Book Summary: “The WIERDest People in the World” by Joseph Henrich

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
Author: Joseph Henrich
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Henrich explores how Western people developed a very different psychological make-up from the rest of the world. He argues that these differences created the modern world.

If you would like to learn more about why the West became unique, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) people are:
    • Very different psychologically from people in the rest of the world.
    • Highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical.
    • tend to stick to impartial rules and are and cooperative toward strangers.
    • Often racked by guilt as they fail to live up to self-imposed standards and aspirations.
  • WEIRD psychology originated in Christianity.
  • While non-Western societies are based upon kinship, Western Christianity created a marriage and family program, which broke up traditional kinship groups into monogamous marriages between individuals.
  • Breaking up traditional kin-based groups drove the division of labor, formalized institutions, cities and individualistic psychologies.
  • Eventually this led to representative government, innovation and economic growth.
  • Without WEIRD psychology, Western political and economic institutions cannot function. This explains why they have often failed in non-Western societies.

Other books/articles by the same author:

Important Quotes from Book

My aim is to explore the origins of psychological diversity and the roots of the modern world.

Let me highlight four important points to keep in mind:

1. We should celebrate human diversity, including psychological diversity. By highlighting the peculiarities of WEIRD people, I’m not denigrating these populations or any others. My aim is to explore the origins of psychological diversity and the roots of the modern world.

2. Do not set up a WEIRD vs. non-WEIRD dichotomy in your mind!.. global psychological variation is both continuous and multidimensional.

3. Psychological variation emerges at all levels, not merely among nations. I’m sometimes stuck comparing country averages, because that’s the available data. Nevertheless, throughout the book, we’ll often examine psychological differences within countries— between regions, provinces, and villages, and even among second-generation immigrants with diverse backgrounds.

4. None of the population-level differences we observe should be thought of as fixed, essential, or immutable features of nations, tribes, or ethnic groups. To the contrary, this book is about how and why our psychology has changed over history and will continue to evolve.

Perhaps you are WEIRD, raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. If so, you’re likely rather psychologically peculiar. Unlike much of the world today, and most people who have ever lived, we WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical.

WEIRD people are also particularly patient and often hardworking. Through potent self-regulation, we can defer gratification—in financial rewards, pleasure, and security—well into the future in exchange for discomfort and uncertainty in the present. In fact, WEIRD people sometimes take pleasure in hard work and find the experience purifying.

Paradoxically, and despite our strong individualism and self-obsession, WEIRD people tend to stick to impartial rules or principles and can be quite trusting, honest, fair, and cooperative toward strangers or anonymous others. In fact, relative to most populations, we WEIRD people show relatively less favoritism toward our friends, families, co-ethnics, and local communities than other populations do. We think nepotism is wrong, and fetishize abstract principles over context, practicality, relationships, and expediency.

Emotionally, WEIRD people are often racked by guilt as they fail to live up to their culturally inspired, but largely self-imposed, standards and aspirations. 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.

Why are they different?

Tracking this puzzle back into Late Antiquity, we’ll see that one sect of Christianity drove the spread of a particular package of social norms and beliefs that dramatically altered marriage, families, inheritance, and ownership in parts of Europe over centuries. This grassroots transformation of family life initiated a set of psychological changes that spurred new forms of urbanization and fueled impersonal commerce while driving the proliferation of voluntary organizations, from merchant guilds and charter towns to universities and transregional monastic orders, that were governed by new and increasingly individualistic norms and laws. You’ll see how, in the process of explaining WEIRD psychology, we’ll also illuminate the exotic nature of WEIRD religion, marriage, and family. If you didn’t know that our religions, marriages, and families were so strange, buckle up.

Understanding how and why some European populations became psychologically peculiar by the Late Middle Ages illuminates another great puzzle: the “rise of the West.” Why did western European societies conquer so much of the world after about 1500? Why did economic growth, powered by new technologies and the Industrial Revolution, erupt from this same region in the late 18th century, creating the waves of globalization that are still crashing over the world today?


Your brain has been altered, neurologically rewired as it acquired a skill that your society greatly values. Until recently, this skill was of little or no use and most people in most societies never acquired it.

The exotic mental ability is reading. You are likely highly literate.

Learning to read forms specialized brain networks that influence our psychology across several different domains, including memory, visual processing, and 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.

The neurological and psychological modifications associated with literacy should be thought of as part of a cultural package that includespractices, beliefs, values, and institutions—like the value of “formal education” or institutions such as “schools”—as well as technologies like alphabets, syllabaries, and printing presses. Across societies, a combination of practices, norms, and technologies has jury-rigged aspects of our genetically evolved neurological systems to create new mental abilities.

Here’s the thing: highly literate societies are relatively new, and quite distinct from most societies that have ever existed. This means that modern populations are neurologically and psychologically different from those found in societies throughout history and back into our evolutionary past.

Literacy does not come to pervade a society simply because a writing system emerges, though having such a system certainly helps. Writing systems have existed for millennia in powerful and successful societies, dating back some 5,000 years; yet until relatively recently, never more than about 10 percent of any society’s populations could read, and usually the rates were much lower.

Suddenly, in the 16th century, literacy began spreading epidemically across western Europe. By around 1750, having surged past more cosmopolitan places in Italy and France, the Netherlands, Britain, Sweden, and Germany developed the most literate societies in the world. Half or more of the populations in these countries could read.

Embedded deep in Protestantism is the notion that individuals should develop a personal relationship with God and Jesus.

Consequently, literacy and schools often diffused in concert with Protestantism. Literacy also began spreading in other places, like Britain and the Netherlands, though it was in Germany that formal schooling first became a sacred responsibility of secular rulers and governments.

Protestants believed that people had to become literate so that they could read the Bible for themselves, improve their moral character, and build a stronger relationship with God. Centuries later, as the Industrial Revolution rumbled into Germany and surrounding regions, the reservoir of literate farmers and local schools created by Protestantism furnished an educated and ready workforce that propelled rapid economic development and helped fuel the second Industrial Revolution.

Luther’s Protestantism also inadvertently laid the foundation for universal, state-funded schooling by promoting the idea that it was the government’s responsibility to educate the populace… <It> specifically drove the spread of female literacy, first in Europe and later across the globe.

When the Reformation reached Scotland in 1560, it was founded on the central principle of a free public education for the poor. The world’s first local school tax was established there in 1633 and strengthened in 1646. This early experiment in universal education soon produced a stunning array of intellectual luminaries, from David Hume to Adam Smith, and probably mid-wifed the Scottish Enlightenment.

Let’s follow the causal chain I’ve been linking together: the spread of a religious belief that every individual should read the Bible for themselves led to the diffusion of widespread literacy among both men and women, first in Europe and later across the globe. Broad-based literacy changed people’s brains and altered their cognitive abilities in domains related to memory, visual processing, facial recognition, numerical exactness, and problem-solving. It probably also indirectly altered family sizes, child health, and cognitive development, as mothers became increasingly literate and formally educated. These psychological and social changes may have fostered speedier innovation, new institutions, and—in the long run— greater economic prosperity.

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.

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.

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.

4. Literacy provides our first example of how Westerners became psychologically unusual.

Literacy is no special case. Rather, it’s the tip of a large psychological and neurological iceberg that many researchers have missed.

Humans are an intensely cultural species. For over a million years, the products of cumulative cultural evolution—our complex technologies, languages, and institutions—have driven our genetic evolution, shaping not only our digestive systems, teeth, feet, and shoulders but also our brains and psychology. The centrality of cultural change meant that, generation after generation, young learners had to adapt and calibrate their minds and bodies to an ever-shifting landscape of sharing norms, food taboos, gender roles, technical demands (e.g., projectile weapons and underwater foraging), and grammatical conventions. At the same time, cultural evolution has favored an arsenal of mind hacks, including rituals, socialization practices (e.g., bedtime stories), and games, that mold people’s psychology in ways that allow them to more effectively navigate their culturally-constructed worlds. The consequence of this culture-gene coevolutionary process is that to understand people’s psychology we have to consider not only our genetic

inheritance but also how our minds have adapted ontogenetically and culturally to the local technologies and institutions—present or even a few generations past.

One strain of Christianity stumbled upon a peculiar set of taboos, prohibitions, and prescriptions regarding marriage and the family that eventually crystallized into the Church’s Marriage and Family Program.

These prohibitions and prescriptions, which were infused into Christianizing populations under the Western Church over many centuries altered people’s social lives and psychology by demolishing intensive kin-based organizations. These changes would have favored a psychology that was more individualistic, analytically-oriented, guilt-ridden, and intention-focused (in judging others) but less bound by tradition, elder authority, and general conformity. The elimination of polygynous marriage and the tightening of constraints on male sexuality may also have inhibited male status-seeking and competition, which would have suppressed zero-sum thinking, impatience, and risk-seeking.

The social and psychological changes driven by the breakdown of intensive kinship opened the door to rising urbanization, expanding impersonal markets. and competing voluntary associations like charter towns, guilds, and universities. By facilitating and enforcing impersonal interactions in various ways, urban centers and commercial markets further stimulated impersonal prosociality and impartial rule-following while incentivizing personal attributes like patience, positive-sum thinking, self-regulation, and time thrift. By producing a growing division of labor, within which an expanding class of individuals could select their occupations and social niches, these new social environments may have fostered more differentiated personality profiles—expanding eventually into the WEIRD—and strengthened people’s inclinations to think in dispositional ways about other individuals and groups.

The quiet fermentation of these psychological and social changes influenced the formation of governments, laws, religious faiths, and economic institutions in the latter half of the Middle Ages and beyond.

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.

The unintended success of the MFP in restructuring medieval European populations directed societal evolution down a new pathway.

In the modern world, what we call “globalization” is merely the continuation of the processes I’ve described from Late 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.

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.

This approach helps us understand why “development” (i.e., the adoption of WEIRD institutions) has been slower and more agonizing in some parts of the world than in others. The more dependent a population was, or remains, on kin-based and related institutions, the more painful and difficult is the process of integrating with the impersonal institutions of politics, economics, and society that developed in Europe over the second millennium. Rising participation in these impersonal institutions often means that the webs of social relationships, which had once ensconced, bound, and protected people, gradually dissolve under the acid of urbanization, global markets, secular safety nets, and individualistic notions of success and security.

My point is that because human psychology adapts culturally, over generations, large-scale social transformations like those associated with globalization will necessarily create mismatches between people’s cultural psychology and new institutions or practices, thereby shocking their sense of meaning and personal identity. This can happen even in the absence of the aforementioned horrors and can continue long after they’ve ended.

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.

People’s psychology is influenced not only by the communities they grew up in but also by the ghosts of past institutions—by the worlds faced by their ancestors around which rich systems of beliefs, customs, rituals, and identity.

  1. “Why the West Rules-for Now: The Patterns of History” by Ian Morris
  2. “Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity” by Walter Scheidel
  3. “Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850” by Joel Mokyr
  4. “A Culture of Growth” by Joel Mokyr
  5. “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World” by Deirdre McCloskey
  6. “The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created” by William J. Bernstein
  7. “Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World” by Deirdre McCloskey
  8. “Why Europe?: The Rise of the West…” by Jack Goldstone
  9. “Why did Europe Conquer the World?” by Philip Hoffman

If you would like to learn more about why the West became unique, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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