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

A Publisher Correction to this article was published on 22 May 2019

This article has been updated


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, 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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Fig. 1: Frequencies in tight and loose words in books from 1800 to 2000.
Fig. 2: Correlations between cultural tightness and measures of creativity and order.
Fig. 3: Cross-correlations between cultural tightness and measures of creativity and order.

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Code availability

The R code for these analyses—and all other analyses in the paper—is publicly available at

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available at

Change history

  • 22 May 2019

    In the version of this article initially published, errors appeared in three sentences. In the abstract, the sentence beginning “We next examine” should have read “adolescent pregnancies, crime, and high school attendance”; in the main text, the sentence beginning “More recently, the 1964 Civil Rights Act” should have read “directly challenged the authority of the government” and the sentence beginning “Notably, cultural tightness” should have read “cultural tightness positively correlated with crime”. The errors have been corrected in the HTML and PDF versions of the article.

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.


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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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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.

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Correspondence to Joshua Conrad Jackson or Michele Gelfand.

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

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Jackson, J.C., Gelfand, M., De, S. et al. The loosening of American culture over 200 years is associated with a creativity–order trade-off. Nat Hum Behav 3, 244–250 (2019).

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