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WEIRD People

  • Written by Professor
  • September 30th, 2020
  • 8 min read


I just finished reading a book called “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous” by Joseph Henrich, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and wanted to share some thoughts with you.

But first, we need to do a little exercise, which will help to illustrate the book’s main thesis.

Everyone, please complete this sentence:

“I am…”

Complete it with 10 different phrases describing yourself. Don’t read on until you have done so.

(Not necessary, but if you are with a Thai woman right now, have her do the same.)

I’ll wait.

lalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalala lalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalala lalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalala

Ok, Have you written the ten descriptions?

I’m going to guess that some were descriptive of your personality such as: I am shy, I am bold, I am smart, I am a tightwad…

You might also have described your passions: I am a Man U supporter, I am a keen skier, I am a mountain biker.

You probably described your profession: I am an IT specialist, I am a banker, I am a carpenter…

What you probably did NOT say (but your Thai lady friend did) was:

I am the son of…, the brother of…the husband of…, the father of…

That is, you described yourself as an individual, while you did not describe yourself according to your place in family society.

Today, when the “I am …” exercise is given to people around the world, those in western Europe, North America and Australia/NZ give most of their ten answers to describing themselves individualistically, while people everywhere else in the world describe themselves according to their place in a family structure.

Thus, the subtitle of the book… “How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous”. The WEIRD referred to stands for “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic” and it is the author’s premise that we, the WEIRD ones, are the ones who are different, not the ones who think of themselves familiarly.

How do WEIRD people differ from non-WEIRD? We 1) trace descent through both parents 2) have little cousin marriage 3) have only monogamous marriage (one spouse at a time) 4) live in nuclear families in which newly married couples set up households apart.

These traits are not common in the rest of the world. In the rest of the world, descent is usually traced only through one parent (the father usually, sometimes the mother), accept marrying cousins (did you know that 10% of marriages around the world are with cousins?), allow multiple wives, either officially or un-officially and when couples marry they often stay within one set of parent’s homes.

According to Professor Henrich, until about 2000 years ago, all people in all societies described themselves in relation to other people in their family structure. In Pre-Christian Rome, for example, adult men were still under the legal control of their fathers and lived at home even after marriage, inheritance was only among male descendants, divorce was common, as was cousin marriage.

Then, with the advent of the Catholic Church this started to change in western Europe. Why? Among other things, the Church prohibited marriages with cousins, disallowed divorce and wrote new inheritance customs, where people could inherit as individuals rather than after someone dies having a property divided among a network of relatives or going laterally out to cousins. This all had the effect of forcing individuals to reorganize their social habits in a world without intense kin-based relationships.

The Church’s marriage policies gradually released people from their clan responsibilities and offered more opportunities to people who devoted themselves to the Church and later to other organizations. Prior to this effort, European tribes had intensive family relationships as we still see in the rest of the world. As a result, all of these restructured European families formed into monogamous nuclear families.

Then, 1500 years later, came Martin Luther and the Protestant movement. The Roman Catholic church had put a barrier between the individual and their god. The bible and mass were in Latin which the overwhelming majority of people could not understand. Therefore, they needed priests to intercede for them. Luther rebelled against this, saying people should be able to communicate directly with the deity. He pushed for the Bible to be printed in local languages, which happened first in German and then in English, due to the invention at about the same time of the printing press. This strengthened the enabling of people to see themselves as individuals in their own right, not only as members of an extended family.

As European societies became increasingly dominated by monogamous nuclear families in the Middle Ages, the laws being created centered increasingly on the individual and on their intentions, rights, and obligations as separate from their kin groups. As an example of this, read the Bible and see how many times punishments are given, not only to the individual who committed them, but to their children and children’s children. The “crime” Adam and Eve committed by eating the apple punishes all their descendants forever. This was acceptable in all society until the Middle Ages.

One of the differences between WEIRD and non-WEIRD societies is the distinction made between people within your family group and others, let’s call them strangers. WERID people have a tendency to trust people not in the family while non-WEIRD people have a general distrust of anyone outside of their relational network. WEIRD people also are better at cooperating with anonymous others.

Think of how many people have written to this site saying they, as a foreigner married to a Thai wife, are treated less well by her then the way she treats her parents, siblings and family members. That’s because she is not WEIRD.

Let’s do another exercise.

Let’s say I give you $100. You must give some amount (from $10 to $90 in increments of $10) to a complete stranger, someone you have never met and will never meet again. You can choose how much to give and you get to keep the difference.

There’s a catch. The person you are giving to can accept or reject your offer. If he accepts, he gets the amount you proposed and you get the remainder. If he rejects, neither of you get anything. You both get nothing.

How much will you offer?

Don’t read on until you have made your choice.

I’m going to guess that you offered $50, or an amount around that. You reasoned that was the “fair” amount, and thus an amount that will be accepted. In fact, when this exercise is done among WEIRD people, that’s the average amount they offer. Furthermore, when only $40 or less is offered, it is rejected because the receiver didn’t think the offer was “fair”.

Non-WEIRD people offer only $10. They reason that the person is not within their family group, is owed nothing and certainly not fairness, and that anything more than zero is free money and of course the $10 will be accepted. And it always is. The non-WEIRD recipient doesn’t feel he is owed anything, so is happy to get anything more than nothing.

Psychologists say that learning to navigate a tightly knit social environment affects how people think about the non-social world as it focuses their behavior on relationships and the interconnectedness of people. Those of us in a society with weak relational ties become biased toward creating mutually beneficial connections based on individual characteristics rather than familiar relationship. Intensive kinship creates more holistic thinkers who focus on the broad context while people in societies without strong kinship become more analytically oriented and look at the world by assigning attributes to people and putting them into categories.

For example, if person A is yelling at person B, an analytical thinker might reason that person A is an angry person while a holistic thinker worries about the relationship between persons A and B. This patterning extends to mental states. WEIRD people tend to focus on people’s intentions, beliefs, and desires in judging them morally instead of emphasizing their actions. In many non-WEIRD societies, for example, the penalties for premeditated murders and accidental killings were the same while in many WEIRD societies they came to depend on the killer’s mental states, on his intentions and beliefs.

Here’s a last exercise.

Imagine a winter glove.

Now I show you 1) a winter hat and 2) a hand.

Which (the winter hat or the hand) belongs in the same category as the winter glove?

A WEIRD person will most likely put the hat with the glove. You give attributes (“winter”) to both things, so they go together. The non-WERID person looks at relationships, so will say the hand and the glove “go together”.

By the way, the author also says that it is this sense of focusing on ourselves—our attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations—over our relationships and social roles, which made western Europe dominant in the last 500 years.

Let’s summarize. The author of the book says “I think it’s valuable to recognize that people actually think quite differently about the world and that how people think about the world has been shaped by the social environments that we created culturally and then passed down from one generation to the next, creating enduring differences among populations. That then leads to some of the cultural legacies we see today where it can take decades, or even longer, for people to culturally adapt their norms along with their ways of thinking and feeling to these formal institutions —laws and forms of government — that were imposed upon them by foreign (often colonial) powers.”

I could go on, but you get the point. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that many, if not all, of the conflicts between foreign men and their Thai wives/girlfriends are due to this issue of WEIRD vs non-WEIRD. (I’ll admit there are other factors such as disparity in education and income for example.)

Bottom line, you and your Thai lady are wired differently from birth. You and she are taught to look at the world differently, and there is neither a right way nor a wrong way. That’s just the way things are.

Take care and stay safe.

Professor

The author of this article can be contacted at : [email protected]