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REVIEW: The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich
The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, Joseph Henrich (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).
Until 2002, diplomats at the United Nations didn’t have to pay their parking tickets. Double-parking, blocking a fire hydrant, blocking a driveway, blocking an entire midtown Manhattan street — it didn’t matter; when you have diplomatic plates, they let you do it. In the five years before State Department policy changed in November 2002, UN diplomats racked up a whopping 150,000 unpaid parking tickets worth $18 million in fines. (Among other things, the new policy allowed the city to have 110% of the amount due deducted from the US foreign aid budget to the offending diplomats’ country. Can you believe they never actually did it? Lame.) Anyway, I hope you’re not going to be surprised when I say that the tickets weren’t distributed evenly: the nine members of Kuwait’s UN mission averaged almost 250 unpaid tickets apiece per year (followed by Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Bulgaria, and Mozambique, each between 100 and 150; the rest of the top ten were Albania, Angola, Senegal, and Pakistan). The UK, Canada, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway had none at all. The rest of the rankings are more or less what you’d expect: for example, Italy averaged three times as many unpaid tickets per diplomat as France and fifteen times as many as Germany.1
What did the countries with the fewest unpaid parking tickets have in common? Well, they generally scored low on various country corruption indexes, but that’s just another way of saying something about their culture. And the important thing about their culture is that these countries are WEIRD: western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. But they’re also, in the grand scheme of human history, weird: their inhabitants think differently, behave differently, and value different things than most humans. Among other things, WEIRD people are individualistic, nonconformist, and analytical. They — okay, fine, we — are particularly hard-working, exhibit low time preference, prefer impersonal rules we apply universally, and elevate abstract principles over contextual and relationship-based standards of behavior. In other words, WEIRD people (as Joseph Henrich and his colleagues pointed out in the influential 2010 paper where they coined the phrase) are outliers on almost every measure of human behavior. Wouldn’t it be silly for an entire academic discipline (and therefore an entire society ideologically committed to Trusting The Experts) to base all its assumptions about human nature on psych lab experiments starring American undergraduates? That would give us a wildly distorted picture of what humans are generally like! We might even do something really dumb like assume that the social and political structures that work in WEIRD countries — impersonal markets, constitutional government, democratic politics — can be transplanted wholesale somewhere else to produce the same peace and prosperity we enjoy.
Ever since he pointed out the weirdness of the WEIRD, Henrich has been trying to explain how we got this way. His argument really begins in his 2015 The Secret of Our Success, which I reviewed here and won’t rehash. If you find yourself skeptical that material circumstances can drive the development of culture and psychology (unfortunately the term “cultural Marxism” is already taken), you should start there. Here I’m going to summarize the rest of Henrich’s argument fairly briefly: first, because I don’t find it entirely convincing (more on that below), and second, because I’m less interested in how we got WEIRD than in whether we’re staying WEIRD. The forces that Henrich cites as critical to the forging of WEIRD psychology are no longer present, and many of the core presuppositions of WEIRD culture are no longer taken for granted, which raises some thought-provoking questions. But first, the summary.
Henrich argues that the critical event setting the West on the path to Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic was the early medieval western Church’s ban on cousin marriage. That might seem a little odd, but bear in mind that most of the humans who’ve ever lived have been enmeshed in incredibly dense kin networks that dictate obligations, responsibilities, and privileges: your identity is given from birth, based simply on your role as a node in an interdependent network. When societies grow beyond the scale of a family, it’s by metaphorically extending and intensifying these kinship bonds (go read our review of The Ancient City for more on this). These kinship networks perpetuate themselves through marriage, and particularly through marriage to relatives, whether blood or in-laws, to strengthen existing connections. Familial or tribal identities come first, before even the claims of universal religions, as when Wali Khan, a Pakistani politician, phrased his personal allegiances as “I have been a Pashtun for six thousand years, a Muslim for thirteen hundred years, and a Pakistani for twenty-five.” You could imagine Edwin of Northumbria or Childeric saying something pretty similar.
Then, beginning in the 4th century, the western Church began to forbid marriages to relatives or in-laws,2 the kinship networks began to wither away, and alternative social technologies evolved to take their place. In place of the cousin-marriers’ strong tight bonds, conformity, deference to traditional authority, and orientation toward the collective, you get unmoored individuals who have to (or get to, depending on your vantage point) create their own mutually beneficial relationships with strangers. This promotes a psychological emphasis on personal attributes and achievements, greater personal independence, and the development of universalist social norms. Intensive kinship creates a strong in-group/out-group distinction (there’s kin and there’s not-kin): people from societies with strong kinship bonds, for instance, are dramatically more willing to lie for a friend on the witness stand. WEIRD people are almost never willing to do that, and would be horrified to even be asked. Similarly, in societies with intensive kinship norms, you’d be considered immoral and irresponsible if you didn’t use a position of power and influence to benefit your family or tribe; WEIRD people call that nepotism or corruption and think it’s wrong.
There’s a great deal more to it than this, of course, and I haven’t even touched on the role of the Reformation (Protestant Europe and its offshoots are much WEIRDer than Catholic Europe), but even Henrich’s several-hundred-page version of the argument comes across a little “become modern with this one weird trick! medievalists hate him!” (I once asked a medieval historian about Henrich’s theory; the only response was a facial expression that can best be approximated by this emoji: 😖) Henrich treats the area under the eastern Church as a control group, because it shared the same individualistic and universalizing trends implicit in Christian doctrine but was much less vigorous about banning cousin marriage, but I’m skeptical of over-emphasizing the late antique commonalities. There were already substantial cultural differences between the Latin West and the Greek East by the time the First Council of Nicaea banned marrying your dead wife’s sister. Heck, there were substantial cultural differences before Christ: check out some classical literature, or read How Dead Languages Work and I don’t think you’ll be surprised that the Latin-speakers ended up WEIRDer than the Greek-speakers. They’re much more enthusiastic about universal rules.3 It’s an interesting thesis, though, and if my thumbnail sketch intrigues, you should try the full-size version. If nothing else, “people who marry their cousins” is a useful shorthand term for a particular kind of deeply enmeshed, intensively kin-based society. But as I said, I’m less interested in WEIRDness’s past than in its future.
The first time I read the book, Henrich’s list of uniquely WEIRD psychological traits immediately reminded me of Tema Okun’s “White Supremacy Culture.” Okun (who, by the way, is white — her surname sounds vaguely Yoruba, but it’s probably of Slavic derivation) actually did a pretty good, if somewhat hyperbolic, job of identifying the assumptions and values that underlie Western professional environments; it’s the sort of thing that shows up in discussions of cross-cultural literacy, as when American manufacturing executives need to deal with their Japanese (or Bangladeshi) counterparts. The issue is in identifying it not with “how [WEIRD] white people behave” but with white supremacy, and thereby implicating WEIRD norms in the existence of racism. Okun has since tried to walk that part back, but the original text is still regularly cited by schools, universities, and other hotbeds of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as an example of cultural norms that must be “interrupted” in the pursuit of racial justice. And that got me wondering what the relationship is between wokeness and WEIRDness more generally.4 If wokeness is actually a rejection of WEIRDness, if large swathes of our elite are driving an abandonment of key features of WEIRD psychology, things could get mighty strange. After all, like the man says, our constitution was made only for a WEIRD people; it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Or as Henrich puts it: “…the particular idea of endowing individuals with ‘rights’ and then designing laws based on those rights only makes sense in a world of analytical thinkers who conceive of people as primarily independent agents and look to solve problems by assigning properties, dispositions, and essences to objects and persons.” We’ve seen over and over — in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Africa, or even California — what happens when WEIRD institutions meet non-WEIRD people, and it doesn’t work great.
So: is “woke” WEIRD?
But first, pause for a moment and complete this sentence: “I am…” Just write down the first few things that spring to mind. When cultural psychologists do this with people around the world, they usually ask for fifteen or twenty items, but I’m just making a point. I’m also, unlike whoever did the typesetting of The WEIRDest People in the World, going to give you some space before I explain why I asked you to do this, in case your eye skips down and ruins the whole point of the exercise (I’m a little bitter). Here, have a map of cousin marriage rates around the world.
And here’s cousin marriage compared to unpaid diplomatic parking tickets.
Henrich separates his list of WEIRD psychological traits into three categories: individual and personal motivation, impersonal prosociality, and a collection of perceptual and cognitive biases I’m not going to touch here because frankly I have no idea. (For example, the Müller-Lyon illusion works much less well in non-WEIRD populations and not at all among the !Kung.) The most important and telling trait in that first category is what we might call “self-focus,” and it’s revealed (at least a bit) in the “I am…” task above. Look at your own answers in this light. WEIRD people typically answer with attributes, achievements, or membership in abstract social groups: I am smart, I am a scientist, I am a Christian. Non-WEIRD people typically answer with personal relationships, inherited social roles, and face-to-face communities: I am Bobby’s mother, I am Fred’s daughter, I am a member of the Second United Lutheran Church Outside Wittenberg. (I couldn’t even come up with a Western-sounding example of an inherited social role except for the immediate family, that’s how WEIRD we are.)
I sometimes see woke discourse criticized as “collectivist” because of its emphasis on identity as rooted in an individual’s membership in particular groups of people (race, gender, etc.), but this is entirely backwards. Woke group identifications are self-focused: a woman who says “I am black” is telling you something about herself, her experiences, and her background, as well as perhaps implying unique epistemological access (this is the function of “lived experience”), but she’s not telling you anything about her relationships or her particular obligations.5 Truly collective-focused group identifications work in a way analogous to, but far broader than, the way our society talks about our immediate families. Among the Wathaurung of southeastern Australia, for example, your membership in various groups might dictate what territory and resources you (and the rest of your group, corporately) own, what clans you are allowed to marry into, which rituals you have to participate in, and who is trying to kill you as revenge for what some other member of your group has done. Americans generally, and woke Americans in particular, reflexively use the language of community to describe any group of people — the gay community, the Jewish community, the hikikomori community — but that doesn’t make a collection of people who share some trait, even an important one, into an actual community. Identifying yourself by race (or gender, or any other potentially subaltern status) in America is still much more like saying “I am a bicyclist” than “I am Susan’s husband.”
The other items on Henrich’s “individualism” list are easier to agree about. He says WEIRD people experience “guilt over shame”: shame is devaluation in the eyes of others, guilt is a feeling that you have failed by your own standards. (I feel ashamed that I left a half-written draft of this review where my preschooler could accidentally post it; I feel guilty that I raised my voice when we discussed the topic.) Again, this is a place we can be misled if we’re not thinking carefully, because “shame” is certainly associated with wokeness, but it’s shame as a verb. Wokeness is mostly — notoriously, much to the to the dismay of the Old Left — focused on the individual’s internal state, and beyond mere compliance, woke shaming is intended to produce guilt. What else have we got? Fundamental attribution errors are not actually fundamental, they’re just WEIRD, and they show up plenty in widespread assumptions that some observed undesirable behavior is driven by prejudice. Low deference and conformity to tradition? Well, we’re talking about a trend of the Left, so, um, duh.
But it goes even farther than that. I pointed out above that the nuclear family is just about the only place where our WEIRD culture retains the thick, unchosen bonds of duty and obligation that have characterized most of human experience. It’s probably not surprising, then, that “the family” is an institution of which wokeness is incredibly skeptical. I’m not even talking about the family abolitionists or Full Surrogacy Now: just this morning I ran across another example of someone saying something relatively anodyne about how family is good and being immediately buried under an avalanche of “well, what about all the bad and toxic families?” And it’s not as though these don’t exist, but I notice that people are much less eager to jump in with reminders of the bad versions of things they actually think are good. “What about all the bad and toxic anarchist group-house polyamorous cuddle piles?” said no one ever. It’s not that woke people aren’t getting married and having kids (after all, someone has to be buying all those copies of Antiracist Baby), but once the kids are out of the house, the unique privileges and obligations of the family relationships become opt-in. We already had a word for “chosen family.” It’s “friends.” And the thing that makes friends different from family is that you can stop being friends with someone. So when it comes to individualism, wokeness is not only WEIRD, it’s hyper-WEIRD.
Things get a little more complicated with impersonal prosociality, which is a social technology Henrich defines as “a set of social norms, expectations, and motivations for impartial fairness, probity, and cooperation with strangers, anonymous others, or even abstract institutions like the police or government.” These are market norms, Gesellschaft; they develop in social worlds of well-functioning institutions that can govern and regulate interactions between people who have no other connections. They’re the reason a Danish diplomat pays his parking tickets even if he doesn’t have to (and the reason that when he does get a parking ticket, it’s usually for something like an expired meter or leaving his car on the wrong side during street cleaning, and never for blocking a whole street). Their presence or absence is the reason that an American would be shocked and horrified to be asked to lie on the witness stand to protect a friend, but people as diverse as a South Korean, a Venezuelan, and a Nepali would consider it morally obligatory. And, to be clear, these norms aren’t necessary: many cultures don’t have them, and even in WEIRD societies they don’t govern the relationships between family members, neighbors, or friends. In fact, we get very uncomfortable when market norms seem to enter those parts of our lives. (Imagine paying your mother for Thanksgiving dinner. It just feels wrong, doesn’t it?) But they are very important for managing a large, highly individualistic society — and the inverse, because it’s as much the absence of impersonal prosociality norms as the presence of strong kinship networks that makes WEIRD institutions such poor fits for profoundly un-WEIRD societies. (The lack of impersonal prosociality norms is the reason more than half of South African bureaucrats think it would be not only rude but wrong to reject a bribe: don’t you owe it to your family to accept something that could give them a leg up in the world?)
The first of Henrich’s “impersonal prosociality” traits is a WEIRD preference for “impartial principles over contextual particularism,” and this is yet another case where we’re so WEIRD it’s hard to see what he actually means. “Contextual particularism” isn’t applying different standards to members of different groups or classes — under-represented minorities, children, kulaks — but applying different standards based on personal relationships. (“For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.”) And while certainly this is something we all do to some degree, I don’t think woke people are any more or less likely to do it than anyone else. There’s a lot of talk lately about nepotism, but it’s condemnation, and woke people don’t seem substantially more likely to practice it. Similarly, wokeness isn’t opposed to behaving fairly towards anonymous others — there’s not a nationwide epidemic of Gender Studies graduate students double-parking — and woke people are even more likely than WEIRD people more generally to exhibit reduced in-group favoritism.
One of the least intuitive results Henrich cites is in a classic behavioral experiment called the public goods game. The details aren’t worth getting into (you can find a Wikipedia summary here) beyond telling you that it attempts to model free riding vs. cooperation in the provision of public goods, because the really interesting part is what happens when you add punishment. Behavioral economists were delighted to learn that if you allowed participants to pay a little to financially punish people who hadn’t cooperated on the first round, then on the next round they would cooperate and everyone would end up better off! Wow, great, now I love third party norm enforcement. And then they took the game to Muscat, Riyadh, and Athens, where it turned out that people who were punished spent the rest of the game paying all their money to punish whomever they thought had punished them in the first place, and in the end everyone did much, much worse. In WEIRD societies, people are used to social norms being enforced by uninvolved third parties: you trip a purse-snatcher or call the cops. In non-WEIRD societies, though, undesirable behavior is punished by the victim (and his clan) coming after the perpetrator (and his clan), with everyone else staying out of the way.
So where do the woke come down on third party norm enforcement? Well, it seems mixed, because they are very down on, say, Matt Yglesias reporting people who aren’t displaying their license plates,6 or Helen Andrew counting fare jumpers, or anyone punishing shoplifters, but third party norm enforcement is the whole point of the entire bureaucratic DEI infrastructure that is institutionalized wokeness. What’s the difference? The conclusion seems pretty obvious to me: they just don’t like those norms. And this applies across the board! Wokeness distrusts WEIRD norms and key impersonal institutions of the WEIRD order — law, government, markets, police — because of their perceived bias, but it does so in a hyper-WEIRD way. Woke people, personally, aren’t going to shoot up fentanyl on the LA Metro, but they’re ideologically committed to saying it’s okay if other people do it (or, at least, that anything we might do to stop them would be worse). They’re not going to lie on the witness stand, but they’re not going to get to het up if someone else does because the criminal justice system is broken anyway. They are generally fairly willing to invest a lot of work in long-term goals (at least as evidenced by high levels of education), but they won’t say that this is valuable or laudable behavior.7
On one level this is good news: America is unlikely to go the way of Iraq or South Africa. But it’s still not entirely reassuring, because it’s our impersonal social institutions that have allowed our society to function at scale in the absence of tight kin networks. What happens when these institutions are dominated by an elite who thinks they’re bad and need to be destroyed, preferably with the master’s tools? Of course, they also want to build their own, new, better institution, but I am not optimistic. Humans have a very bad track record when it comes to replicating the effects of thousands of years of cumulative cultural evolution by thinking really hard.
It turns out, though, that there is a group in The WEIRDest People in the World who look sort of like this — highly individualistic, but totally lacking in decision-making or organizational institutions. They’re called the Matsigenka, and they live in tiny groups in the Peruvian rainforest. Each nuclear family is economically self-sufficient, and they are happy to pick up and move at the first sign of strangers. This was really important, because the more complex societies nearby regularly raided the Matsigenka and sold them as slaves, first to the Incas and later to the Spanish. Their culture was extremely adaptive for their past environment; not so much now. They can’t seem to function in groups larger than about twenty-five people, and they can’t cooperate or coordinate their labor, even for tasks everyone wants to accomplish. When Henrich visited them they were trying to build a schoolhouse, but no one ever showed up to do the work. (Eventually the teacher had the students build it.) And to be clear, they’re perfectly nice and friendly people who get along fine with their neighbors — they just don’t feel like they owe them anything at all. Matsigenka culture works for a small-scale subsistence society at living low population density; it would be apocalyptic if it were suddenly transplanted to our complex, interdependent technosphere.
But of course it won’t get to that point, because our society is not entirely WEIRD. We still have a few densely networked subcultures with their array of thick obligations, responsibilities, and privileges mostly intact — some, like the Amish, have survived the acid bath of modernity, and others, like the FLDS, have partially recreated an older model.8 Like most deeply un-WEIRD cultures, neither is notably welcoming to outsiders or marked by the kind of dynamism and room for self-actualization we’re predisposed to want, but I’d still take them over our other remaining pocket of intensive interpersonal ties: criminal organizations. That’s the real reservoir of non-WEIRD psychology and institutions: shame over guilt, revenge over third-part norm enforcement, definitionally low prosociality towards anonymous others, willingness to lie on the stand or exploit positions for personal gain. (How many parking tickets do you think Al Capone paid?) They’re a relatively minor part of most Americans’ lives these days, kept mostly in check by the same impersonal institutions that undergird WEIRD norms. But if those institutions crumble and the individualists become islands, the future will belong to the people who can still work together. Even if it involves cement overshoes.
The 2007 article on the topic, Fisman and Miguel’s “Corruption, Norms and Legal Enforcement: Evidence from Diplomatic Parking Tickets,” is here, complete with exciting charts and raw data. Table 1, beginning on page 8 of the PDF, is a little misleading at the low end for two reasons: first, each delegation got two free parking spaces at the UN, so countries with very few diplomats had less incentive to violate parking law; second, some countries (Bahrain, Malaysia, Oman, and Turkey) had high violation rates but paid their tickets.
This is actually the origin of the English term — no, she’s not really your sister, but she’s your sister-in-[canon]-law, so you can’t marry her even if your wife dies.
Old English-speakers ending up the WEIRDest is, I’ll admit, counter-intuitive.
No, I will not be defining wokeness. You know what I mean, and if you don’t then I guess Freddie did fine.
She might also be telling you something about your obligations to her, but that’s not really understanding the self in the context of relationships either.
I am in favor of Matt Yglesias reporting people who aren’t displaying their license plates and down on Matt Yglesias reporting people who aren’t displaying their license plates and bragging about it on Twitter. You’ve never debated someone like me.
Rob Henderson calls these “luxury beliefs,” which signal status for the elite while hurting the less fortunate.
The regular Mormons seem to have mostly created a set of parallel WEIRD-style impersonally prosocial institutions, but my impression is that wokeness is coming for them too.