The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

by Joseph Henrich

Hardcover, 2020


Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2020), Edition: Illustrated, 704 pages


"Harvard University's Joseph Henrich, Chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, delivers a bold, epic investigation into the development of the Western mind, global psychological diversity, and its impact on the world"--

User reviews

LibraryThing member rivkat
WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. This is a long and fascinating book with tons of references to interesting research that I could only gesture vaguely at even in a long review. Basically, Henrich argues that a society’s organization can change individual
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brains, which then can change the society further. These changes mean that memory works differently for different groups, as does visual processing and facial recognition, and he argues that they can also explain big differences in moral reasoning, such as the relative importance of guilt v. shame in controlling behavior. Westerners are more likely than non-Westerners to participate in punishing someone who has broken norms but not personally harmed them, and less likely to seek revenge against someone who has personally harmed them. Also, fundamental attribution error—attributing behavior to character rather than circumstance—turns out to be fundamental only to the WEIRD; non-Westerners are more likely to explain behavior by pointing to an individual’s circumstances. We are more subject to the endowment effect (valuing things more because we deem them ours), we value having choices more, and we overestimate our own talents more.

Why? The book argues that the West, for whatever reason (Henrich doesn’t speculate), largely adopted a particular kind of monotheism that promoted monogamy; discouraged concentration of power in kin groups because they stood as counterweights to Church power; enforced monogamy so that powerful men couldn’t have multiple wives; and ultimately promoted individualism, which led to things like literacy and non-kin affinity networks such as coreligionists and political parties. “How many people do you personally know who married their cousins? If you know none, that’s WEIRD, since 1 in 10 marriages around the world today is to a cousin or other relative.” (A country’s rate of cousin marriage turns out to correlate with a lot of these other things, like generalized trust, rate of blood donations, and even how many parking tickets a UN delegation gets.) Less kin-based societies developed other mechanisms of social control, focusing on individual behavior and punishing defectors without getting into revenge cycles.

As a result, Westerners became psychologically distinct from other groups. Among other things, we are more likely than non-Westerners to be trusting of strangers, to favor testifying truthfully that our friends committed a crime over lying to protect them, and otherwise to favor large structures over close kin groups. There are similar differences within Western society, so areas that became Protestant early on are even more WEIRD in these ways than areas that were or stayed Catholic, and so too with immigrants’ children; “people in North Dakota and New Hampshire are the most trusting, with around 60 percent of people generally trusting others; meanwhile, at the other end, only about 20 percent of people are generally trusting in Alabama and Mississippi.” This dynamic isn’t unique to Christianity; Heinrich argues that similar patterns can be discerned in groups from India and China which developed in more or less kin-oriented directions.

There is a lot of fascinating stuff, including the effect of individualism on walking speed in crowded cities. What there is not is much discussion of the meaning of percentages and proportions. So, Westerners are a lot more likely than non-Westerners to trust strangers … but that means that there are a lot of untrusting Westerners and trusting non-Westerners. (Likewise: Peer pressure is powerful, and studies show that when an experimenter’s confederates give obviously wrong answers to objective questions, a number of people often go with the majority despite being unhappy and uncomfortable doing so—from 20% in highly individualistic societies to 40-50% in highly communal societies—which is a big change, but not a complete one.) This complexity also extends to the race/class/gender differences washed away in much of this discussion—Western trust is often limited to those who match the right profile, which is a very different thing from generalized trust although also a very different thing from “I only trust my close kin.” Because Henrich is interested in dynamic processes, he argues that there is an inherent pressure to trust (etc.) larger and larger groups once the process of leaving kin behind begins, so that’s how you get people who agree that all human people have valid moral claims on one another. But how we get there, and how far we are from there, matters, especially given that it seems that trust is declining in the West and that many people are willing to prey economically and politically on the (often racialized) trust that exists.

I’m not even getting into his discussions of the varying effects of testosterone depending on society/the presence of polygamy; the variances in behavior of WEIRD and non-WEIRD people competing within a group versus competing among groups; the psychological effects of war (which 18th century Europe experienced pretty constantly). He is not a genetic determinist. For creativity, for example, he argues that exposure to different sources of knowledge drives innovation far more than anything we could call “natural” intelligence. And in the key centuries, he argues, European cities were pretty much deathtraps requiring a constant inflow of rural migrants, meaning that natural selection is not a good explanation for WEIRD psychology.
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LibraryThing member jarlalex
The inspiration for this book is that 70% of studies on the subject of “universal human nature” use western undergraduate students as their sample. The reason for this is self-evident (convenience), yet it’s implausible that western undergraduates are representative of the whole of humanity.
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When the author looks at some of the few studies (and conducts several of his own) including other populations, many of these “universal” features become far more variable. Of particular attention is the degree of willingness to trust strangers (i.e. impersonal relationships).

He traces this divergence back a thousand years, to the imposition of Catholic family structure in Europe – something that did not occur elsewhere. This transformed the way that people viewed each other (especially viz in-groups and out-groups) and led to association being voluntary rather than innate. The result is that westerners’ worldview is more individual than non-westerners, who tend to be more group-oriented. The same dynamics exist in other contexts; for example, he cites the divergent social dynamics in rice and wheat farmers in China – or, more precisely, in their descendants. While not at all innate, these are quite culturally durable.

I liked that he was able to describe these concepts without an air of superiority; i.e. there was no prescription about how one or the other must “fix” their culture to “overcome” limitations, or similar that often accompanies such studies. On the other hand, I think he glosses over the role that many “pre-assigned voluntary associations” (my term) play in contemporary identity, i.e. nationalism – recognizing that, although these can be changed, such a change is difficult and rare.
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LibraryThing member Tytania
Along the lines of Jared Diamond's GUNS, GERMS, & STEEL, this is a big-picture book with a big-picture answer to the basic question: Why did and does Europe rock so much?

In one of the final sections he answers Diamond directly: GG&S is a great theory to explain why Europe was so far ahead circa
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1000 AD. But then, why England? Why the Netherlands? TWPITW purports to be The Explanation for why Europe continued to rock so much.

To recap Diamond (and GG&S has always been one of my all-time favorites): it's agriculture. Eurasia got all the good crops and domesticatable mammals. If you're stuck eating cassava with nothing to pull a plow, why invent the wheel?

And to summarize TWPITW's 489 pages of content (there's a couple hundred more pages of appendix & index)... it's what the Catholic Church (back then simply the Church) did to the family.

I should probably back up: WEIRD people are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. (Just double-checked myself - yup, 5 out of 5.) And we got this way because our psychology was altered when our vast kinship networks were destroyed by what he calls the Church's MFP - no, not Maximum Fluoride Protection, but Marriage & Family Program. The Church's rules said: no more marrying your cousin. No more staying within the husband's or wife's parents' house after marriage. No more arranged marriage. No more polygyny, "or even moderate bigamy" as THE KING AND I song goes. No more marrying your former in-laws.

And this was all a tremendous shock, and a heck of a lot of work to get people to go along with - it took centuries for it all to really gain a foothold. And that's because being proto-WEIRD is truly weird - we, meaning humans, have always lived within vast kinship networks. Marrying cousins or in-laws kept everything in the clan. Polygyny and arranged marriage cemented patriarchal power. Family/clan/tribe has always meant everything it was to be human. Now, disassociated from that source of meaning, protection, and power, individuals had to look elsewhere - to strangers, voluntary organizations, the Church (how convenient) - and within. This made us more trusting of strangers, and more literally self-centered, than we were when were all Family Guys.

It played a lot of other psychological tricks too. 400 pages worth. Yes, this was a difficult book to read, physically - every night was a weight-lifting exercise. In the end I do like the theory; definitely a fascinating way to look at things. But I guess I have two faults to find.

a) It wasn't the book I thought I was going to read. It starts out with in-depth looks at non-WEIRD societies, and contrasts with our own - but I thought it was going to be mostly, or more of, that. It's actually a lot more rah-rah cheering for how great us WEIRD societies are, and less about how, well, weird we are.

b) Why exactly did the Church do all this, fight for centuries to come up with weird new rules for who and how and how many to marry? The reasons were "many and varied." I kid you not. That's the extent of the explanation.

So just keep in mind, next time you're reading a blithe statement about human psychology - it may very well apply only to WEIRD human psychology. Things we think of as rational "givens" aren't givens. The ideals of democracy, human rights, etc. - these are not self-evident, with apologies to Thomas Jefferson. They are ideas cooked up by WEIRD minds.

Great food for thought - WEIRD thought.
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LibraryThing member Paul_S
Was a lot more interesting than the gimmicky suggested. The theories go a bit far on pretty flimsy grounds but raises many great points. Still, you get sick of hearing about the smug protestants pretty quickly.
LibraryThing member RajivC
This is a good book, but not a perfect one. Joseph Henrich has quoted extensive research, and some of the forces that changed the West surprised me.
I agree with much of what he wrote - the move away from a kinshp-based society to one based on individuality helped them move towards economic and
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innovative strengths.
Apart from the influence of the Church, he spoke of the rise of towns, town charters, and universities. This has all been significant.
However, I disagree with some of his conclusions. For instance, he says commerce makes people fair in their dealings, and trustworthy. This, therefore, spills over into greater compliance in daily life. He quotes examples of diplomats from certain third-world countries who are more liable to avoid paying parking fees than those from "WEIRD" societies. Also, the fact that Western people walk faster than those from countries like Indonesia makes them more purpose-driven.

He is correct - I believe - in most of what he has written. However, I do not think he has completed the picture.

1. The societal changes did drive the Western countries to be more competitive, and innovative. However, this does not mean they are more honest. Joseph Henrich brushed off colonialism and exploitation of the environment. He did not even mention slavery. However, the history of the West indicates that, without these three 'evils', the West would not have risen. Commerce did not make them more honest!

2. A Western person lives in colder climate zones. It is possible to walk faster than a person living in a hot, humid country like Indonesia. In my own experience, I walk faster when I am in Europe than when I am in Delhi's summer!

These are significant weaknesses and detract from the value of the book. However, there are some excellent lessons to be gleaned from the book. These lessons are what make the book worth reading.
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LibraryThing member steve02476
I liked the book, there were a ton of interesting ideas there. But I did have some qualms. Some sections had overly long descriptions of social science experiments. I think a lot of charts shown were not really super helpful. A lot of that kind of stuff could have been in an appendix or website for
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people who wanted extra details. But there were a lot of interesting conjectures on how societal changes can affect personality and psychology (and vice-versa) and a good lesson that human psychology is not best studied by testing American college students. Also I appreciated a lot of the history lessons in the book.
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LibraryThing member markm2315
Henrich’s premise is that people in Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies have undergone cultural evolution so that they are psychologically unusual. We are individualistic, self-obsessed, and analytical. We tend to be trusting of strangers and we tend to rely on
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impartial rules of law. We may feel guilty, but we are less likely to feel shame. In these and other cultural features, we are different from people who live in non-Weird societies. Using a step-by-step explanation of the contributing aspects of his theory, involving a tsunami of linear regression charts, Henrich leads us through the findings that support his idea. Much of it seems to stem from the peculiar Marriage and Family Plan of the Catholic church that Henrich says is the reason that we are likely to be monogamous and not marry our cousins, unlike some non-Weird peoples. The argument is impressive in the amount of data presented and in its overall novelty.

Controlled studies are often not possible in the social sciences, but there are so many correlation coefficients here that it was difficult to keep from thinking that correlation does not prove causation. This caveat is addressed to some degree by the discussion of many cleverly controlled psychology studies. Protestantism is a key factor in the author’s theory of WEIRD development, and although it is addressed here and there, I did wonder about how some other peoples who seem WEIRD to me (Jews and Asians in particular) fit into his big picture. Also, I am no social scientist, but I was surprised that shame and guilt are so easy to differentiate from each other.
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Hayek Book Prize (Winner — 2022)

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