W.E.I.R.D.

Some takeaways from the book The WEIRDest people in the World

A short list of takeaways from a book I just finished called The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich

WEIRD - People who are born in Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic countries have a psychology that is different from the rest of the world which enables them to have the institutions that they have.

Psychologists see psychology as hardware delivered by genetics on which the software of culture is loaded. The author makes a case for culture driving psychology more than genetics.


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Said al-Andalusi in 1000 AD saw the world made up of two sets of people, those who had contributed to the science and learning - the civilised; and those who had not - the barbarians. According to him, those who had contributed to learning included Indians, Jews, Egyptians, Persian, Greeks and Byzantines were civilised. The barbarians came in two classes: the Chinese and the Turks who were great fighters, and then the black barbarians to the south, the sub-Saharan Africans and the white barbarians to the north, the Europeans.

How did this change so radically?

In the 16th century, Martin Luther translated the Bible to German and wrote the 95 theses, which discussed how religion must be followed. This started the wave of Protestant reformation. One of the core tenets of Protestantism was a principle called Sola Scriptura, which encouraged individuals to learn to read and have their own relationship with religion. This caused literacy rates to shoot up to 90% over the next 100 years across Europe. This and the rise of Protestantism is what the author credits for the changing psychology. Reading changed the brain literally, the Corpus callosum which communicates between the two halves of the brain grew stronger people lost their ability to recognise faces, while their ability to retain text improved.

But to understand culture, we need to go further back.

If you look at human societies historically, we existed as tribes. Small tribes were based on kinship and large families. As hunters, the larger the tribe, the better it was, because the more likely it was that someone would find food. Since hunter-gatherers were nomadic, these tribes had to be small to enable movement. Also, since the tribes were small, incest was normal.

As the species matured, polygamy was normal and marriage was often undertaken to tie the strands of different tribes together to avoid conflict. If a man from one tribe was married to the daughter of another tribe, there would be peace between the two. But if the man dies, that tie is broken. To maintain the bond, it was normal to get the woman married to his brother or even his father.

Towards the middle ages, the Church in Europe started introducing laws which outlawed various practices such as incest marriages. The term sister-in-law signifies that she is your sister as per canon law. The law prescribed by the church. Not only this, even cousin marriage was forbidden and this could extend till the sixth cousin. The author describes this as the Church’s Marriage and Family Plan (MFP).

In a society where agglomerations were small, often 2000 people, and cousins were forbidden, you had to move out of the village in search of a mate. This gave birth to the nuclear families.

This also meant that property was now individually owned and not by entire families. Therefore, one could decide to give their assets away or keep it. This would not have been possible in large joint families because it belonged to everyone. The church used to sell ‘Indulgences’ to absolve oneself or one’s relatives of sins committed on earth. Many old and dying people were convinced to write away all of their lands to the church as a way of absolving their sins.

At one point, the church owned about 25% of all the land in England and 40% of the land in Germany during the middle ages. The MFP made the church rich.

Devoid of family ties and an extensive kin network, it became essential for these people to work with strangers. This gave rise to law. There had to be underlying principles of engagement. But this also ensured that there had to be a higher trust between people. The author cites this as a reason for greater trust in western economies than in eastern and agrarian economies.

In a large family setting, there was always deferment to elders, and you could rest assured that the elders would take the right decision. In a nuclear family setting, each had to fend for themselves, which gave rise to democracy.

Sola Scriptura mentioned above gave rise to education, and many of the educational institutions were run by monks and sisters to make people literate. Their goal was to make it possible for people to have a relationship with God. But with literacy and trust based on law emerged markets. A stable market and rule of law also meant that people became more patient. They were willing to defer rewards and make investments over the longer term.

In a joint family, you could depend on the others to make ends meet. You would not be left without a roof over your head or food to eat. But in a world of nuclear families, a person moving from one city to another in a search for opportunity and mate could very well end up on the street, homeless and hungry.

This made people innovate to create opportunities for themselves and the author cites this as one reason for impressive technical prowess displayed by the Westerners from the 17th century onwards. People innovated also because they had safety within their societies. This ignores the fact that these were the same people making life unsafe for indigenous Americans, Indians, Aztecs, Incas and the Africans.

Since a person was given their own relationship with God and was answerable to themselves, the westerners suffer more from guilt than from shame. Those in the east would be more concerned about what others would think and the shame that they would feel. Not the guilt that they would be left roiling in.

Extending on guilt. It also made people work very hard. Incest was wrong, and the guilt of thinking of incest could be overcome by working harder. Work is worship, and it was the best way to serve God and overcome the guilt of thinking of incest. This meant that it was easier to get westerners to work themselves harder as a way of salvation. And the solution to all ills was hard work.

While the author tries to project that guilt centric world as the basis for trust within that society, one key point goes missing.

Their trust equation was limited to those who looked like them - white. The fact they had to only look at their own inner feelings about something enabled all the atrocities committed under the name of colonialism, the Spanish conquests and the holocaust. They did not feel any guilt while annihilating humans who did not look and talk exactly like them. This also enabled slavery. To add insult to injury, the slaves, usually Africans came from a cultural ethos of large families that held together, the westerners could take advantage of this and enslave the entire family!

The loot that they inflicted on the rest of the world made Europe rich and provided for scientific pursuits, creation on universities of higher learning, created abundance.

Towards the end of the 18th century, during the Bengal famine, whatever little grains were in the granaries were kept to feed the English. This act was repeated in the 20th century. When the worried British officials informed Winston Churchill that people were dying in Bengal and he should not divert any more resources for the war effort, he famously said, “Why isn’t Gandhi dying?”

No guilt.

Also, in a world where people have been divided into smaller and smaller units, depression and suicide have also become a natural part of the western psyche.

While there were things in the book that I disagreed with, I enjoyed it. All said it is an interesting book that causes you to think about psychological evolution in a more profound way.

These evolutions are in play even today.