Multinational collaborations in culture and psychology

Dr. Gelfand’s recent collaborations include a multinational study on culture and social norms, and a multidisciplinary initiative to study values, beliefs and norms in the Middle East.

By Michele, J. Gelfand, PhD

My passion for multicultural collaborations began as a junior in college during a phone conversation with my father — a native of Brooklyn who had never before traveled overseas. I was studying abroad in London at the time and completely overwhelmed from experiencing the "culture shock" that comes along with being away from one’s familiar territory. As a sheltered kid from Long Island, I explained to my father how strange it seemed that people in my study abroad group would venture to Paris, Amsterdam, Scotland and the like for only a few days. My father responded in his quintessential Brooklyn accent, “Well imagine it’s like going from New York to Pennsylvania!” That metaphor gave me so much comfort that the very next day I booked a low budget tour to Egypt. It was just like going from New York to California, I reasoned. Those travels, and later living on an Israeli Kibbutz, sparked a lifelong passion for learning the dynamics of culture. I was fascinated with basic questions such as: How can culture shape the self so profoundly, yet remain invisible and taken for granted? How does culture develop, sustain and change? How does culture contribute to misunderstandings and conflict at the individual, organizational and national levels?

After graduating from Colgate University, I was determined to go to graduate school to study culture and psychology, yet there were no PhD degrees in this field at the time. In a fateful conversation with Richard Brislin, who at the time was head of the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii and an expert on cross-cultural training, he recommended I work with Harry Triandis at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The rest was history.

Michele Gelfand and Harry TriandisTriandis was an incredible mentor who profoundly influenced my thinking and my approach to science. His sheer breadth and depth in the study of culture — from basic cultural processes and applications to personality, social and organizational psychology and beyond — is forever inspiring to me. Harry instilled upon me the ideas that disciplinary boundaries should be taken down and that psychological science needs to transcend arbitrary distinctions. Aside from the breadth of his theoretical training, Harry gave me a big dose of the methodological realities that one confronts in doing cross-cultural research. His insistence on studying both emics (culture-specific elements) and etics (culture-general elements) and his commitment to multiple methods inspired me to use in-depth qualitative interviews, surveys, experiments, archival methods and more recently, computer modeling. Harry gave me a solid grounding in the rich history and debates in the field, which I believe are critical to convey to new scholars (Kashima & Gelfand, 2012). Above all, his optimism, modesty and good humor helped to bring a human element into science. As a graduate student, I watched as he worked with many international collaborators who were full partners and authors on his papers, which is a practice I model in my own collaborations. His tripartite philosophies — that it is important to be passionate about one’s work, to not take yourself too seriously and to not be afraid of being controversial — serve as important reminders to me throughout my life.

A Multinational Study on the Strength of Social Norms

Armed with his sage advice, I have always tried to take a long term perspective in research and focus on projects that may take many years, but will ultimately help me tackle big questions, develop and nurture multicultural collaborations, and learn as much as possible along the bumpy road of cross-cultural research. For example, I started a 33-nation study on cultural tightness-looseness with a National Science Foundation grant while I was still an untenured professor, knowing there was no way this project would yield any intellectual fruit for years. With a tremendous amount of dedication, patience and camaraderie, my research team (developed through contacts in the International Association of Cross-Cultural Psychology) and I set out to examine variation in the degree to which nations are “tight” — have strong norms and a low tolerance of deviant behavior — or “loose” — have weak norms and a high tolerance of deviant behavior. This study, which included years of planning, focus groups, translating and back translating, piloting, data collection, multilevel analyses and many thousands of email exchanges, was recently published in Science (Gelfand, Raver, Nishii, Leslie, Lun et al., 2011).

The study showed that tightness-looseness (TL) is a reliable and valid dimension, distinct from others in the literature and related to a broad array of societal threats (or lack thereof) that nations have historically encountered. We reasoned that ecological and human-made threats (including population density, resource scarcity, natural disaster vulnerability, historical threats from one’s neighbors, natural prevalence of pathogens, etc.) increase the need for strong norms and sanctioning of deviant behavior in order for humans to coordinate their social action for survival. Across the board, higher tightness was related to higher degrees of ecological and historical threats. Tight societies are also more likely to have governments that are autocratic, media institutions with restricted content, higher police per capita, more strict punishments and higher religiosity.

Beyond its macro affordances, a key question we addressed was how TL is implicated in everyday social situations and psychological processes. Through a new measure of behavior-situation ratings, we showed that TL is related to the "strength of social situations" (Mischel, 1977). Although there are strong and weak situations in all cultures, everyday situations in tight societies are stronger — that is, they restrict the range of behavior that is deemed appropriate — as compared to loose societies where everyday situations are weaker. At the individual level, we showed that individuals who are embedded in tight cultures (and are faced with the subjective experience that their behavioral options are limited, their actions are subject to evaluation and there are potential punishments based on these evaluations) generally have self-guides that are more prevention-focused, have higher self-regulatory strength, have a higher need for structure and have higher self-monitoring ability. With a new research prize from the Humboldt Foundation, we are now embarking on a number of projects to extend this work, including developing computational models of TL and culture change; examining regional variations in TL within the United States; using neuroscience methods to understand the cultural psychology of norm violation, laboratory methods to prime TL and surveys to measure expatriates traversing across tight and loose cultures.

Collaborations in the Middle East

Andrzej Nowak, Michele Gelfand, and Wojciech Borkowski discussing computational models of culture and negotiationMore recently, my multicultural collaborations have taken me into very different territory: the Middle East. Through a Multi-University Research Initiative (MURI) grant and cost-sharing from the University of Maryland, I developed a multicultural team involving sociologists, political scientists and psychologists from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey and the UAE in order to understand values, beliefs and norms in the Middle East (ME) region. Because there is very little research on the psychology of culture in the Middle East, I thought it was critical to use qualitative methods to gain a "thick description" (Geertz, 1973) prior to jumping in with surveys, experiments or other methods. Drawing on Triandis’s methodology pioneered in Analysis of Subjective Culture (Triandis, 1972), my collaborators and I conducted in-depth structured interviews to understand the meanings, antecedents and consequences of a wide range of underdeveloped constructs in the ME, including: connections (wasta), fate, honor (sharaf, irdh), face and public image (wujah), respect, and modesty, along with trust, negotiation, conflict, collaboration, revenge, forgiveness and apology. This was truly a team effort; through our many Skypes, phone calls and face-to-face meetings in Jordan, Cairo and Istanbul, our team collectively arrived at an interview protocol that reflects important focal concerns from the ME. The data are now being used to develop new grounded theories, scales, knowledge networks, linguistic dictionaries (e.g., of “honor talk”) and cases to shed insight into the subjective culture of the ME using their own voices (see, for example, Gelfand, Shytenberg, Lee, Lun, Lyons, et al., 2012).

Inspired by Karl Popper (1963, p. 88), who argued that “we are not students of some subject matter but students of problems…and problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline,” my research collaborations have become highly interdisciplinary. Whether working with biologists and psychologists on computational models of negotiation in Warsaw; with computer scientists on evolutionary game theoretic models of culture and revenge in Maryland; with political scientists and psychologists on understanding the mediation of intercultural disputes; with computer scientists to develop culturally sensitive computer agents to negotiate in the United States and Lebanon; or with criminologists and terrorism experts to understand the cultural psychology of terrorism in Manila’s prisons; my personal and intellectual development has been greatly enhanced through multicultural collaborations and friendships. Interdisciplinary work is difficult, but with a lot of interaction and shared goals, not to mention plenty of good food, we’ve found a way to make them work.

Throughout my career, I have resonated with the idea that life happens when you are making other plans, and you need to be ready to change gears based on unexpected opportunities or intuitions. A number of great ideas and collaborations in my career have grown from casual conversations and unanticipated developments. For example, while discussing collective achievements in the field of culture and psychology during a coffee break at a conference in Hong Kong, Cy Chiu, Ying yi Hong and I came up with the idea for a new book series: Advances in Culture and Psychology (Gelfand, Chiu, & Hong, Oxford University Press). Conversations with others have resulted in a grant proposal funded by NSF, a multidisciplinary research program on culture and revenge and development of a new theory and research on conflict cultures in organizations (Gelfand, Leslie, & Keller, 2008; Gelfand, Leslie, Keller, & De Dreu, 2012).

Gelfand taking her students out on the town in Washington, DCFinally, one of the most rewarding aspects of my career has been having the privilege to mentor a cadre of wonderful graduate students who are passionate about culture. Our lab is diverse, combining social, organizational, decision and cross-cultural psychology, and I have greatly enjoyed motivating and supporting my students as they deal with the invariable trials and tribulations of the research process and being there to celebrate their growth and accomplishments. I encourage them to think big, enjoy the creative process, have a thick skin and dream of their future "possible selves." They are my inspiration and fuel my passion for cross-cultural research.


Cross-cultural research has been a lifelong journey that brings with it many joys, the most notable of which are wonderful collaborations with colleagues and students. When I am traveling the globe, whether it is to collect experimental data in Jordan, administer surveys to detainees in the Philippines, run a workshop in Egypt, teach in Beijing or run computer simulations in Warsaw, I always remind my father (as well as my husband and daughters) that it is just like going from New York to Pennsylvania!


Geertz, C. (1972). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Gelfand, M. J., Chiu, C. Y., & Hong, Y. Y. (Eds.), 2011, 2012, 2013. Advances in Culture and Psychology (Volumes 1-3). New York: Oxford University Press.

Gelfand, M. J., Leslie, L., & Keller, K. (2008). On the etiology of conflict cultures in organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior, 28, 137-166.

Gelfand, M. J., Leslie, L., Keller, K., & De Dreu, C. (2012). Conflict cultures in organizations: How leaders shape conflict cultures and their organizational-level consequences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 1131-1147.

Gelfand, M. J., Raver, J., Nishii, L., Leslie, L., Lun, J., Lim, B. C., Duan, L., Almaliach, A., Ang, S., Arnadottir, J., Aycan, Z., Boehnke, K., Boski, P., Cabecinhas, R., Chan, D., Chhokar, J., D’Amato, A., Ferrer, M., Fischlmayr, I. C., Fischer, R., Fülöp, M., Georgas, J., Kashima, E. S., Kashima, Y., Kim, K., Lempereur, A., Marquez, P., Othman, R., Overlaet, B., Panagiotopoulou, P., Peltzer, K., Perez-Florizno, L. R., Ponomarenko, L., Realo, A., Schei, V., Schmitt, M., Smith, P. B., Soomro, N., Szabo, E., Taveesin, N., Toyama, M., Van de Vliert, E., Vohra, N., Ward, C., & Yamaguchi, S. (2011). Differences between tight and lose cultures: A 33–nation study. Science, 332, 1100-1104.

Gelfand, M. J., Shytenberg, G., Lee, T., Lun, J., Lyons, S., Bell, C., et al. (2012). The cultural contagion of conflict. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 367, 692-703.

Kashima, Y., & Gelfand, M. J. (2012). A history of culture in psychology. In W. Stroebe & A. Kruglanski (Eds.), History of Social Psychology (pp. 499-520). East Sussex: Psychology Press.

Mischel, W. (1977). The interaction of person and situation. In E. Magnusson & N.S. Endler (Eds.), Personality at the crossroads. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Popper, K. R. (1963). Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Triandis, H. C. (1972). The analysis of subjective culture. New York: Wiley.