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The WEIRDest People in the World

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Joseph Henrich has cemented his place as one of the most influential social scientists of the 21st century. This tour de force combines insights from many disciplines in an attempt to understand why our thinking is so "WEIRD"". Clearly, the data and studies cited give Henrich's arguments credibility. However, what I find most important is, along with Steven Pinker and Nicholas Christakis, Henrich makes decades of social science research fascinating to read, using a fun and accessible writing style. Highly recommended
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There was much to enjoy here, but I found I couldn't connect with it. I'd read more from this author in the future though.
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Are you WEIRD? It’s an acronym for a culture that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. If you’re reading this, you’re probably from a WEIRD culture, but it’s important to realize that most people in the world are not. And, as Joseph Henrich explores in his new book The WEIRDest People in the World, you are different from non-WEIRD people because of your culture. The book sits at the intersection of world history and psychology, explaining not only how but why people from WEIRD cultures are different from others around the world.
The most impressive element of Henrich’s narrative is the seamless blend of social, cultural, economic, technological, and political forces that he includes as causes for the industrialized West’s peculiarity. All of these societal forces are employed in explaining how the West became WEIRD. But these causes are not based on simple historical conjecture, but data analysis over time, looking at areas where lots of things are held constant but this one difference is seen across time or space. In essence, Henrich finds natural “experiments” to increase the validity of his conclusions. It’s an impressively-produced window into history.
The psychological side of this book also combines many different strands of psychology in its contextual framework. Henrich uses experiments in social psychology, cognitive psychology, and personality in finding the markers that make WEIRD cultures weird, and some of those experiments he did himself. (Henrich is an anthropologist by training, so he has frequently conducted surveys with people from diverse cultures.) One section explains how the Big Five personality inventory only describes the personalities of WEIRD culture, a concept I had both heard before and not completely understood, so I was happy to read more in-depth about that from Henrich. Part of me still doesn’t understand how a researcher can say definitively that “these cultures only have personality traits on these two indices” but other cultures have personality traits on five different indices. I think factor analysis might have something to do with it, but that’s something I would have to ask someone who is much more knowledgable than me on personality research.
I only have two minor qualms about The WEIRDest People in the World. One is simple and straightforward: I don’t think it’s the easiest read for a general audience. I might not be the best judge of that because of my aversion to anthropology-heavy books (I usually need someone to explain it to me like it’s a Jane Austen novel), and this one was anthropology-heavy in places. However, I’m confident it would be a fairly slow read for someone not deeply entrenched in the worlds of history and the social sciences. In short, it’s more academic, which isn’t a bad thing so I’m not entirely sure why I’m listing it as a qualm. Moving on.
Another relatively-unimportant issue deals not with Henrich’s conclusions but his descriptions of Christianity within the book. A large portion of the cultural investigations in The WEIRDest People in the World connects in some way to either the Roman Catholic church or Protestant Christianity. However, his knowledge of Christian teachings seems to be lacking. First, his descriptions of the teachings of Christian salvation, whether Catholic or Protestant, only mention following a list of rules to gain eternal life (he talks about this specifically) and never mentions that the explicit teachings of the Protestant movement say that salvation is not based on morality at all. Instead, it is based on God’s grace and Jesus’s sacrifice. That by itself I wouldn’t have mentioned in this review, but there’s more:
The accidental genius of Western Christianity was in “figuring out” how to dismantle kin-based institutions while at the same time catalyzing its own spread.
Here he’s talking about the early Catholic church and its effects on the family structure, which is crucial to the development of the West as we know it. No arguments there. But to describe it as “accidental” misses one of Jesus’s key teachings. In Matthew 12:47–48:
Someone told him (Jesus), “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
He replied to the one who was speaking to him, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” Stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
In another passage, Jesus says “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even their own life — such a person cannot be my disciple.” So is it “accidental” at all? Whether you believe in the words of Jesus as truth or not, he is the founder of Christianity, so I don’t believe it was an accident that the Christian church completely upended the family structure and catalyzed its spread in the process.
I have just one more example. After describing an experiment where Protestants rated a man as “good” or “bad” based on his inner feelings while Jews rated him based on his actions, Henrich writes:
Similar results emerge if you have Jews and Protestants judging a man who considered having an affair with an attractive coworker — pondering it a lot — but eventually deciding against it. The Jews tended to let him off lightly, focusing on what he actually did. Protestants, by contrast, were much tougher on the man, despite his steely self-control. Notably, American Jews and Protestants didn’t differ on how they judged the man if he went ahead with the affair; they only differed when his actions didn’t match his mental states. President Jimmy Carter, a southern Baptist from Georgia, crystallized the Protestant sentiment aptly when he said in an interview, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” By contrast, many non-Protestants maintain that it’s not adultery if it remains only a mental state.
Hmm…I wonder what might make Protestants believe that adultery is a mental state. Could it be this?
You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27–28)
Henrich may know these teachings, but he at least didn’t acknowledge them in his analysis of these particular beliefs of Protestants and Catholics. And that hurts his overall argument if he goes into minute detail in the history of the Christian religion yet misses on some of its founding elements.
Do not think for a second, however, that I am disappointed with Henrich’s treatment of Christianity in general. Early on he is very clear on the role Christianity played in literacy around the world, especially the Protestant churches. He intones:
Psychological changes induced by culture can shape all manner of subsequent events by influencing what people pay attention to, how they make decisions, which institutions they prefer, and how much they innovate — in this case, driving up literacy-induced analytic thinking and enhanced memory while spurring formal schooling, book production, and knowledge dissemination. Thus, sola scriptura (the Protestant teaching of the sufficiency of Scripture alone) likely energized innovation and laid the groundwork for standardizing laws, broadening the voting franchise, and establishing constitutional governments.
So, despite the minor flaws, I think Henrich’s book is effective and helpful in explaining how the West became the way it is. He is also clear that there is no binary like “the West vs. the rest” at play here, as it is more of a spectrum where some cultures are WEIRD-er than others and you see a vast array of psychological profiles based on that.
For lovers of Jared Diamond, Henrich is heavily influenced by him. He compares his work to Diamond’s more than once throughout the book, and he considers this book a continuation of what Diamond did in Guns, Germs, and Steel. For some readers that will be a tremendously positive thing, and for others like my AP World History friends that may be a turn-off. I’m Diamond-agnostic, and I thought Henrich avoided the geographic and environmental determinism for which some fault Diamond. Instead, he examines every corner of Western society for causes and peculiarities.
If you are deeply interested in history or psychology, or if you’ve ever wondered what makes you different from non-Western cultures, The WEIRDest People in the World will give you an in-depth study of what you are interested in. At the very least, it will affect your view of yourself and the world in a small way, which is why we read in the first place.
I received a review copy of The WEIRDest People in the World courtesy of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Publishing and NetGalley, but my opinions are my own.
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Absolutely fascinating well researched read the idea of weirdness a thought who doesn’t have a bit of weirdness in them..Very informative eye opening.Inwill be recommending this to my book club for discussion.#netgalley#fsg
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Thank you for the advanced copy, I was drawn to this book because of the title.  

A huge percentage of us deviate so far from what is known as normal.  This book was incredible, so well written and put together and I will definitely purchase a couple of copies of it. 

Highly recommended
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Almost all research in human psychology and behavior has been based on a very peculiar and culturally-novel people, western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic or WEIRD people. This problem was most forcefully articulated by Joseph Henrich and his colleagues a decade ago in their well-cited review published in a top-tier scientific journal. However, little ink was spilled giving a thorough explanation for WERID psychology. 

Why are WEIRD individuals so weird? Culturally and psychologically, how did we come to deviate so far from the norms that were in place throughout human evolutionary history? What historical forces gave rise to these cultural and psychological peculiarities? How did they contribute to shaping the modern world and making the West the richest, most expansive, and most powerful people in human history? 

In this book, Joseph Henrich describes in amazing detail and immense depth the answers to all of these questions and more. In probably the most interdisciplinary book I've ever read, Henrich recruits evidence from virtually all of the social sciences--political science, history, religion, sociology, anthropology, economics, cultural evolution, psychology--to make his case. 

He focuses in on the significance of a set of prescriptions and prohibitions advanced by the Western church in medieval history as a major cause of WEIRD psychology. These prescriptions and prohibitions mostly dealt with marriage and family structure and served to dissolved traditional kinship ties between individuals, which typically organize the societies that were common throughout human evolutionary history. As a consequence, this set into motion a new set of social norms, economic systems, organizations and institutions, and individual priorities that ultimately led to WEIRD psychology, which includes our proclivity for individualism, autonomy, and analytical thinking. The feedback loop between this new emerging reality and the minds of individuals living in this reality created the modern western world.
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