Countries’ differing experiences of the pandemic can be attributed in part to cultural factors that have informed their response, and, more specifically, the messaging strategy that has been adopted;  for multinational brands, an understanding of how different societies respond to different signals can be valuable.


New research points to the importance of rule following, with societies that tend to abide by strict social norms less likely to have seen high infection and death rates during the pandemic. Writing in the Guardian, Michele Gelfand, a professor at the University of Maryland, and author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, explains the historical background.

  • Tight societies follow rules
  • Loose societies are more relaxed to rule breaking

Rule-following tight societies tended, in research, to have traumatic events in their histories: natural disasters, epidemics, famines, wars. It makes sense when you think of some of the East Asian countries, like Japan, that have kept both cases and deaths low, and that have some experience in trauma.

The difference has been costly

  • Modelling for a Lancet paper had indicated that looser societies like the UK and US would tighten, but they instead ended up with case rates five times higher than tight cultures, and eight times more deaths.
  • The research also shows deep attitudinal differences: in tight societies, around 70% of people were very scared of getting the virus; in loose cultures it was less than half (49%)

The famously fearless (and famously extinct) dodo, unused to predators when it met humans, failed to adapt. Differences in fear levels are complex, but one explanation is that looser cultures are so unused to danger, that they fail to respond when signals pop up.

How to solve it?

Communication: this was an invisible virus rather than a concrete threat, and while terrifying people tends not to inspire action, a more vivid idea of the threat needs to take hold. Positive statements encouraging can-do attitudes matter. New Zealand, a famously relaxed place, stressed that lockdown measures would be temporary; this ensured buy-in to strict rules in return for the relative freedom the country enjoys now.  

Sourced from The Guardian, Lancet