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The loosening of American culture over 200 years is associated with a creativity–order trade-off

Nature Human Behaviour (2019) | Download Citation

Abstract

For many years, scientists have studied culture by comparing societies, regions or social groups within a single point in time. However, culture is always changing, and this change affects the evolution of cognitive processes and behavioural practices across and within societies. Studies have now documented historical changes in sexism1, individualism2,3, language use4 and music preferences5 within the United States and around the world6. Here we build on these efforts by examining changes in cultural tightness–looseness (the strength of cultural norms and tolerance for deviance) over time, using the United States as a case study. We first develop a new linguistic measure to measure historical changes in tightness–looseness. Analyses show that America grew progressively less tight (i.e., looser) from 1800 to 2000. We next examine how changes in tightness–looseness relate to four indicators of societal order: debt (adjusted for inflation), adolescent pregnancies and crime, and high school attendance, as well as four indicators of creative output: registered patents, trademarks, feature films produced, and baby-naming conformity. We find that cultural tightness correlates negatively with each measure of creativity, and correlates positively with three out of four measures of societal order (fewer adolescent pregnancies, less debt and higher levels of school attendance). These findings imply that the historical loosening of American culture was associated with a trade-off between higher creativity but lower order.

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The R code for these analyses—and all other analyses in the paper—is publicly available at https://osf.io/x2uzn/.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available at https://osf.io/x2uzn/.

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Acknowledgements

We thank C. Fahmi and A. Veeragandham for research assistance. This study was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to J.C.J., a Thomas S. and Caroline H. Royster Fellowship to J.C.J. and a Humboldt Foundation grant to M.G. No funding agency was involved in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of this manuscript, and the views expressed in this manuscript do not necessarily reflect the views of our funding agencies. Language used in this paper does not reflect the opinions of the authors, the funders or Nature Human Behaviour.

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Affiliations

  1. Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA

    • Joshua Conrad Jackson
  2. Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA

    • Michele Gelfand
  3. Department of Computer Science, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA

    • Soham De
  4. Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology, Uniformed Services University, Rockville, MD, USA

    • Amber Fox

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Contributions

J.C.J. and M.G. conceptualized and designed the study. J.C.J., S.D. and A.F. acquired and analysed the data. J.C.J. and M.G. interpreted the analysis and wrote the manuscript. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Joshua Conrad Jackson or Michele Gelfand.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Tables 1–7, Supplementary Fig. 1, and Supplementary References 1–23

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0516-z

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