Mapping the human cultural landscape

One of the most consistent findings of political orientation is that while conservatives tend to be heavily invested in their local communities, liberals are not only open to foreign cultures, they are often even fascinated by them. These opposite values are captured by the Big 5 traits of conscientiousness C and openness O, respectively.

This distinction already represents the first and most important axis on our cultural landscape. It is what is very close to what Michele Gelfand calls tight vs loose cultures in her highly influential book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World (2018). Tight cultures have strict norms and require a high level of conformity, whereas loose cultures have few rules but allow for a lot of personal freedom and individuality. Most people wouldn’t want to live in a country of extremes, as there are trade-offs: tight cultures usually have few rule-breakers and little crime (e.g. Japan), whereas loose cultures have more diversity and fun, but also higher crime rates and are more disorganized (e.g. Italy)

Where do those cultural differences come from? A great part is due to our innate tendencies as personality traits like conscientiousness and openness are highly heritable. Research has shown that the tightest cultures are the ones with a history of irrigation farming which required a highly collaborative effort, social hierarchies and conformity. Another factor Gelfand explored is threat, the higher the threat in the past was the higher the tightness of an area. Again I argue that threat has a lot to do with sedentary farming as opposed to nomadic foraging and herding: farmers had to face many threats: starvations, raiding, higher levels of pathogens (sedentism) and natural disasters from which they just couldn’t move away easily as they would have lost their livelihood.

Tightness is therefore an evolutionary product of collectivist farming and looseness is connected to individualist nomadic foraging and herding. Foragers, like the Inuit and Hazda, score highest on individual freedom and looseness on Gelfand’s scale. Here is a representation with Myers-Briggs personality types:

However, foragers also live in a kind of communist sharing society and countries with a long history of pastoralism, like Pakistan, score extremely high on tightness. Tightness and collectivism are therefore only moderately correlated and do not represent the same axes.

Scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel took a slightly different approach in creating a cultural map of the world Their map depicts closely linked cultural values that vary between societies in two predominant dimensions: traditional versus secular-rational values on the vertical y-axis and survival versus self-expression values on the horizontal x-axis.

There is a different way of seeing this map, however. Traditional and survival values are for the reasons mentioned above both mostly farmer values. Self-expression is very much a herder trait and even in tight, conservative Muslim cultures, there are often surprising “liberal” cultural phenomena such as belly dancing.

If we plot the above evolutionary profiles onto the Inglehart-Welzel cultural map, we get a great match with the different values and associated HEXACO traits:

Protestant Europe is mostly in individualist hunter-herder space. Compared with a genetic map of Europe we get a good match (Protestant reformation in green):

Catholic Europe should be located mostly in Southern Europe as it Catholicism shows mostly conservative farmer traits (deep hierarchy, tradition, obedience). Collectivist early Christianity started out in gatherer space and moved increasingly into farmer space, hence the opposition from hunter-herder space that led to the Reformation.

Communism is very similar to early Christianity a product of a gather-farmer alliance. Many libertarians (hunter-farmer) regard socialism as a form of corrupted conservatism due to its collectivist tendencies, whereas many liberals (gatherers-herders) consider libertarians (hunter-farmer) as a form of corrupted conservatism due to its emphasis on competitive materialism.

The combination of herder-farmers can lead to the tightest cultural manifestations as seen in countries like Pakistan and Mafia organizations (herder competitiveness plus farmer hierarchical organization). Likewise, Sparta can be seen as located in herder-farmer space, whereas Athens was located in farmer-hunter space.

Collective farming (kibbutzim, Soviet kolkhoz) works best with highly agreeable (caregiving) farmer A profiles and humble gatherer H profiles as there wouldn’t be too much competition and a shallow hierarchy. Switzerland and Japan are both highly conscientious/tight (farmer) and somewhat open (hunter). Italy, with its love for fashion and good and diverse foods, corresponds most closely to the extraverted caregiving herder profile (X).

In order to represent culture accurately, we would need three or four dimensions according to our evolutionary subsistence strategy. However, a two-dimensional map works quite well, as people often have one dominant type due to assortative mating and a secondary type due to actual historic mating. A lot of personality systems recognized primary and secondary types. A country’s or culture’s personality is the result of its historic dominance of primary and secondary types, very much like genes determine our primary and secondary types to a large extent.

Check out my latest book for more background information:

Originally published at on November 17, 2021.