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The Western Difference

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The Western Difference

A new book explores the religious origins of the West’s divergent political, technological, and cultural development. April 2, 2021
The Social Order

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, by Joseph Henrich (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 704 pp., $35)

Back when I was deployed in 2011, I read a fascinating passage in How the Mind Works by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. Describing the power of familial bonds, he wrote, “every political and religious movement in history has sought to undermine the family. The reasons are obvious. Not only is the family a rival coalition competing for a person’s loyalties, but it is a rival with an unfair advantage: relatives innately care for one another more than comrades do.”

Joseph Henrich, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, explores the consequences of this idea at length in his recent book, The WEIRDest People in the World. Henrich presents a dazzling array of evidence to explain why variation exists among societies and why Europe in particular has played such an outsized role in human history. The “WEIRD” from his title is an acronym meaning “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic,” as well as a convenient reminder that people from such societies are psychologically different from most of the world, and from most humans throughout history.

Henrich’s book argues that the Western Church (his term for the branch of Christianity that rose to power in medieval Europe) enacted a peculiar set of taboos and proscriptions regarding marriage and family that dissolved Europe’s kin-based institutions. These rules produced a more individualistic society, which in turn spurred the creation of impersonal markets, fostered trust between unrelated strangers, and propelled the development of voluntary institutions, universally applicable laws, and innovation.

WEIRD people are hyper-individualistic, self-obsessed, nonconformist, analytical, and value constancy. We prize behavioral consistency across social contexts—in other words, “being ourselves” and “authenticity.” Non-WEIRD people, by contrast, view those who adjust their behavior in different contexts as more socially aware and mature.

WEIRD people are also more likely to feel guilt than shame, while the reverse is true for others. Guilt is a private emotion that results from falling short of our own expectations; shame is the result of not living up to the expectations of one’s community. A recent study led by Theresa E. Robertson found that people can experience shame for being accused of actions they didn’t commit. Shame is a reaction to others believing we did something bad rather than a reaction to actually doing something bad.

Delayed gratification also appears to be more prevalent in WEIRD societies. Offered the choice between a smaller monetary payment up front or a larger sum later, WEIRD people tend to choose the larger sum, while most non-WEIRD people prefer the immediate, smaller, reward. Henrich relays data suggesting that greater patience is most strongly linked to positive economic outcomes in lower-income countries. Thus, the tendency to defer gratification seems especially important for achieving prosperity in countries where formal institutions are less effective. Patience is related to success even after controlling for IQ and family income. Even within the same families, patient siblings obtain more education and higher earnings later in life.

WEIRD people are more likely to adhere to rules even in the absence of external sanctions. Until 2002, United Nations diplomats from other countries didn’t have to pay parking tickets in New York City. While diplomats from the UK, Sweden, Canada, and several other WEIRD countries received no parking tickets, those from Bulgaria, Egypt, Chad, and others accumulated more than 100 tickets per delegation member. When diplomatic immunity ended, parking violations declined, but the gap persisted.

Relative to other populations, WEIRD people are more likely to be fair-weather friends, assigning a higher value to impartiality, believing in universally applicable rules, and showing less favoritism toward friends, family members, and members of their ethnic group. This is illustrated in the Passenger’s Dilemma. Suppose you are in a car being driven by your close friend, who hits a pedestrian while speeding. His lawyer tells you that if you testify under oath that he was not speeding, it may save him from serious legal consequences. Does your friend have a right to expect you to lie for him, or do you think he has no right to expect this? People from Canada, Switzerland, and the U.S. generally tell researchers that your friend has no right to expect you to lie. But most non-WEIRD citizens, from places like South Korea, Nepal, and Venezuela, say they would willingly lie to help their friend.

WEIRD people make bad friends, apparently, but they are more willing to trust strangers. Henrich reports responses from across the globe to the question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” In WEIRD countries, levels of trust were consistently above 50 percent, but below 10 percent in Brazil, Trinidad, and Tobago.

Furthermore, WEIRD people place a lot of importance on a person’s intentions, whereas others focus more on what actually happened and who was affected. Across ten diverse societies, Americans placed the most value on intentions, while individuals from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Namibia focused more on outcomes.

Of course, one might argue that all of these differences stem from formal institutions like courts, police, and governments. But, Henrich asks, how does one get there in the first place?

One key factor is religion: specifically, what Henrich and other researchers refer to as “Big Gods”—deities who oversee what people do, care whether they behave immorally, and punish wrongdoers. Societies that believe in moralizing gods who punish wrongdoers tend to have WEIRDer psychologies. “If you are WERID, you may think that religion always involves morally concerned gods who exhort people to behave properly,” Henrich writes. In fact, this aspect of religion is atypical. Roman gods were not concerned about immoral behaviors like lying, cheating, and stealing. What upset them was the violation of oaths taken in their name. For instance, merchants had to swear sacred oaths to affirm the quality of their goods. Roman gods were said to be more concerned with their honor than the acts themselves.

Across countries, belief in an afterlife that depends on one’s behavior in life is associated with greater economic productivity and less crime. The book presents data from 1965 to 1995 showing that, for every 20 percent increase in those who believe in hell and heaven, a country’s economy will grow an extra 10 percent in the ensuing decade and its murder rate will go down. (Intriguingly, murder rates rise alongside increases in the number of people who believe only in heaven.)

Henrich posits that, beginning in about 400 CE, Christianity, or what he terms the “Western Church,” slowly eroded Europe’s intensive kin-based institutions. The Church supplanted ancestral gods like Thor and Odin, old Roman deities like Jupiter and Mercury, as well as other variants of Christianity, and initiated what Henrich terms the “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP). This program dissolved people’s connections to their extended family, banned cousin marriage, and gradually made the nuclear family and voluntary associations the center of social life.

The Church enacted extreme incest taboos in part because it did not want to compete with family members for people’s loyalty. Weakening family ties bolstered the Church’s place in people’s hearts, and helped spread its message by encouraging young adults to leave home in search of a spouse. The Church also blocked the transference of inheritance to anyone save those in the genealogical line of descent, further eroding extended kin-based relations.

The longer a country’s population was exposed to the Church, the weaker its kin-based institutions and the lower its rates of cousin marriage. “Each century of Western Church exposure cuts the rate of cousin marriage by nearly 60 percent,” Henrich writes.

This shift had consequences for the personalities of WEIRD people. Success in kin-based institutions depends on conformity, deference to traditional authority, sensitivity to shame, and an orientation toward the collective. When relational bonds are weaker and people have to find ways to get along with strangers, success arises from independence, less deference to authority, more guilt, and more concern with cultivating personal attributes and achievement.

Henrich shows that the percentage of cousin marriages across countries predicts levels of individualism. The U.S. scores highest on the individualism scale and among the lowest on the prevalence of cousin marriage. Countries with a higher prevalence of cousin marriage such as Malaysia and Indonesia score lower on individualism. Prevalence of cousin marriage is also associated with lower rates of trust for strangers, higher willingness to lie for a friend, and lower rates of blood donation.

When researchers invited university students in various countries to play economic games in which they could easily cheat to win more money, students from countries with low cousin marriage proved less likely to do so. Such differences exist within European countries, as well. For example, southern Italians have higher rates of cousin marriage, lower levels of trust for strangers, and lower rates of blood donation than northern Italians.

Henrich argues that the MFP’s strong monogamous marriage norms constrained the darker aspects of male psychology and gave WEIRD societies an edge. Polygynous societies create large numbers of young, unmarried men with few prospects and no stake in the future. Henrich refers to this as a “math problem.” Imagine a society with 100 men and 100 women. If one man takes ten wives, that leaves 90 single women and 99 single men. If each one of the remaining women pairs up with one man, there will be nine single men leftover. Henrich documents how, across multiple continents in distinct historical epochs, rulers, kings, and emperors often took thousands of wives and concubines, leaving lower-ranking men without partners.

Such unmarried men, especially when young, threaten social stability. The book cites a famous study revealing that getting married reduces a man’s odds of committing a crime. The researchers also found that when men got divorced or their wives passed away, their likelihood of committing a crime increased. In short, monogamous marriage cultivated stability in WEIRD societies.

Higher rates of impersonal trust, individualism, and voluntary association helped give rise to markets, because people were more willing to trade and deal with strangers. Markets themselves, Henrich argues, promote those same WEIRD traits in a kind of feedback loop. Among hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers around the world, people who lived closer to markets trading in goods like honey, butter, and candles acted more fairly when researchers invited them to play economic games against strangers to win money. “This research,” Henrich says, “strongly suggests that greater market integration does indeed foster greater impersonal prosociality.”

Findings from anthropologist Deniz Salali are consistent with Henrich’s reasoning. Researchers visited three different BaYaka communities, a population in the Congo Basin. Two communities were made up of traditional nomadic foragers living in a remote area. The third lived within a town that contained a market. Offered the choice between receiving either one soup stock cube now or five cubes tomorrow, 54 percent of the BaYaka living within the town chose to wait for the five cubes, but only 18 percent did so in the nomadic camps. The reason is that, while people in kin-based communities care a lot about being fair and honest with fellow group members, they have less trust for strangers. Conversely, people used to interacting with strangers in a market context have an incentive to develop good relationships with them.

Still, there are downsides to impersonal markets. In commercialized societies, the social sphere is governed by market norms rather than dense networks of interpersonal relationships and extended family. This can lead some to feel alienated and exploited. Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel, among others, has written about how market relations can crowd out more personal and satisfying interactions.

Markets also shaped WEIRD psychology as it relates to time. People in more traditional small-scale societies feel less inclination to be punctual, in contrast to WEIRD societies. As Henrich says, “WEIRD people are always ‘saving’ time, ‘wasting’ time, and ‘losing’ time. . . . obsessed with thinking about time and money in the same way.” People in more individualistic cities like London and New York walk much faster on average than those in less individualistic cities like Singapore and Jakarta. European cities in 1450 that displayed public clocks were economically more prosperous than cities that did not.

The commodification of time and greater individualism gave rise to WEIRD societies’ tendency to prize individual achievements. This shift, along with the rising tide of commercial goods in a market society, heightened materialism. “From Bibles to pocket watches,” the book notes, “people wanted to tell strangers and neighbors about themselves through their purchases.”

Relatedly, Henrich reports research that undermines some longstanding theories within psychology and behavioral economics, such as the endowment effect. The idea is that people supposedly place greater value on items they possess. For example, if you randomly give one of two different types of pens to WEIRD participants and offer them the chance to exchange it for the other one, they tend to keep the one they were given. Personally owning a thing somehow makes it more valuable.

But the book reviews research led by Coren Apicella that calls the universality of this idea into question. The researchers randomly gave members of the Hadza—a group of modern hunter-foragers—one of two differently colored lighters to make fire and asked them if they wanted to exchange it for the other color. They traded their lighters about half the time. In other words, they don’t seem to fall prey to the endowment effect.

However, when the researchers administered the study to another Hadza community that was more market-integrated and had experience selling arrows, bows, and headbands to tourists, they kept their lighters 74 percent of the time. Henrich goes on to cite research showing that Americans exhibit a stronger endowment effect than East Asians, positing that impersonal markets cultivate an emphasis on personal attributes, and that WEIRDer people tend to view objects as extensions of themselves and so are more reluctant to part with them. Furthermore, in kin-based communities, people are less attached to their possessions because social norms dictate that they must be shared.

Furthermore, Henrich contends that the individualism and market societies that arose in part from the policies of the Western Church had profound effects on WEIRD personalities. Psychologists have long assumed that the “Big Five” personality profile (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) was universal, and that every person could be mapped along these personality configurations. But Henrich refers to this concept as the “WEIRD-5,” because researchers have failed to identify the five dimensions in non-student adult populations in Bolivia, Ghana, Kenya, Laos, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Macedonia, among other non-WEIRD locations.

WEIRD societies, he argues, prize individualism and the cultivation of personal attributes. In contrast, in kin-based groups centered on the community rather than the individual, people experience less need to express and cultivate their underlying traits. Describing the Tsimané, a population of farmer-foragers living in Bolivia, Henrich writes, “everyone has to be a generalist. All men . . . have to learn to craft dugout canoes, track game, and make wooden bows. Extroverts can’t become insurance salesmen. . . . introverts can’t become economists.”

WEIRD psychology has implications for laws. Freed from kinship bonds, medieval Europeans were more mobile and flocked to urban centers in search of economic opportunities and romantic mates. Laws became centered more on individuals as opposed to one’s social position or family lineage. Individual-centered legal developments gave rise to “rights,” which, Henrich observes, are a historically unusual concept: “from the perspective of most human communities, the notion that each person has inherent rights . . . disconnected from their social relationships or heritage is not self-evident.” Furthermore, in many societies, he writes, the purpose of law is not to defend individual rights or preserve an abstract sense of justice. Laws are instead intended to maintain peace and restore social harmony. Universally applicable laws, independent of family, lineage, or relational ties, arose from the individualistic psychology of WEIRD societies.

Toward the end of the book, Henrich also suggests that the impersonal forces of WEIRD societies spurred technological innovation, because individuals were more willing to share their ideas with unrelated people and were eager to broadcast their ideas because of the prestige they would accrue as individuals.

Interestingly, Henrich suggests that the nuclear family has encouraged innovation, too. In kin-based clans, young men typically had to wait their turn to take charge, as elders were held in higher esteem. But in medieval Europe, young men were the heads of their small households, perhaps making them less fearful of breaking with tradition and more willing to take risks.

A professor once told me a story. He said that, as a young man, he was at a synagogue engaged in prayer. He thought prayer was silly but went along with it to please his family. The rabbi asked those present to pray for their loved ones. This reminded my professor of a family friend who had been sick, so later that week he brought him soup. He then asked me: does praying for our loved ones actually work?

As the world’s leading authority on cultural evolution, Henrich repeatedly hammers home a key point: that people in both WEIRD and non-WEIRD societies have no idea how or why their institutions and norms actually work. As he puts it, “People’s explicit theories about their own institutions are generally post hoc and often wrong.”

In this context, Henrich points to anthropologist Donald Tuzin’s research on the Ilahita Arapesh, a people living in New Guinea who had integrated 39 clans encompassing more than 2,500 people. The cooperation of this large community was sustained through mutual obligations, reciprocal responsibilities, and social rituals infused with supernatural beliefs. The villagers believed their community’s prosperity was the result of their rituals, which, they maintained, pleased their gods. When cooperation broke down, elders blamed this on members not adhering to the rituals properly and would then call for additional rites better to please their deities. The social bonding resulting from this activity, and not the favor of the gods, Henrich observes, was the real mechanism for improving the community’s cohesion. Likewise, it’s probable that WEIRD people themselves are mistaken in how and why their own norms and institutions operate, and so may be making a grave error in undermining them.

Photo: Mlenny/iStock

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