two young fish are swimming one morning when they pass an older fish who asks, “How’s the water?” The young fish swim on until one of them turns to the other and says, “What the hell is water?”

This anecdote, shared by Shankar Vedantam on the April 6 episode of Hidden Brain, helps illustrate an important point: we’re so entrenched in our surroundings that we often don’t even realize all of the cultural and environmental forces that shape our lives.

This episode of NPR’s social science podcast features Michele Gelfand, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, discussing her work about identifying societies as being “tight” and “loose.” According to Gelfand, the tighter a society, the more willing its people are to follow more stringent rules. She and her team have developed metrics to help place societies all across the world on a scale of tightness and looseness.

For instance, Singapore, known as the “Fine Nation” because police will hand out tickets for seemingly insignificant offenses—selling gum, singing vulgar songs—would be considered tight. While New Zealand, where people can be seen shoeless in banks, would be loose.

The tradeoff is law and order versus individual freedoms. A tighter society tends to have less crime because people have bought into strict regulations, and a looser society tolerates higher crime rates in favor of a more creative and freethinking citizenry.

As part of Gelfand’s work, she has identified the tightest and loosest states in the country. Here’s a map detailing this, with the lighter states being looser and the darker states being tighter:



The NPR host, Vedantam, points out that the tighter states tend to be reliably red states, while the looser states tend to be blue. This map could be an electoral map.

Gelfand explains that, in part, a society tends to favor tighter regulation when its people are historically accustomed to threats. So, war-torn Japan or tornado-ravaged Oklahoma would embrace rules because rules help provide protection.

Except, every society faces threats of some kind, so it might not be about how numerous or significant these threats are, but rather, how the people living there perceive these threats. A 2018 Hidden Brain episode detailed that a big difference between conservatives and liberals is how they perceive threats. In general, a conservative is more likely to be fearful of an outside threat and therefore look for protection (think second-amendment rights and border walls), which would be consistent with favoring a tighter society.

All of this seems fairly intuitive. The problem is, it runs counter to the ways in which we’re responding to this pandemic. Think about it: looser states like California and Washington have imposed some of the strictest stay-at-home and social-distancing orders in the country, while tighter states like Arkansas and North Dakota have yet to even impose lockdowns. The rules of order have been flipped.

Of course, it makes some amount of sense that states with larger populations and bigger cities would take the threat of a virus, which thrives on human contact, more seriously. Still, it’s somewhat unusual that citizens in Seattle and Los Angeles are supporting more aggressive rules, and that governors of places like Illinois and New York are expressing a firm need for states rights.

I wonder if this is a small piece of what’s unsettling all of us. We’re behaving in ways we’re not really used to. We’re playing the part the other guy normally plays. We thought we had one set of guiding principles, but it turns out those principles can flip under certain circumstances. We’re fish out of water.

It’s a point I’ve made previously, but it’s worth repeating: we live in a world in which we become further entrenched in our stances on issues. Post something on social media, and it rarely generates a nuanced conversation. Instead, we dig in our heels, and we keep digging until the hole is so deep that we can’t even see out of it.

Maybe we can take something from the way we’re following rules during this pandemic. I’m not saying we should permanently alter our guiding principles and entirely button up or unscrew our lives. We still have to be true to ourselves and our beliefs. But it’s worth noting that the water over there can also be cool and refreshing. It’s worth noting that all of us breathe air. –Andrew Waite

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