The weird West

How would you complete this sentence? “I am . . .” Did you say “a journalist/lawyer/doctor” or “adventurous/intelligent/intellectually curious”? Or did you say “I am Arthur’s mother” or “Emily’s Dad”?

Standpoint Magazine

How would you complete this sentence? “I am . . .” Did you say “a journalist/lawyer/doctor” or “adventurous/intelligent/intellectually curious”? Or did you say “I am Arthur’s mother” or “Emily’s Dad”?

The chances are that if you completed the sentence with your personal achievements or attributes rather than your social role (though this may be of equal importance in your life), you are something that Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich would term as WEIRD. That is, you are likely to have been raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic.

In his latest book, The Weirdest People in the World, Henrich argues that, far from being a universal human norm, WEIRD
people are “rather psychologically peculiar” compared with most people today and indeed across human history.

WEIRD people, according to Henrich are “highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist and analytical”—focusing on the self over relationships and social roles. This contrasts with other populations who may see the world more holistically, and themselves as a node in a social or family network.

Henrich and his colleagues coined this term in a 2010 paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences which shook the field of behavioural research. Where psychologists had for decades conducted experiments on mostly Western college students and extrapolated their findings to the rest of humanity, Henrich and his team pointed out that this subset of human psychology was exactly that—a subset, and moreover, a highly unusual one.

Henrich explores the idea further here. And he does something that anthropologists don’t usually do: he turns his scientific lens on his own population. In this formidable tome (epic in both size and scope) he skilfully and convincingly demonstrates how the emergence of WEIRD psychology occurred and led to the conditions ripe for Western prosperity in the modern world.

Culture is important—it can change psychology, which in turn can physically change the brain without changing underlying genetics. Take the advent of widespread literacy. People in highly literate populations have a thicker corpus callosum—a brain region connecting the left and right hemispheres; their brain’s language centre (Broca’s area) is altered; and their facial recognition processing shifts to the right hemisphere. As a result, says Henrich, highly literate populations think more analytically (breaking scenes down into components) than holistically, but have worse facial recognition than societies where most people are not literate. “You can’t separate ‘culture’ from ‘psychology’ or ‘psychology’ from ‘biology’ because culture physically rewires our brains and thereby shapes how we think,” says Henrich.

So what cultural changes triggered WEIRD psychology? Go back in time to around 1000 CE and all indications would suggest that the dominant global forces in the latter half of the next millennium would spring from China, India or the Middle East rather than from the “barbarians” of the north.

But some shift early in modern history was so profound that it kickstarted the process of changing Western European psychology in a way that would ultimately shake the world, leading to the Industrial Revolution and prosperity.

To understand this, Henrich takes the reader back to the pre-modern era. We read of Scottish clans and Zulu tribes; and meet peoples including the clan-based Ilahita of New Guinea and the highly independent Matsigenka of the Peruvian Amazon alive today. We glimpse Anglo-Saxon Britain, the early Medieval period, the Crusades, the Reformation. To understand cultural evolution, first we need to understand how human societies have organised themselves and grown for time immemorial.

From ancient times most societies—including Western European ones—functioned with family and extended kinship networks at their heart. These social networks provided everything from food and resources, trade, to care for the vulnerable and elderly. However, their nature made it difficult for the pre-modern societies to scale up in number. The advent of agriculture changed things as humans became more sedentary. Clans, and lineage-based systems of society emerged. For most of modern history, our institutions, values and systems and therefore psychology have been based on intensive kinship-based institutions—bolstered by strategically-arranged marriages, polygyny, cousin marriage, newlyweds living with parents and shared family responsibility for an individual’s wrongdoing.

Enter the Western Church in Rome in Late Antiquity. Henrich provides convincing evidence—historical and scientific—that the Western Church successfully dismantled early medieval society’s kin-based frameworks to funnel loyalties and revenues to itself. And this inadvertently paved the way for WEIRD thinking.

Without a strong family-based society with its obligations and ties, people become much more mobile—filling urban areas. They also became more trusting of strangers—enabling improved commerce and democracies, and were more able to set up institutions such as universities and scientific societies that facilitated better knowledge exchange. These changes in psychology led to transformative events, namely the Industrial Revolution, which enabled Western prosperity.

The book’s voyage through history, geography and science is fascinating and dizzyingly comprehensive except, perhaps, in one area: how WEIRD psychology impacted on efficient colonialisation and slavery on a mass scale. Henrich does touch on this but given the incredibly thorough nature of his almost 500-page thesis (650 with appendices and bibliography), the absence of real insight or commentary is, well, weird. I would have preferred fewer graphs (and don’t get me wrong—I like a good graph) and more than just the odd sentence on this issue. Nevertheless, despite this absence, the book is both thought-provoking and stimulating.


The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
By Joseph Henrich
Allen Lane, 704pp, £30

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