August 27, 2021


*This piece was originally published on Novemember 13th, 2020.*

About 1500 years ago, the world was a very different place; Pope Gregory was spreading Catholicism far and wide, a plague was running rampant, and some dominoes were about to start falling. The end of that cascade would result in a world in which a certain group of people started to think quite differently from those who had gone before them. Their brains began to change, the societies they built thrived and they grew so influential and culturally dominant that their way of thinking permeated our entire psychology. In other words, the changes that began 1500 years ago created W.E.I.R.D. people — a Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic population that grew into a global powerhouse.

That’s according to Joseph Henrich, chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and author of “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.” He writes that people who learn to read, who are educated in a Western way – no matter where they live in the world – have brains that look and operate unlike more traditional human brains.

Main Takeaways

  • People who live in Western democracies or were educated using systems created by those societies are not representative of the entire world nor of our human ancestors. The ways in which we process numbers, recognize faces, exercise patience, understand directions, are distinct from those who were raised in cultures that don’t fit into the WEIRD categories. 
  • Participants in psychological studies around the world are almost exclusively comprised of this WEIRD group, which raises doubts about how well psychologists can extrapolate their conclusions to all of humanity. This can have big consequences when attempting to apply findings in areas like behavioral economics, which are frequently use to shape government policy.
  • According to Henrich, the reason the West came to be so powerful in the first place began with marriage rules instituted about 1500 years ago. When the Catholic church banned familial marriages, kinship and clan systems began to break down in Western societies, and the nuclear family took its place. This led to a new emphasis on individualism, which lent itself to a whole host of new traits, such as being analytically-minded and inventive. This, then, allowed for the rise of science, representative governments, and a huge amount of innovation, which led to the West dominating the world.

More Reading

  • WEIRD societies like the ones Henrich describe are vast and complex. Give this write-up on Henrich’s book a read to learn more about his work.
  • Over the years we have mentioned many different psychological studies on Innovation Hub, but one in particular seems to come up rather frequently: the Stanford marshmallow experiment. Bina Venkataraman joined us in 2019 and explained why the conclusions that were originally drawn from the study, about patience and self control, aren’t necessarily true for everyone. You can read more about the study here.
  • Pop psychology is a fun topic, but often falls short of revealing deep truths about our brains. Check out this BBC article to challenge your own knowledge on studies we know now are oversimplifications of human nature.
  • Criticisms of psychological studies are not new. Henrich used one study on self-identity as an example of results that varied for WEIRD people versus other populations (even for people in the same country). This article in The Atlantic delves into the larger problem of generalizing results to all of humanity.

psychology, Joe Henrich, neuroscience

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