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SCIENCE SALON # 134

Michael Shermer with Joseph Henrich — The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

Unlike much of the world today, and most people who have ever lived, WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical. They focus on themselves — their attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations — over their relationships and social roles. How did WEIRD populations become so psychologically distinct? What role did these psychological differences play in the industrial revolution and the global expansion of Europe during the last few centuries? To answer these questions Joseph Henrich draws on anthropology, psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology. He illuminates the origins and evolution of family structures, marriage, and religion, and the profound impact these cultural transformations had on human psychology. Mapping these shifts through ancient history and late antiquity, Henrich reveals that the most fundamental institutions of kinship and marriage changed dramatically under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church. It was these changes that gave rise to the WEIRD psychology that would coevolve with impersonal markets, occupational specialization, and free competition — laying the foundation for the modern world. Shermer and Henrich discuss:

  • psychology textbooks that “now purport to be about ‘Psychology’ or ‘Social Psychology’ need to be retitled something like ‘The Cultural Psychology of Late 20th Century Americans’,”
  • Darwin’s Dictum: “How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observations must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.” What views Henrich is writing for and against,
  • evolutionary psychology and the search for human universals in the context of his thesis that WEIRD cultures are so different,
  • Max Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and how his thesis holds up under modern studies,
  • a 2×2 grid analysis of his thesis (what about the exceptions?):

    • Cell 1: Catholic/Protestant Influence + WEIRD characteristics
    • Cell 2: Catholic/Protestant Influence + non-WEIRD characteristics
    • Cell 3: Non-Catholic/Protestant Influence + WEIRD characteristics
    • Cell 4: Non-Catholic/Protestant Influence + non-WEIRD characteristics
  • the problem of overdetermining the past (so many theories explaining history: Jared Diamond’s geographic models, Ian Morris’ War: What is it Good For?, Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge (ideas having sex), Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, economic historian Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, Benjamin Friedman’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success,
  • normative vs. descriptive accounts of human behavior
  • polygamy vs. monogamy,
  • 1st cousin marriages?
  • conformity, shame and guilt, illusions, loss aversion, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, superstitions,
  • religion doesn’t have to be true to be useful,
  • national differences in cultural psychology (for example: Italy a loose culture, Germany a tight culture),
  • origin of writing and literacy rates,
  • origin of religion and its purpose(s),
  • the “Big Gods” theory of religion’s origin,
  • the purpose of religious rituals and food taboos,
  • families and kin, kin selection, group selection,
  • meaning and happiness in non-WEIRD cultures,
  • “Then you get Westerners who are like ‘I’m an individual ape on a pale blue dot in the middle of a giant black space” and “What does it all mean?’”,
  • physical differences: “WEIRD people have flat feet, impoverished microbiomes, high rates of myopia and unnaturally low levels of exposure to parasites like helminths, which may increase their risk of heart disease and allergies.”, and
  • When we colonize Mars and become a spacefaring species, what should we take with us from what we’ve learned about human history and psychology?

Joseph Henrich is an anthropologist and the author of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, among other books. He is the chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, where his research focuses on evolutionary approaches to psychology, decision-making, and culture.

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