Is weird wonderful?

I’ve been slowly reading The Weirdest People in the World by Joseph Henrich. Slowly because I’ve dipped into a reading group and that gave me an excuse to dawdle. And also because it’s one of those too-heavy-to-lift books that need an arrangement of cushions to read. Perhaps it’s because of this dilatory pace that I found myself decreasingly impressed by the book as I went on.

Or perhaps it’s because the freshest part of the argument is in the early sections, which document the different responses to psychology experiments from different kinds of people around the world and make the argument about the origins of the unusual ‘western’ psychology lying in the mediaeval Church’s prohibitions on kin marriage. Henrich callis it the ‘Marriage and Family Programme’, although doesn’t really explain where it came from. For those still unaware of the acronym, ‘weird’ stands for ‘western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic’. The book’s accumulation of evidence that there is a distinctive ‘weird’ psychology, correlated with the footprint of western Christianity, is reasonably persuasive – although it is far from obvious to me that an accumulation of individual experimental results and survey correlations of this kind amounts to decisive evidence. Many chapters are a list of: here’s one study in place X; here’s another at another time in place Y; then Z; and here are some scatter plots with regression lines.

The trouble is that the book then dissolves into a less convincing argument that this attitude to kin marriage – which drove people in the west to look for social relations and build trust outside their immediate clan – explains everything. My firm view is that history is over-determined and nothing has only one cause. As the chapters went by, the book more and more seems to be an amalgam of all those other Big Histories such as Guns, Germs and Steel, or Why the West Rules for Now. Inevitably, it has to engage with feedback loops. Having said that, highlighting the feedback loop between psychology and institutional change is interesting and productive.

And oh yes, one last point. There’s the implicit teleological determinism in Weirdest. It always refers to “development” in inverted commas, but there is a value judgment; the west has progressed more than the rest. Cast the argument forward and it’s another matter: will the west stay democratic and prosperous? Aren’t there worrying signs of family dynasties in the US and jobs (only) for mates in the UK (couldn’t one see Eton and Oxbridge as tribal?). Yet this sits oddly with the book’s avoidance of any explicit normative discussion. Is weird good? If it really does correlate with prosperous, surely yes? As a WEIRD person, I htink so.

I think it’s well worth a read, there’s plenty of food for thought and economics tends to underplay psychology and culture. But maybe wait for the paperback.


4 thoughts on “Is weird wonderful?

  1. Social scientists and cultural psychologists appear to love this book. Historians know the history is rubbish so have probably ignored it. Henrich talks of the world in 400AD being one uniformly of intensive kinship, cousin marriage, and communal landholding (p.315) but is blissfully unaware of Roman civilization ( and others) that were not such. Then most medieval marriages/cohabitation arrangements/pregnancies were not controlled by the Church much though it attempted to do so.
    The attributes of WEIRDness are not medieval but recent. Western- well he includes Australia, New Zealand and the US despite their many ethnic native cultures.’Educated’- first universal primary education in Britain 1870 (before that half the children had no education at all). ‘Industry’- mainly a nineteenth century and later phenomenon. ‘Rich’. for the majority of westerners not until the 1960s, for European societies, the advance of global trade post 1800 together with the subservience of the working classes provided most of it. ‘Democracy’. Universal male ,late nineteenth century, for women, not until the twentieth century, So why not concentrate, as most historians do on the ‘divergence’ of the west from the others AFTER 1800. Where did Henrich get this misguided idea that you had to go back to medieval times?
    As a historian I am frustrated by the adulation that this book has got and you are right to challenge it!!

    • Hello Charles, your comment doesn’t surprise me as the closer the book got to periods I know anything about eg Industrial Revolution, the less I was persuaded. On the other hand. it’s good for economists like me to be aware that culture and psychology matter.

      • Hello Diane, Thanks for your reply. I spent two years researching my book Holy Bones, Holy Dust (review extracts on Yale UP US website) which dealt with the laity and medieval relic cults. I never came across any hint of medieval people moving about to find mates. In fact my late father-in-law, a GP in a Norfolk village, was still sorting out the medical consequences of village inbreeding in the 1950s! One researcher in this area said it was the invention of the bike which allowed people to search elsewhere for dates. There is virtually no evidence of the Church actually being able to enforce the consanguinity laws and this lack of evidence explodes his main thesis
        You raise the question which needs further discussion by the specialists- whether a society’s psychology as a whole can be changed by social change and then passed down from generation to generation. (Is that the way psychology works for individuals?) As you will know better than I do, much of the R in WEIRD came from a comparatively subservient industrialised working class (and global trade)- not the individualistic population that Henrich claims to have been created in the Middle Ages. Was individualism possible for more than a minority?
        This book needs much more searching academic discussion, not least by medieval historians. So far, I have seen none involved but with so much adulation around perhaps it deserves to be given more critical assessment by more expert minds than mine.
        (I filled out my concerns with two star reviews on Amazon US and Amazon UK.)

  2. Like you, I’m also reading it slowly. Like Charles above, I had felt uneasy about the amount of praise it has been getting. I believe both of you make excellent points and would like to add one issue I had with the book. When talking about the advantages of religious societies, it relies uncritically on group selection arguments, like so:
    – a belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, punishing God is good for the group
    – hence, groups where such beliefs are prevalent have an evolutionary advantage
    -therefore, such groups will prevail

    The problem with that argument is that while the first two statements are correct, the conclusion is false. It is the tragedy of the commons. Absent some form of selective mechanism before the afterlife, hypocrites who express a belief in God without changing their behavior will soon do so. But if the selective mechanisms on Earth are the ones selecting for group-favoring behavior, the belief in God brings no additional selective advantage.
    Further, the idea that religiosity brings economic growth does not pass a smell test. The societies where religion is least important are the richest in the world ( . Their enrichment coincides with their becoming less religious. Even the Mcleary and Barro article he cites is ambiguous. While a belief in hell (but not heaven) is associated with greater economic growth, church attendance is negatively associated with economic growth. Well, once you controlled for church attendance, it is very unclear that “more belief in hell = more religiosity”.
    In the end, the book seems to present a very convoluted pathway to Western prosperity where much simpler explanations are available and more plausible.

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