Today’s Unthinkable column starts with a test. Complete the following sentence in 10 different ways: I am ___.
If you answered with words like “curious”, “good-looking”, “a lawyer”, or “a marathon runner” then you’re almost certainly Weird. If your first thoughts were instead along the lines of “Una’s sister” or “Part of the fifth generation of Walshes from Toomevara” then you’re more in tune with the majority of the world’s population, according to psychologist Joseph Henrich, who co-authored an influential paper on the “western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic” – or Weird – mindset a decade ago.
One of the hallmarks of Weird people is a highly individualistic and aspirational worldview. As Henrich writes in his new book The Weirdest People in the World: “This focus on personal attributes, achievements, and membership in abstract or idealised social groups over personal relationships, inherited social roles, and face-to-face communities is a robust feature of Weird psychology, but one that makes us rather peculiar from a global perspective.”
Through the Weird acronym, Henrich and his colleagues were keen to highlight how large swathes of research across psychology, economics and other fields has been skewed by US/European assumptions. In particular, they helped to expose the error of drawing universal conclusions from surveys of homogeneous university students.
In his book, which comes out today, Henrich adds a much deeper historical perspective to the original theory, chasing with considerable ambition and skill the origins of the Weird mindset. In a journey across the centuries, he hunts turning points of civilisation; one is traced to the late 11th century, when “the medieval Catholic Church inadvertently altered people’s psychology by promoting a peculiar set of prohibitions and prescriptions” about marriage, family and sex.
Surveys show people are more trusting of strangers in western societies, where it is customary to build bonds outside of the clan. On the flip side, relationships tend to be more conditional and temporary.
Another feature of Weird culture, Henrich says, is the prevalence of guilt, suggesting a religious inheritance. “In most non-Weird societies, shame – not guilt – dominates people’s lives.”
Talking via Zoom from his workplace at Harvard University, he explains further.
Why did guilt develop as a human motive alongside shame in western cultures?
“The key idea is that in order to navigate a world where you have these loose relational ties and you’re trying to make yourself stand out – make yourself be unique, something to allow you to compete in the marketplace of relationships – you have to cultivate all these attributes. Guilt is an emotion that drives you to do the things that can allow you to accentuate your attributes and advertise yourself.
“Shame is really about complying with the social norms and the expectations of others. In all societies, we definitely have shame – at least at a population level – and then guilt can be, more or less, amped up. It seems, in the West, it got amped up because of what the church did to the social structures and then a bunch of downstream processes.”
With the declining influence of the church, is guilt is now on the wane?
“I think maybe it’s just a matter of what people feel guilty about. I don’t know what it’s like in your part of the world but people feel guilty if they eat too much food or if they aren’t going to the gym regularly; there is a whole bunch of things people feel guilt about.”
You’re keen to stress that Weird doesn’t necessarily mean bad?
“Yeah. The book is really about how fascinating it is that there is all this interesting psychological variation. I try to point out in lots of places that these differences are often virtue trade-offs. [For example,] how do you answer the passenger’s dilemma, which is that you’re driving with a friend and he is driving recklessly; are you going to testify in court?
“You know, there’s something to be said for doing the impersonal thing, favouring the justice system. But it’s also good to help friends and family. So you’ve got loyalty to family on one side and impartiality principles on the other side. Those are the things that all of us value, it’s just a question of how much.”
Globalisation seems to be a very Weird project. Is it also self-defeating as it removes us too far from our ancestral roots?
“In the book I point out that European expansion went along with genocide and colonialism and a lot of really bad things. Even if you get beyond all that, it still creates a situation where people are being ripped out of their kin-based institutions and of a sense of social cohesiveness.
“Instead, [in Weird societies] you become this lone individual, and reliant on impersonal institutions if you get sick, injured, unemployed or old. You have social security . . . whereas in a prior world there would be this rich set of communal networks that would take care of you.”
Do you see a new mindset forming under the influence of modern technology?
“Yeah, one of the things I’m thinking about is how at least some of the technology is giving us the ability to have transactions that we can rely on that don’t involve much trust. [With Uber for example] they have your credit card number and you can just get into the Uber and it all goes through and [the driver] is not really waiting on his tip.
“That makes me think that, as technology replaces the need for impersonal trust to grease the wheels of commerce and exchange, we might actually experience a loss in interpersonal trust.”
How do you respond to that question “I am___”?
“Having done all this work, it makes me think about relationships first. So if you’d caught me with that question before I learned about it, or thought about it a lot, I probably would have said something like ‘scientist’ and ‘kayaker’. But now I would think ‘Natalie’s husband’, ‘Josh’s father’, and things like that.”