As States Reopen, Tensions Flare Between the Rule Followers and Rule Breakers

June 8, 2020 Updated: June 8, 2020

Since Republicans, on average, are five times more likely than Democrats to believe it’s safe now to resume normal business activity, reopening the economy has often been framed as a partisan issue.

But within households, many families are having their own arguments about how lax or strict they should be about the threat of the virus. Can dad golf? Can mom get a haircut?

Some are uneasy about opening up and going against official guidance like wearing masks. Better be safe than sorry, the thinking goes. Others balk at being told what to do and feel anxious or even angry about the restrictions being put in place.

These differences aren’t just random personality types; they reflect our primal social mindsets. And unless these differences are better understood, it will be that much more difficult to navigate life under COVID-19.

As a cultural psychologist, I’ve spent the last 25 years researching the relationship people have toward rules.

Some tend to have what I call a “tight” mindset. They notice rules around them, have a strong desire to avoid mistakes, have a lot of impulse control, and love structure and order.

Others have “loose” predispositions. They can be skeptical about rules, they’re willing to take risks, and they’re comfortable with disorder and ambiguity. Neither of these mindsets is intrinsically good or bad.

At a macro level, think about the immense cultural differences between Singapore and Brazil. According to our research, the former is a tight country. This means that there are many laws and rules in place, and punishments are severe. In Singapore, you can be fined for spitting, and bringing chewing gum into the country is forbidden.

Brazil, on the other hand, tends to be a loose country and is much more permissive. Loose cultures can seem more disordered, but they also tend to be more tolerant of differences and celebrate creative expression—just look at images from the country’s annual Carnival.

At a micro level, think of all the ways these tight-loose tensions play out in households. Are you a helicopter parent or more laid-back? Do your children follow the rules or do they challenge them frequently?

These tight-loose differences can reflect the history of a nation or an individual—whether they’ve experienced war, famine, and disease, or higher stress and trauma. The greater the history of experiencing these threats, the higher likelihood of adopting a tighter mindset.

The sweeping lockdowns related to COVID-19 have accentuated these inclinations. Embracing order and constraint in the face of threat, tight-leaning friends and family members are even more fastidious. Our looser family members and friends, however, are feeling claustrophobic.

It’s no wonder some families are experiencing high levels of anxiety and friction in their homes.

The Tight-Loose Dance

This struggle need not be paralyzing, though. Instead, understanding where each side is coming from can help society successfully negotiate these differences.

A basic principle—backed by a lot of evidence—is that when there is a real threat, tightening can serve a purpose. For example, when a community has an increasing number of COVID-19 cases, it’s critical to collectively abide by rules regarding social distancing, masks, and hand-washing. People with loose mindsets, who take encroachments on their personal autonomy very seriously, may find this challenging.

But shaming them, or holding them in contempt isn’t going to be effective. It’s more useful to remind everyone that these constraints are temporary and that the more diligently they’re practiced, the sooner they can be relaxed.

On the flip side, when the threat subsides, people can loosen up with vigilance. Tight-minded citizens struggle with this because the relaxation of rules makes them feel vulnerable.

The key here is gradual steps. Tighter folks may panic at a crowded mall or beach. But slowly acclimating them to visits with a trusted friend could make reopening smoother.

As countries begin the long journey back to a new normal, we’ll all be doing the equivalent of a tight-loose dance with our friends and fellow shoppers. Above all, learning to appreciate the basis for our social differences will go a long way toward defusing potential conflicts.

And the more we can be ambidextrous—tightening when there’s a threat and loosening when it’s safe—the better off we’ll all be.

 is a distinguished university professor in the department of psychology at the University of Maryland. This article was originally published on The Conversation.