Best Books of 2020: Joseph Henrich – The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020)
It’s early days, but The WEIRDest People in the World: How Joseph Henrich’s West Became Psychologically Weird and Particularly Wealthy is likely to be one of the most influential books of the new decade. Henrich complements the work of Joshua Greene, Richard Wrangham, Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer and others on the psychological foundations of modern liberalism – liberalism in the more or less original sense of the word.
Henrich’s book has two main arguments. One thing is historical: the Catholic Church, completely unintentionally, triggered a social chain reaction that created modernity. The second is psychological: people in modern societies are psychologically different from people in traditional relational societies.
He uses the acronym WEIRD for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic to describe the unusual people in modern free-market societies. If you’re reading this book review, you are probably WEIRD, and so are almost everyone you know. But we WEIRD people are the outliers in human history. Outside of Europe, East Asia and North America there are very few of us.
Most human societies are built on kinship structures. This was true during our hunter-gatherer history, which was roughly 190,000 years of our 200,000-year history – 95 percent of the time our species was on Earth. The societies remained related through the agricultural revolution and the birth of cities about 6,000 years ago. And that is still true today in most countries. Despite occasional bloom, there were no permanent WEIRD societies in human history until about two centuries ago. This is perhaps a tenth of one percent of human existence, and even then most societies remain kinship-based. Again, it’s strange people who are unusual.
What is a kinship society? In these cases, business partnerships, social networks and marriages are limited to networks that are seldom outside the extended family or clan. People tend to be wary of non-relatives and have a strong intergroup and group worldview. People tend to value their clan’s collective interest over their own individual interest. In related societies, nepotism is not frowned upon. It’s the norm. WEIRD Americans today look askance when a president appoints inexperienced family members as senior advisors. But in most other societies this would have been acceptable, even normal behavior.
In contrast, WEIRD people are more individualistic and trust outsiders more. Family members often arrange marriages for their children. Strange people usually marry for love. Relatives are expected to join the family business. This is why so many of us have work-related surnames like Smith, Baker, or Fisher. WEIRD people usually prefer their own jobs, which is one reason why today’s Smiths, Bakers, and Fishers rarely engage in these professions.
Relatives’ relatives are reluctant to do business with strangers and foreigners. WEIRD people are more open to trading and trust potential business partners they have never met. Nobody is purely meritocratic, but WEIRD people are closer to this ideal than most people.
Now that we know the difference between most humans and the WEIRD people, what is Henrich’s historical argument about the Catholic Church that inadvertently enables today’s WEIRD capability?
The Catholic Church has blown up traditional kinship networks through the unofficial “Marriage and Family Program (MFP)”. In short, the Church prohibited cousin marriages. The incest taboo is a human universe. But its limits vary from place to place. The Church decided to gradually postpone it over a period of centuries. Eventually, in many places, it banned marriages closer than the second and third cousins. In some places it went up to the eighth cousin.
That was a bigger thing than it sounds. In the 12th century people lived an isolated life. Few people lived in cities. Many people lived within a 30 mile radius all their lives. They met few, if any, people outside of their extended families. And the wanderers they met were often beggars, vagabonds, or outlaws. The Church’s MFP forced these isolated people to look for spouses outside of their villages and relatives. This forced openness led, in the long run, to people’s brains being wired differently.
Young people are impressionable. When they are of marriageable age and forced to meet, interact with, and travel between strangers, traditional psychological barriers with closed relatives gradually break down. They are gradually being replaced by increasing degrees of WEIRDness. It’s a long, step-by-step process with many degrees. But over centuries the effects add up.
None of the changes described by Henrich are genetic. None of them are racist and none of them is European. The conditions under which individuals become WEIRD are cultural, intellectual, and psychological.
Using cousins’ marriage rates as a substitute for the strength of the Church’s marriage and family program in various regions, as well as historical records, Henrich notes that the MFP has been the largest cause of everything from GDP per capita to interest rates to murder rates. Interestingly, marriage rates for regional cousins closely track religious divisions and regional ecclesiastical influences. Henrich himself was skeptical of the cultural influence of the MFP and checked its results in every possible way.
While openness is the real engine of WEIRDness, in the case of Europe the ecclesiastical doctrine was the trigger for the opening process.
The differences between relatives and WEIRD people are shown in psychological tests. It turns out that the Church’s MFP has transformed people’s personality and psychological profile. In my recent review of Virgil Storr and Ginny Choi’s excellent Do Markets Corrupt Our Moral? I have found that people from market societies play decision-making games differently than people in non-market societies. Henrich argues that this is because they are psychologically different.
From birth, WEIRD people from market societies have been exposed to outsiders and are more likely to trust them. No wonder they tend to play lab games this way. They are more likely to trust other players and be more willing to use long-term strategies. People from related societies are more likely to do the equivalent of a dine-and-dash from a restaurant. If the other player is not part of their group, they will have less trouble cheating on that other player.
Kin-based and WEIRD people even assign blame differently. Most WEIRD people see the disciplinary tactic used by classroom teachers to punish an entire class for a student’s crime being morally wrong. Kin-based people see this as normal and are okay with it. You think more in terms of collective responsibility than individual responsibility. Indeed, in many kinship societies, criminal justice systems punish entire families for a member’s crime.
There’s a reason for that. Life was precarious in most human societies. A bad harvest could mean starvation. Very strong compliance standards were a survival advantage. Collective punishment helps strengthen compliance standards. Maybe someone has a new idea to plant a crop differently. But when it fails, it’s a matter of life and death. It’s probably not worth it. Better make sure everyone sticks to what he or she knows works.
If most people have experience with foreigners only with foreigners or invading armies, they are likely not to trust them. They would likely return the favor if possible. In contrast to commerce, theft and war are zero-sum interactions. If this is a person’s only experience with outgroups, they are less likely to trade with foreigners and see the benefits of the division of labor. Do everything yourself more safely.
Henrich has written a provocative book based on an already solid literature. Despite its deep historical and psychological content, The WEIRDest People in the World is also highly relevant to modern public order. The rules and laws that groups like CEI deal with on a daily basis do not come from a vacuum. They come from longstanding political institutions. And these institutions at the system level come from culture. All three levels are important. A reformer who works on just one of them will fail. Henrich came up with a plausible framework to explain how they interact in the long term and how they can change. Where people are relatively strange, they will build relatively market-oriented political institutions – and eventually political action. Where they’re related, they likely won’t.
Without the Church’s unofficial marriage and family plan, European culture would likely have remained insular and related. This tendency persists and is expressed in the trend of the European Union to become a protectionist trading bloc. Reformers need to push back and remind people that WEIRD-style openness has massive benefits, especially for the poor.
What about the rest of the world? Fortunately, the Church’s MFP is not the only way for people to become psychologically WEIRD. Ideas can be imported and exported like goods and services. America was a relatively strange society from the start, as was Australia. The Asian tigers like Japan, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong saw the economic success of the WEIRD countries and followed their example. China is in an odd middle psychologically, and its institutions are still extractive and related by WEIRD standards. This could limit China’s future growth as a world power.
The point is, a good example can do a lot more good than people think. This puts today’s nationalists and economic protectionists in a difficult position. You are not the future. They are setbacks in an impoverished, unhappy past.
The great post-1800 enrichment that billions of people enjoy today has deep and distant causes that operate on multiple levels. Henrich’s thesis of WEIRD psychology, cultural openness and economic prosperity will, in the long term, have a major impact on future work in the areas of geopolitics, economic development, political surveys, immigration and free trade.