The WEIRDest People in the World

The WEIRDest People in the World, by Alex Mackiel.

A decade ago, researcher and scholar Joseph Henrich, together with psychologists Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan, published a landmark paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled, “The weirdest people in the world?” …

The target of the weird label was Western people. More specifically, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or WEIRD.

WEIRD was not meant as a pejorative, but as an apt description of this group of psychologically peculiar people, who are distinct from the majority of humanity both now and throughout human history.

Indeed, WEIRD individuals are psychologically peculiar in a number of ways. For instance, if asked the question, “Who are you?” WEIRD people are more likely to describe themselves in terms of their skills, occupation, achievements, and talents rather than by their relationships — they are “a doctor,” “hardworking,” or “a pianist” rather than “Alex’s son” or “Clara’s boyfriend.”

Additionally, when judging others, they are typically more likely to assign responsibility to personal characteristics rather than external circumstances. For instance, they are likely to assume that the guy driving recklessly ahead of them on the highway is a complete idiot and terrible driver rather than a worried son rushing his father to the nearest emergency room.

While WEIRD people are more individualistic, self-centered, impersonally prosocial, guilt-ridden, and analytical, many non-WEIRD people, from the Chinese to the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari Desert, display opposite psychological trends.

Non-WEIRD people tend to be more collectivistic, other-focused, more partial to their in-groups, shame-ridden, and holistic thinkers. …

Why this matters:

WEIRD people make up only around 12 percent of the world’s population and yet over 90 percent of the subjects in psychology research. …

The origins of WIERD lie in prioritizing functional relationships in society over kin relationships:

During the period between about 400 and 1200 CE, the Western Church began gradually dismantling intensive kin-based institutions such as clans, kindreds, and segmentary lineages, which were typical of most human societies then and throughout human history. With the disbanding of these institutions came the outlawing of norms associated with them such as polygamy and cousin marriage.

The Western Church began promulgating a new set of prescriptions dealing with marriage, family, identity, and inheritance, which Henrich collectively refers to as the Marriage and Family Program (MFP). The MFP inadvertently encouraged the creation of associations such as guilds, universities, and confraternities, which bound people together based on shared interests, beliefs, and skills, rather than kinship ties.

Henrich argues that the rise of these more non-relational institutions in Europe created a novel environment to which these populations psychologically adapted. This cultural adaptation strongly influenced the psychology typical of WEIRD people today.

The way in which Henrich examines psychological variation through the lens of kinship intensity, meaning the strength of kin-based institutions in one’s society, provides a more direct approach to understanding mind and behavior than more abstract concepts like individualism and collectivism, or tightness and looseness. This is because kin-based institutions and their associated norms are more grounded in our evolved psychology and are primary to human social life. …

Most societies put much more emphasis on kin than the West, which makes them more collectivist:

On average, cultures with high kinship intensity relative to those with low kinship intensity possess psychological trends that are opposite to those in WEIRD societies. These include the prevalence of shame rather than guilt, in-group loyalty rather than universalism, nepotism rather than impartiality, and holistic rather than analytic thinking.

Beyond this, Henrich argues that kinship intensity does not just describe or predict psychological variation, it explains it. This is because changes in kinship intensity shift incentive structures in ways that promote certain behaviors and cognitive patterns over others.

For example, in WEIRD societies, which are not organized by intensive kin-based institutions, it is advantageous for individuals to have a willingness and a capacity to form relationships and associate with unrelated strangers. This is because they are expected to leave their home at adulthood and eventually start their own family in a place and with a spouse of their own choosing. To do this successfully individuals need to cultivate abilities, skills, and characteristics that make themselves attractive to unrelated strangers.

In contrast, in societies where people are born into dense webs of obligations and responsibilities to their family, clan, or tribe, relationships that structure their life and roles to which they must assume are already prescribed at birth. Therefore, there is less pressure on individuals to cultivate personal attributes that make themselves desirable to unrelated strangers as potential partners in friendship, romance, or work-related capacities.

At some point, mass migration from kin-based societies into the West may make the West more kin based, and more tribal. Will the price be fewer brilliant advances made by analytic individuals, and fewer wealth-producing capitalist miracles?

The Australian Aboriginals were an extreme case of kin and collectivist culture, preserved from tens of thousands of years ago, before coming into contact with the WIERD people just 232 years ago. Islam — straight from seventh century Arabia pretty much unaltered — is pretty close in kin and collectivism stakes.