Book Summary Of The WEIRDEST People In The World

Book Summary Of The WEIRDEST People In The World


Amazon Summary

A bold, epic account of how the co-evolution of psychology and culture created the peculiar Western mind that has profoundly shaped the modern world.

Perhaps you are WEIRD: raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. If so, you’re rather psychologically peculiar.

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?

In The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich draws on cutting-edge research in anthropology, psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology to explore these questions and more. 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.

Provocative and engaging in both its broad scope and its surprising details, The WEIRDest People in the World explores how culture, institutions, and psychology shape one another, and explains what this means for both our most personal sense of who we are as individuals and also the large-scale social, political, and economic forces that drive human history.


Joseph Henrich


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Big Ideas

  • We under-estimate the amount of psychological variation and brain variation between cultures. Sometimes, we assume that commonalities that exist in our culture exist across all humans. In actuality, it's our culture who is the weird one when looked at from a historical perspective.
  • In addition, we tend to assume that how our culture thinks now will roughly be how it thinks in the future. This is not the case.
  • The brain is incredibly malleable
  • When changes happen in the cultural (like a new institution), it has psychological, brain, and social implications that are hard to predict.
  • The change will increase

Studies To Explore

  • Children of immigrants to places like the United States and Europe,


IV: Birthing The Modern World

The Dark Matter Of History

The much-heralded ideals of Western civilization, like human rights, liberty, representative democracy, and science, aren’t monuments to pure reason or logic, as so many assume. People didn’t suddenly become rational during the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and then invent the modern world. Instead, these institutions represent cumulative cultural products—born from a particular cultural psychology—that trace their origins back over centuries, through a cascade of causal chains involving wars, markets, and monks, to a peculiar package of incest taboos, marriage prohibitions, and family prescriptions (the MFP) that developed in a radical religious sect—Western Christianity.
Antiquity. Impersonal institutions like representative governments, universities, and social safety nets, which all evolved in Europe (before the Enlightenment), have been exported and transplanted into numerous populations. Often, especially in formerly non-state societies, the newly transplanted institutions created a misfit with people’s cultural psychology, leading to poorly functioning governments, economies, and civil societies. And then, all too often, this led to rising poverty, corruption, and malnutrition as well as to civil wars between clans, tribes, and ethnic groups. Many policy analysts can’t recognize these misfits because they implicitly assume psychological unity, or they figure that people’s psychology will rapidly shift to accommodate the new formal institutions. But, unless people’s kin-based institutions and religions are rewired from the grass roots, populations get stuck between “lower-level” institutions like clans or segmentary lineages, pushing them in one set of psychological directions, and “higher-level” institutions like democratic governments or impersonal organizations, pulling them in others: Am I loyal to my kinfolk over everything, or do I follow impersonal rules about impartial justice? Do I hire my brother-in-law or the best person for the job
Unfortunately, the social sciences and standard approaches to policy are poorly equipped to understand or deal with the institutional-psychological mismatches that arise from globalization. This is because, not only is little attention given to the psychological variation among populations, but there’s almost no effort to explain how these differences arise.
It turns out, however, that our brains and cognition evolved genetically to be self-programmable to a substantial degree and stand primed from birth to adapt their computational processing to the social, economic, and ecological environments they face. This means you can’t truly understand psychology without considering how the minds of populations have been shaped by cultural evolution.
In many societies, new technologies are augmenting our memories, shaping our cognitive abilities, and rearranging our personal relationships and marriage patterns. At the same time, greater gender equality and rising levels of education are reorganizing and shrinking our families. Robots and artificial intelligence are increasingly doing our manual work and many of our most laborious cognitive tasks. Online commerce and tighter security in financial transactions may be reducing our need for impeccable reputations and dissolving our internalized motivations to trust and cooperate with strangers. Facing this new world, there seems little doubt that our minds will continue to adapt and change. We’ll think, feel, perceive, and moralize differently in the future, and we’ll struggle to comprehend the mentality of those who lived back at the dawn of the third millennium.


Kindle Popular Highlights

Literacy changes our biology, but not our genetic code

Learning to read forms specialized brain networks that influence our psychology across several different domains, including:

  • Memory
  • Visual processing
  • Facial recognition.

Literacy changes people’s biology and psychology without altering the underlying genetic code. A society in which 95 percent of adults are highly literate would have, on average, thicker corpus callosa and worse facial recognition than a society in which only 5 percent of people are highly literate. These biological differences between populations will emerge even if the two groups were genetically indistinguishable. Literacy thus provides an example of how culture can change people biologically independent of any genetic differences. Culture can and does alter our brains, hormones, and anatomy, along with our perceptions, motivations, personalities, emotions, and many other aspects of our minds.

Link Between Religion And Literacy

Embedded deep in Protestantism is the notion that individuals should develop a personal relationship with God and Jesus. To accomplish this, both men and women needed to read and interpret the sacred scriptures—the Bible—for themselves, and not rely primarily on the authority of supposed experts, priests, or institutional authorities like the Church. This principle, known as sola scriptura, meant that everyone needed to learn to read. And since everyone cannot become a fluent Latin scholar, the Bible had to be translated into the local languages.


Nevertheless, the case of literacy and Protestantism illustrates, in microcosm, four key ideas that will run through the rest of this book. Let’s go through them:

  1. Religious convictions can powerfully shape decision-making, psychology, and society. Reading the sacred scripture was primarily about connecting with the divine, but the unintended side effects were big, and resulted in the survival and spread of some religious groups over others.
  2. Beliefs, practices, technologies, and social norms—culture—can shape our brains, biology, and psychology, including our motivations, mental abilities, and decision-making biases. You can’t separate “culture” from “psychology” or “psychology” from “biology,” because culture physically rewires our brains and thereby shapes how we think.28
  3. Psychological changes induced by culture can shape all manner of subsequent events by influencing what people pay attention to, how they make decisions, which institutions they prefer, and how much they innovate. In this case, by driving up literacy, culture induced more analytic thinking and longer memories while spurring formal schooling, book production, and knowledge dissemination. Thus, sola scriptura likely energized innovation and laid the groundwork for standardizing laws, broadening the voting franchise, and establishing constitutional governments.29
  4. Literacy provides our first example of how Westerners became psychologically unusual. Of course, with the diffusion of Christianity and European institutions (like primary schools) around the world, many populations have recently become highly literate.30 However, if you’d surveyed the world in 1900, people from western Europe would have looked rather peculiar, with their thicker corpus callosa and poorer facial recognition.31


In most non-WEIRD societies, shame—not guilt—dominates people’s lives. People experience shame when they, their relatives, or even their friends fail to live up to the standards imposed on them by their communities. Non-WEIRD populations might, for example, “lose face” in front of the judging eyes of others when their daughter elopes with someone outside their social network. Meanwhile, WEIRD people might feel guilty for taking a nap instead of hitting the gym even though this isn’t an obligation and no one will know. Guilt depends on one’s own standards and self-evaluation, while shame depends on societal standards and public judgment.


Success and respect in this world hinge on adroitly navigating these kin-based institutions. This often means (1) conforming to fellow in-group members, (2) deferring to authorities like elders or sages, (3) policing the behavior of those close to you (but not strangers), (4) sharply distinguishing your in-group from everyone else, and (5) promoting your network’s collective success whenever possible. Further, because of the numerous obligations, responsibilities, and constraints imposed by custom, people’s motivations tend not to be “approach-oriented,” aimed at starting new relationships or meeting strangers. Instead, people become “avoidance-oriented” to minimize their chances of appearing deviant, fomenting disharmony, or bringing shame on themselves or others.7

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Shame is rooted in a genetically evolved psychological package that is associated with social devaluation in the eyes of others.

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Guilt is different; it’s an internal guidance system and at least partially a product of culture, though it probably integrates some innate psychological components like regret. The feeling of guilt emerges when one measures their own actions and feelings against a purely personal standard.