Joe Henrich’s book on the WEIRDest people in the world is ambitious and packed with ideas and data. To be honest it isn’t my sort of thing but you have to admire what he has done. He is looking at the psychology of weird versus non-weird people. Weird being western, educated, industrialized, rich & democratic. I.e. most people who have been involved in the formal study of psychology over the years. The challenge being that weird people may have sought to project universal rules about psychology from their specific circumstances. Henrich argues weird people are unusual in global terms. (He has been talking about this for a while, see here.) He attempts to show the origins and implications of weirdness in the book.
Psychology As A Factor In History And Social Evolution
Henrich is keen to make the idea of psychology central to history and social evolution. He seeks to go beyond the idea that, for example, geography determines how wealth in the world has changed over time.
He discusses at length different types of social structures, and how the societies most impacted by the Catholic church in the middle ages have changed a lot from other, more typical, social structures. Various western societies were changed to revolve more around church rules which, he argues, impacted the societies’ evolution and success.
Psychology And Society
It is hard to decouple psychology from society which both gives a reason for Henrich’s work but also creates challenges. There is just so much going on in his theory. (I appreciate the ambition). Still the idea of ‘a culture’ or ‘a society’ is central to such discussions but these terms are not especially well-defined. (I do not mean this as a strong criticism, how could they be defined with any great precision?) This always leaves me with some discomfort as how we define a culture seems to be an expression of power.
To see what I mean consider this. Can a woman who is murdered for not marrying who she was “supposed to” marry be said to have truly bought into her culture? She, rightly, did not approve of the cultural norm that she will be told who to marry. Her psychology was not aligned with the ‘rules of her society’. What is the culture therefore? What everyone wants? No, obviously not. So is it what some people want? Who’s values is culture an expression of? Even in a democracy that is a challenging idea to comprehend. How does psychology relate to what people actually do when they aren’t free to do what they want to do? Is psychology, is culture then what people with the biggest sticks say it is?
The Challenge Of Data For Such Big Questions
Henrich uses a vast amount of examples. You really can’t want more data in any book than he gives. Yet, the questions are so big one could never give enough data to fully demonstrate the ideas. His central thesis revolves around how the Catholic church’s marriage and family program changed weird psychology (by breaking extended kin relationships amongst other things). It is an interesting idea and he gives data and a ton of detail.
Lots of times he plots results after changes have had a few centuries to bed in. Yet, the length of a ‘few centuries’ is not specified in the theory and the ‘dosage’ of the church’s ideas can seem a bit arbitrary. How long should we expect a change in cousin marriage levels to take to alter psychology? Is time and/or geographical distance a good measure of expected impact? If we didn’t see any psychological effects related to being near one Catholic religious order, e.g., a monastery, but saw an impact of being near another order’s monastery is that sufficient to illustrate the point? There are many questions and even more ways to address the questions. (Again, not really a criticism just a massive thing to bite into).
Given the profusion of possible ways to assess things at points in the book I did worry about spurious correlations (see here) in a world where there is just so much data that could potentially be connected. For example,
..the higher the rate of cousin marriage in an Italian province during the 20th century, the lower the voter turnout in the 21st century.Henrich, 2020, page 411
As with all work in this field he flirts around some potentially offensive areas. Protestants working hard to generate their success. This can get pretty close to being seen to blame people for being poorer. It is tricky. Henrich really doesn’t want to blame anyone. He clearly has great respect for lots of different people. I truly believe he doesn’t mean to be offensive at all. (I’m sure most of us would make many more wording mistakes than he did writing this book). He is much less crude than most in his descriptions of other people. I strongly believe he is a decent, well-meaning person. That said, cross-cultural discussions remain a challenging area. (For more on my worries see here.)
WEIRD VERSUS NON-WEIRD
One of the most confusing bits of the book is that Henrich is very keen to avoid dichotomizing on weird versus non-weird. You can see why; psychology is complex so any dichotomy will be too simplistic.
Do not set up a WEIRD vs. non-WEIRD dichotomy in your mind.Henrich, 2020, page 31
The challenge is that creating this dichotomy seems pretty much what his book does. The reader could be forgiven for dichotomizing as Henrich basically breaks the world into two — he dichotomizes. He then explains why one set of people are psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous which seems to be using the exact dichotomy he doesn’t want people to use.
Read: Joseph Henrich (2020) The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, Farrar, Straus and Giroux