Joseph Henrich – The weirdest people in the world

I want to talk about a book I liked a lot because it tries to explain how our western countries work and also a little why the west has certain features that are different from other places. The question is: why did the west become the place where the modern nation state was born and stays the richest place in the work despite being quite poor in the middle ages. The main argument is that the psychology of western people is weird compared to other “normal” people. WEIRD is also used as an acronym and stands for western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.

The basic story is that the west got so rich in the last 500 years because the psychology of people was changes due to certain societal reforms, mainly proposed by the church. The church changed morality and restricted marriage in the middle ages. They introduced the celibacy to their own employees and restricted also marriage for ordinary people. For instance, before it was normal to marry close relatives like cousins. The church banned this.

But this not only lead to weaker family bounds, but also higher trust towards strangers, more individualistic behavior and other psychological features. These can also be traced right now. The author concludes that western people are therefore also weird compared to other cultures since they are often outliers in these features.

So they trust strangers way more than other cultures and see themselves more as individuals than as members of a family or social group. But this also means they trust institutions or the state more and are less likely to cheat on these institutions or strangers.

However, all this lead over the centuries to our modern societies where people trust strangers in order to do business with them, do not cheat on the state and in general make capitalism and democracy work.

When I read this, I was at the beginning also quite sceptical because it is quite counter-intuitive. However, the author also provides a lot of data supporting the claims and it is really stunning to see how these differences in societies and be measured in psychological experiments. For instance, it is quite intuitive that for credit cards and shops you need to trust the people running the shop. People in the west are used to this and do not question it. In other places in the world this does not always seem to be the case and this makes it of course really hard to do business.

Overall, I can really recommend the book. Especially if you like the works of Noah Yuval Harari, this gives a kind of complementary view human history. For Harari, all concepts are basically faiths, that people believe and where people do have trust in. So for instance, there is faith that the money I will get from my boss for working today allows me to buy food tomorrow. But Harari does not look at psychology and why people actually act that way. Joseph Henrich brings this in and explains the psychological basis for our western societies.

This shows that it not only important to have a certain faith, but also to have WEIRD psychological features to make our society work.