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CONTRIBUTOR / Jeanne Brett


What do film crews teach us about trust? In the United States, which is classified as a ‘loose culture’ defined by low levels of social sanctions and high levels of trust, taking the initiative creates synergy. The trust you express is reciprocated, which leads to cooperative negotiation. But not all cultures are so trusting. In contrast, in tight cultures, which are highly regulated by social norms and sanctions, there is little willingness to trust in contexts where social constraints are unclear or irrelevant.


BUMPER: Trust and Social Sanctions

There are really three key papers to understand culture and negotiation strategy in the role of trust in that relationship. The first one is one that identifies swift trust, and this is Meyerson, Weick and Kramer’s work.

They were looking at film crews. And their observation was that these film crews coalesced very quickly and used a lot of cooperative behavior. They were assuming that the other parties in the team were professional, competent and trustworthy.

BUMPER: Swift Trust in Negotiations

When we take a look at negotiation research and we think about Meyerson, Weick and Kramer’s work, we see a lot of similarities between the film crews that they studied and negotiations.

In the first place, negotiators come together and they typically don’t know each other. When they’re putting together a new business deal, they don’t have a history. They may have some reputation that goes in front of them, but they don’t have a personal history.

Meyerson and her colleagues propose that to get trust going, people have to wade in; they can’t just sit back and wait for the other party to act in a trustworthy manner. But the way to get trust going is to initiate trust and then that global norm of reciprocity kicks in and people trust back.

BUMPER: Trust and Social Sanctions

I want to talk about Toshio Yamagishi’s research. He was studying Japanese and American participants and putting them in social dilemmas. Now, a social dilemma is a multiparty prisoner’s dilemma.

If you know about prisoner’s dilemmas, you know that they put the two prisoners in separate interrogation rooms and they offer each of them a deal to squeal on the other. And if nobody squeals, everybody gets a light sentence. And if both people squeal on each other, they both get a really heavy sentence.

But the best outcome would be is if I squeal on you and you don’t squeal on me.

A social dilemma is the same phenomenon, only there are multiple parties.

And what Yamagishi did is he put his experiment and he varied in two dimensions. He measured his participants’ level of trust, and he had high-trusting participants and low-trusting participants.

And then he put them in a situation of no sanctions or a situation of sanctions. By sanctions, what he was doing is he was giving them money to do the experiment, and if they failed to cooperate, the money would be taken away from them.

And he found that among the Japanese, in the no-sanction condition, cooperation was extremely low; in the high-sanction condition, cooperation was high — particularly there were no differences between high and low trusters in the sanctioning condition, but in the no-sanction condition, the high trusters were willing to cooperate more than the low trusters.

Yamagishi then went and did the same study using American participants. And the first thing he found was that American participants overall were more trusting on a trust scale than his Japanese participants.

But he still sorted them into high-trust and low-trust groups, and he still had the no-sanction condition and the sanction condition.

But here, he found that the Americans in the no-sanction condition, regardless of whether they were high trusters or low trusters, they cooperated. They also cooperated in the sanctioning condition.

And so, Yamagishi stepped back. He was, I think, very surprised at what his research showed at first. And then he had to figure out how to interpret it.

And his interpretation was that the sanctioning condition cued the Japanese participants to the kind of environment that they lived in, in their everyday social interactions because, in Japan, there are strong norms for cooperative behavior, there is social monitoring and social sanctioning for failure to cooperate.

What Yamagishi argued is that when you take away that monitoring and sanctioning, the Japanese participants had no basis for predicting or expecting the counterparties in this social dilemma to behave cooperatively.

And so, in a defensive posture, they competed in order to defend themselves.

When he looked at the American data again and started to interpret the American data, he says, “The US culture is very different.” He said, “The US culture is much more open; there’s much less monitoring and sanctioning.”

And he said, “These American participants, they have an internal moral compass. And so, they don’t have to be cued by the context to know whether to cooperate or not to cooperate; they cooperate on the basis of their internal moral compass.”

Now, Yamagishi explained his results with a cultural concept called “collectivism versus individualism.”

In individualist cultures, people’s self-identity is a function of their accomplishments. In collectivist cultures, people’s social identity is a function of whether or not they are adequately, in the eyes of others, fulfilling their social roles.

BUMPER: Cultural Tightness and Looseness

Michele Gelfand is another cultural psychologist, and she came along and said, “Hmm, I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s collectivism and individualism that’s explaining Yamagishi’s results.” She says, “I think it’s something called cultural tightness–looseness.”

She defines cultural tightness–looseness very similarly to the way Yamagishi described the differences between Japanese and US culture. She says, “In a tight culture — strong social norms, lots of monitoring and lots of sanctions for failure to fulfill those social norms. And in a loose culture,” she says, “norms are looser. There’s more flexibility; there’s more improvisation in social interaction in everyday life.”

So, Michele Gelfand and her colleagues collected data from 33 countries and they correlated it with a whole lot of other psychological variables, but they also correlated it with data about history and geography in these countries.

And what they found is that tight cultures have a profile — they have a cultural profile — that is very different from the cultural profile of loose cultures.

And so, the way to understand culture and negotiation strategy is to understand both trust in that culture and to understand whether that culture is a tight culture or a loose culture.