America’s cultural weapon against COVID-19

The History Channel

In the fight against coronavirus, we need every advantage. America’s scientific expertise is second to none, but are U.S. cultural attitudes and tendencies our achilles heel?

Price gouging of hand sanitizer. Hoarding of toilet paper and staples at grocery stores. Young people defying social distancing guidelines by crowding bars, parks, and public beaches. These and other reports suggest that many Americans have struggled to adjust to the “new normal” of life in the time of COVID-19.

In some cases, this loose, rebellious, and short-sighted behavior poses dangerous risks: Medical first responders don’t have enough face masks. They’re begging citizens who ordered N95s to donate them to local hospitals.

Reading these news accounts, along with our early testing failures, may make you feel like we’re doomed. But social science and American history tell us that crises like COVID-19 can also trigger a powerful set of positive cultural norms that should make us hopeful about our resilience. Our job now is to reactivate them, stat!

On a global spectrum of social habits, which my research team has classified, Americans are quite loose. Compared to tight countries like Japan, where orderliness permeates daily life, loose countries like the United States are known for weaker rules and more permissive behavior. These differences aren’t random. Countries with tougher laws and stricter codes have histories of threat — famine, warfare, natural disasters, and/or contagion. They’ve learned the hard way: Tight rules and social coordination save lives, especially during the early, exponential spread of a virus. Famously “tight” societies like Singapore and Hong Kong, for example, have demonstrated the most effective response to COVID-19. Singapore, as of this writing, has recorded just two deaths from the disease. Loose, open nations like Spain and Italy, meanwhile, are reeling.

At a time when some experts worry that the United States could follow Italy’s dark path, it’s worth remembering America’s history of cultural transformations in the face of crisis. These shifts enabled tight social coordination at scale, but also preserved critical elements of loose culture such as innovation, resourcefulness, and creativity. This tight-loose cultural ambidexterity could be America’s secret weapon against COVID-19.

America’s reluctant but ultimately resolute effort in World War II exemplifies this best-of-both-worlds approach. The vaunted “arsenal of democracy” that powered a formerly isolationist nation to victory over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan was more than a testament to America’s economic engine: It also reflected a conscious effort on the part of ordinary Americans to change their daily routines.

From food and gas rationing, victory gardens and scrap metal drives to price controls, Americans from all walks of life embraced a tighter mode of living that created enduring bonds of unity and tremendous coordination. The “memes” of the era — “Make it do or do without”; “Do with less, so they’ll have more”; “Share your cars and spare your tires” — all reflected the need for shared sacrifice.

“The production which has flowed from the country to all the battlefronts of the world has been due to the efforts of American business, American labor, and American farmers, working together as a patriotic team,” said President Roosevelt in 1944. This is the epitome of American spirit as noted by the renowned Historian Paul Ambrose: “We’re all in this together, and we will fight it out together.” And we did.

Whereas other nations are mostly or even entirely reliant on their federal governments during crises, the United States has time and again benefitted from proactive steps taken by citizens, non-profits, or corporations.

After Hurricane Harvey, Anheuser-Busch repurposed its brewery to make drinking water for victims. Google’s parent company installed emergency cellular service to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria using solar-powered, high-altitude balloons. And when flooding devastated the greater Houston area in 2017, who can forget the spontaneous, citizen-led Cajun Army that mobilized volunteer rescue efforts?

These disasters altered America’s social fabric, activating a simultaneous spirit of tightness and creativity. Coronavirus could likewise reprogram our culture today. It’s not that the U.S. should become more like China or Singapore. We need to be strictly following rules — particularly on social distancing — but we also need to summon the best of our loose, supremely creative, culture to generate novel ways to fight the virus.

Already we’re seeing signs that Americans are embracing such a shift. Community social media platform NextDoor has launched a “Help Map” so neighbors in need can connect with those able to do a good deed. Entrepreneurs have created Venmo lists and other coordination tools so that patrons can continue to help suddenly unemployed food service workers. Universities and public schools have reimagined learning in the blink of an eye. Tech companies are working with Washington to explore ways to use smartphone location data to track disease transmission and help enforce social distancing. Meanwhile, biotech firms are partnering with the federal government to launch the life sciences equivalent of a Manhattan Project to develop life-saving treatments and a vaccine at record speed. This week, Ford announced that it’s working with 3M and GE to make respirators and ventilators, inspired by their creative efforts during WWII where they were involved in building aircraft and iron lungs for polio patients. That history provided motivation for these new activities, CEO Jim Hackett said.

Nature confirms the benefits of striking a balance between freedom and order in the face of threat. The Italian physicist Andrea Cavagna and his colleagues found that if starlings were either too synchronized or too disorganized, they couldn’t adapt to unexpected threats. The happy medium, called the critical point, helped these birds become maximally attentive and avoid being eaten by hawks and falcons.

Our response to collective threats in the past shows that we can be both tightly coordinated and innovative to fight a common enemy. Now is the time to come together once more — by strictly following community rules while marshaling our best individual creativity — to fight an animal virus that is threatening us all.

Michele J. Gelfand is Distinguished University Professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the World.

Tags American culture Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic Coronavirus response COVID-19

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