The WEIRDEST people in the world

If you are reading this review, you are almost certainly from a WEIRD culture – Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. Your psychology differs significantly from the mindset of traditional societies and, to a lesser extent, wealthy contemporary Asian societies. In ways consistent with this psychology, your society’s social, economic and political institutions are also very unusual in human history.

As a general observation this is not novel. In an early chapter of The Weirdest People in the World, Joseph Henrich acknowledges the cross-cultural psychology work of Harry Triandis and Geert Hofstede. Decades ago their surveys mapped attitudes and beliefs across countries on an individualism (Western) versus collectivism (the rest) scale.

The Weirdest People ‘s contribution is an ambitious bringing together of history, anthropology, evolutionary theory, theology, sociology, economics, political science and a bit of biology to explain how WEIRD psychology developed.

The chart below, pasted in from The Weirdest People, summarises the chain of developments from traditional society to WEIRD culture.

As with any history of the West Christianity is central. Christianity replaced tribal gods with a universal god that rewarded or punished certain behaviours. The old tribal gods often weren’t particularly moral. According to Henrich, ‘they could be bribed, tricked, or scared off with powerful rituals’. The Christian god’s judgment was not so easily avoided. For Christians, whether they went to heaven depended on how they behaved while they were alive. By setting the rules for going to heaven, the Catholic Church could shape the actions of believers.

A significant use of Church power, on Henrich’s account, was what he calls the Catholic ‘marriage and family program’. From around 400 CE this program began dismantling the intensive kin-based institutions of traditional societies.

The arranged marriage is an instrument of kin control. Under Catholic rules, however, the bride and groom both had to publicly consent to marriage. While this did not directly prohibit arranged marriages, it shifted power from the family to the individual. Eventually love marriages became the norm. Newly married couples were encouraged to live independently together, rather than remain in extended households, creating the nuclear family.

Choice of spouse did not extend to relatives. The Church banned cousin marriage. According to Henrich, only a quarter of global-historical societies have forbidden cousin marriage. Across the world about one in ten marriages today is to a close relative. Rules against cousin marriage extended spouse searches outside local communities, creating wider social connections than are usual in tribal societies.

Under Catholic rules, only monogamous marriages were permitted, a restriction that Henrich says has applied in only 15 per cent of global-historical societies. Monogamy reduced male-to-male competition and violence by minimising the number of low-status males with few prospects for sex or marriage. It seems to generate ‘WEIRD endocrinology’, as men with one wife and children have lower testosterone levels, and with that a lower propensity to take risks, drink, gamble, or get arrested.

Of course people did not always follow the marriage and family program, and the Catholic sale of ‘indulgences’ to absolve their sins was one trigger for the 16th century Protestant Reformation. But the Reformation’s greater significance was creating personal relationships between believers and God. As many other books have also documented, this was very important to the rise of Western individualism. Once people can decide on their own religious beliefs they start to think the same way about other things.

The weakening of kin ties and the rise of individualism created space for new forms of social organisation, ‘voluntary associations based on shared interests or beliefs rather than tribal affiliation’. Among the early examples were church-linked mutual aid societies that performed some of the welfare functions of extended families, universities, and guilds of tradesmen.

These organisations were supported by an increased division of labour, with more people specialising in clusters of tasks that turn into occupations. In traditional societies most people are generalists. Higher productivity from task specialisation has long been noted, but Henrich argues that specialisation also contributes to more distinct personalities – a ‘sociable salesman, conscientious craftsman, scrupulous scribe, or pious priest’. He suggests that people increasingly select occupations that fit their temperaments and attributes, and then hone those attributes in competition with others.

An implication of this is that the big-5 distinct dimensions of personality – openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – are really the WEIRD-5. Henrich reports that studies in Hong Kong and Japan find four rather than five distinct personality dimensions; even that may over-estimate the number due to WEIRD-biased samples of university students. In a Bolivian traditional farmer-forager society only two personality dimensions were found.

The effects of markets on personality and social connection have long been debated. To communitarian critics markets foster selfishness and weaken social ties. But Enlightenment intellectuals, living in an era of expanding markets, advanced the seemingly contradictory thesis that markets increase civility and cooperation. Henrich thinks that they both have a point but are talking about different things.

Markets are in the mix of institutions and attitudes that led to WEIRD culture. The more needs people meet through trade the less they rely on their tribe or family (reduced ‘community’). In traditional societies needs are met through strong obligations within the tribe or extended family. In market societies these obligations are typically weak outside the parent-child relationship.

By the 14th century in England, most people lived within a two hour walk of about 1200 weekly markets where people could buy and sell goods. Trades are often with strangers or people outside tight tribal or family networks, making an individual reputation for fairness and honesty valuable in a market society.

Henrich reports on anonymous ‘ultimatum games’ played in different countries. A person is given a sum of money and has to offer part of it to another person. If the other person refuses the offer both parties get nothing. In WEIRD cultures, the average offer is 48 per cent of the money at stake and offers of less than 40 per cent are often rejected. In traditional societies the average offer is around a quarter of the money and few offers are rejected. WEIRD players know the norm of fairness and either observe it or enforce it. WEIRD culture permits the pursuit of individual self-interest, but it is constrained by stronger norms about relations with strangers than are found in traditional societies.

Market societies are strong on what Henrich calls ‘impersonal pro-sociality’, where trust between strangers supports cooperation in markets and within organisations. Ttribal societies are strong on ‘interpersonal pro-sociality’. Their norms require more sharing within the tribe than in market societies but limit cooperation with outsiders.

The Weirdest People in the World is a very interesting and stimulating book. It is so wide-ranging that only a polymath could judge the overall argument. Whether or not its historical explanation of WEIRD culture is entirely right it usefully reminds WEIRD people that what they think is normal is, as the book’s title suggests, weird.


This review is cross-posted at the GoodReads site.

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