Discover The Weirdest People in the World
by Joseph Henrich
Do you identify yourself by your profession or achievements, rather than your family network?
Do you cultivate your own unique attributes and personal goals?
If so, perhaps you are WEIRD: raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic.
In his staggering new work The Weirdest People in the World Joseph Henrich has written an exhilarating new account of how psychology, culture and institutions co-evolved to produce the Western mind, that is sure to surprise, fascinate and shines a brilliant light on the cultural evolution of PEOPLE. Here you can read an exclusive extract.
Who are you?
Perhaps you are WEIRD, raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. If so, you’re likely rather psychologically peculiar. Unlike much of the world today, and most people who have ever lived, we WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical. We focus on ourselves—our attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations—over our relationships and social roles. We aim to be “ourselves” across contexts and see inconsistencies in others as hypocrisy rather than flexibility. Like everyone else, we are inclined to go along with our peers and authority figures; but we are less willing to conform to others when this conflicts with our own beliefs, observations, and preferences. We see ourselves as unique beings, not as nodes in a social network that stretches out through space and back in time. When acting, we prefer a sense of control and the feeling of making our own choices.
When reasoning, WEIRD people tend to look for universal categories and rules with which to organize the world, and mentally project straight lines to understand patterns and anticipate trends. We simplify complex phenomena by breaking them down into discrete constituents and assigning properties or abstract categories to these components—whether by imagining types of particles, pathogens, or personalities. We often miss the relationships between the parts or the similarities between phenomena that don’t fit nicely into our categories. That is, we know a lot about individual trees but often miss the forest.
WEIRD people are also particularly patient and often hardworking. Through potent self-regulation, we can defer gratification—in financial rewards, pleasure, and security—well into the future in exchange for discomfort and uncertainty in the present. In fact, WEIRD people sometimes take pleasure in hard work and find the experience purifying.
Paradoxically, and despite our strong individualism and self-obsession, WEIRD people tend to stick to impartial rules or principles and can be quite trusting, honest, fair, and cooperative toward strangers or anonymous others. In fact, relative to most populations, we WEIRD people show relatively less favoritism toward our friends, families, co-ethnics, and local communities than other populations do. We think nepotism is wrong, and fetishize abstract principles over context, practicality, relationships, and expediency.
Emotionally, WEIRD people are often racked by guilt as they fail to live up to their culturally inspired, but largely self-imposed, standards and aspirations. In most non-WEIRD societies, shame—not guilt—dominates people’s lives. People experience shame when they, their relatives, or even their friends fail to live up to the standards imposed on them by their communities. Non-WEIRD populations might, for example, “lose face” in front of the judging eyes of others when their daughter elopes with someone outside their social network. Meanwhile, WEIRD people might feel guilty for taking a nap instead of hitting the gym even though this isn’t an obligation, and no one will know. Guilt depends on one’s own standards and self-evaluation, while shame depends on societal standards and public judgment.
These are just a few examples, the tip of that psychological iceberg I mentioned, which includes aspects of perception, memory, attention, reasoning, motivation, decision-making, and moral judgment. But the questions I hope to answer in this book are: How did WEIRD populations become so psychologically peculiar? Why are they different? Tracking this puzzle back into Late Antiquity, we’ll see that one sect of Christianity drove the spread of a particular package of social norms and beliefs that dramatically altered marriage, families, inheritance, and ownership in parts of Europe over centuries. This grassroots transformation of family life initiated a set of psychological changes that spurred new forms of urbanization and fueled impersonal commerce while driving the proliferation of voluntary organizations, from merchant guilds and charter towns to universities and transregional monastic orders, that were governed by new and increasingly individualistic norms and laws. You’ll see how, in the process of explaining WEIRD psychology, we’ll also illuminate the exotic nature of WEIRD religion, marriage, and family. If you didn’t know our religions, marriages, and families were so strange, buckle up.
Understanding how and why some European populations became psychologically peculiar by the Late Middle Ages illuminates another great puzzle: the “rise of the West.” Why did western European societies conquer so much of the world after about 1500? Why did economic growth, powered by new technologies and the Industrial Revolution, erupt from this same region in the late 18th century, creating the waves of globalization that are still crashing over the world today?
If a team of alien anthropologists had surveyed humanity from orbit in 1000 CE, or even 1200 CE, they would never have guessed that European populations would dominate the globe during the second half of the millennium. Instead, they probably would have bet on China or the Islamic world.
What these aliens would have missed from their orbital perch was the quiet fermentation of a new psychology during the Middle Ages in some European communities. This evolving proto-WEIRD psychology gradually laid the groundwork for the rise of impersonal markets, urbanization, constitutional governments, democratic politics, individualistic religions, scientific societies, and relentless innovation. In short, these psychological shifts fertilized the soil for the seeds of the modern world.
Joseph Henrich is an award-winning anthropologist, and a professor and chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. He is the author of The Secret of our Success. He lives in Massachusetts.
Author Photo © Natalie Henrich