The WEIRDest People in the World Book Summary - The WEIRDest People in the World Book explained in key points
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The WEIRDest People in the World summary

Joseph Henrich

How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

4.1 (127 ratings)
19 mins
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    The WEIRDest People in the World
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    Western psychology is unusual compared to most other cultures.

    Societies like the US, Western Europe, and Australia are WEIRD: an acronym meaning Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. These WEIRD societies are outliers, both historically and relative to many other modern cultures – which makes them “weird” in the standard sense of the word, too. And it’s not simply the attributes of these countries that are weird, but the psychology of the people in them. WEIRD people tend to think and behave differently than those in non-WEIRD cultures.

    Harvard academic Joseph Henrich argues that these differences in psychology and institutions have developed over centuries through a process of cultural evolution. Henrich makes clear that culture does evolve. It’s transmitted from generation to generation through learning. It also randomly mutates, in the sense that new practices are constantly being invented and experimented with. And, in the long run, culture is driven by natural selection: the traits that work best in a specific environment usually win out. 

    Before going any further, it’s worth mentioning a few things. First, Henrich is trying to explain psychological diversity – not celebrate WEIRD psychology or disparage other cultures. He specifically warns against a good vs bad dichotomy. Second, Henrich makes clear that psychological diversity is present within all societies, not just between them. Third, he argues that this psychological variation is not set in stone, but will instead continue to evolve. With these caveats in place, let’s consider some of the weird attributes of people in the West.

    Although WEIRD people stand out in many ways, there are five traits that best capture the WEIRD mentality.

    First, WEIRD people are individualistic. They tend to view the world through the lens of the self, putting a premium on things like individual rights and basing success on their own personal accomplishments.

    Second, WEIRD people usually believe in moral principles that apply to everyone – honesty is good, cheating is bad, et cetera. This is peculiar because in many cultures, fealty to one’s family often takes precedence over such principles. But surveys show that WEIRD people are much less likely to lie to protect a family member or friend who has broken the law.

    Third, WEIRD people are nonconformists. Studies reveal a much greater willingness on the part of Westerners to resist peer pressure and to ignore the opinions of elders. They also don’t consider obedience a vital quality to instill in children.

    Fourth, WEIRD people tend to think analytically as opposed to holistically. Analytic thinking involves focusing on components and applying strict conditions to them. According to one measure, the top ten countries that think analytically all come from Western Europe or its colonial offshoots.

    Fifth, WEIRD people are more trusting of strangers. Survey data reveals that nearly all of the countries where people are most trusting of strangers are Western nations.

    We’ll get to how these attributes were formed and how they’ve assisted the rise of the West. But first, let’s take a look at the non-WEIRD cultures of the world.

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    What is The WEIRDest People in the World about?

    The WEIRDest People in the World (2020) describes why Westerners think and behave so differently from most other people. It also explains how the policies of the Western Church in the realms of marriage and kinship have helped cultivate these odd cultural attributes, transforming the world and helping the West flourish in the process. 

    Who should read The WEIRDest People in the World?

    • Anyone interested in the confluence of history, anthropology, culture, and economics
    • Westerners seeking a greater understanding of cross-cultural differences
    • Fans of experimental psychology

    About the Author

    Joseph Henrich is the chair of the department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, where he investigates the impact of human evolution on subjects like culture, psychology, and decision-making. His books include The Secret of Our Success, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. 

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