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The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (2020)

by Joseph Henrich

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4371557,674 (4.18)2
"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"--

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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
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 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. ( )
  markm2315 | Jul 1, 2023 |
I usually have a problem with these grand-scope books because they tend to stray from the author's area of expertise and become speculative. You tend to learn lots of interesting information along the way, and they're a lot of fun, so I'll keep reading them, but I've always got the hackles up.

For the first half of this book, I think this isn't so much of a problem, although the other issue here is I'm not exactly in a position to evaluate that as a non-expert myself. This section sticks to revealing the huge discrepancies between the responses of Westerners and the rest of the world to a range of psychological tests.

The second section aims to show how these differences led Western nations to have outsized influence on the world. Henrich does close by saying that the psychology is just one piece of this puzzle, which I appreciate, but I did feel at times that that nuance was lost while building the case.

Anyway, very eye-opening and worth thinking about. ( )
  NickEdkins | May 27, 2023 |
I first came across Jack Goody's thesis that the medieval European Catholic Church's family policies (opposing cousin-marriage, marriage without consent of the partners, remarriage to in-laws, adoption, levirate marriage, and polygyny, and promoting the stigma of illegitimacy) killed off tribalism and inaugurated individualism in Francis Fukuyama's excellent "Origins of Political Order". Fukuyama essentially accepted Goody's theory without criticism as an essential component of Western European uniqueness. Goody in his 1983 "Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe" didn't know why the Church promoted these policies, and nor does Joseph Henrich know today. Goody suggested, though he admitted he lacked evidence, that the Church deliberately pursued policies that would make it harder to marry and produce heirs, so that more land and wealth would end up donated to the Church. Henrich simply says the reasons are complicated, and leaves it at that. It's not very satisfying to posit that a policy caused the rise of the modern, liberal, capitalist, individualist world, without being able to explain why the policy was developed, but we apparently simple don't know. It's also unsatisfying not to have actual data on historical rates of cousin marriage, etc., to show when they actually declined, although Henrich alludes to some clever work on historical relationship terminology. Perhaps historical genetics will tell us. The main thing Henrich adds to the argument is a heap of inverse correlations between tribalist family practices and indices of psychological and social individualism. I do believe something went on in Western Europe to make it "WEIRD" early on. England, especially, had developed an unusual level of individual rights and market commerce by early modern times, and was seemingly bereft of the tribalism of the extended family, outside royal and noble elites. Henrich has very gamely tried to apply the cultural evolution model he developed in his superb "Secret of our Success" to explain why this happened. I'm just not convinced yet that it was a Church policy of uncertain reach and impact that did it, rather than some lucky mix of a balance of power between king and nobility, a royal legal system that protected individual rights, ease and prevalence of trade, and the economic consequences of the Black Death.
  fji65hj7 | May 14, 2023 |
An excellent exposition into the uniqueness of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) psychology and its roots. Particular attention is payed to the role the church played in developing these psychological divergences, particularly the way it eroded kinship structures to make a place for its own ideologies and economic ambitions. ( )
  CosmicMiddleChild | Apr 23, 2023 |
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 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. ( )
  steve02476 | Jan 3, 2023 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Joseph Henrichprimary authorall editionscalculated
Jackson, KoreyNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Your brain has been altered, neurologically rewired as it acquired a skill that your society greatly values.
Your brain has been altered, neurologically rewired as it acquired a skill that your society greatly values. Until recently, this skill was of little or no use and most people in most societies never acquired it. In developing this ability, you have:

1. Specialized an area of your brain's left ventral occipito-temporal region, which lies between your language, object, and face processing centers.

2. Thickened your corpus callosum, which is the information highway that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain.

3. Altered the part of your prefontal cortex that is involved in language production (Broca's area) as well as other brain areas engaged in a variety of neurological tasks, including both speech processing and thinking about others' minds.

4. Improved your verbal memory and broadened your brain's activation when processing speech.

5. Shifted your facial recognition process to the right hemisphere. Normal humans (not you) process faces almost equally on the left and right sides of their brains, but those with your peculiar skill are biased toward the right hemisphere.

6. Diminished your ability to identify faces, probably because while jury-rigging your left ventral occipito-temporal region, you impinged on an area that usually specializes in facial recognition.

7. Reduced your default tendency toward holistic visual processing in favor of more analytical processing You now rely more on breaking scenes and objects down into their component parts and less on broad configurations and gestalt patterns.

What is this mental ability? What capacity could have renovated your brain, endowing you with new, specialized skills as well as inducing specific cognitive defects?

The exotic mental ability is reading. You are likely highly literate.
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"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"--

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Book description
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.

WEIRD psychology --
Making a cultural species --
Clans, states, and why you can't get here from there --
The gods are watching, behave! --
WEIRD families --
Psychological differences, families, and the church --
Europe and Asia --
WEIRD monogamy --
Of commerce and cooperation --
Domesticating the competition --
Market mentalities --
Law, science, and religion --
Escape velocity --
The dark matter of history.
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