WEIRD vs Non-WEIRD Psychology and Culture

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= WEIRD: acronym for, Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic [1]

Contextual Quote

"The need to belong is a human universal. But how we meet that need is culturally-informed."

- Alexander Beiner [2]


“GAZETTE: What do you mean when you say someone is from a WEIRD society?

HENRICH: If you measure people’s psychology using the tools that psychologists and economists do, you’ll find substantial variation around the world. Societies that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic often anchor the extremes of these global distributions. Among the most prominent features that make people WEIRD is prioritizing impersonal pro-sociality over interpersonal relationships. Impersonal psychology includes inclinations to trust strangers or cooperating with anonymous others. Another big one is having high levels of individualism, meaning a focus on the self and one’s attributes. This is often accompanied by tendencies toward self-enhancement and overconfidence. WEIRD people also rely heavily on analytic thinking over more holistic approaches to problems. I’ll give you an example: Analytic thinking places people or objects into distinct categories and assigns them properties to account for their behavior. Here people get assigned preferences or personality. Particles and planets get assigned charge and gravity. On the other hand, holistic thinkers focus on relationships, context, and interaction. For example, if person A is yelling at person B, an analytical thinker might infer that person A is an angry person while a holistic thinker worries about the relationship between persons A and B. This patterning extends to mental states. WEIRD people tend to focus on people’s intentions, beliefs, and desires in judging them morally instead of emphasizing their actions. In many non-WEIRD societies, for example, the penalties for premeditated murders and accidental killings were the same while in many WEIRD societies they came to depend on the killer’s mental states, on his intentions and beliefs. These differences all have to do with the kind of worlds we grow up in, the kind of institutions we have to adapt to, the ways our families are structured, and the social and economic world we need to navigate.”



How did WEIRD societies originate?

HENRICH: It goes back medieval European history and to a set of prohibitions, taboos, and prescriptions about the family that were developed by one particular branch of Christianity. This branch, which evolved into the Roman Catholic Church, established, during late antiquity in the early Middle Ages, a series of taboos on cousin marriage, a campaign against polygamous marriage, and new inheritance customs, where individuals could inherit as individuals rather than after someone dies having a property divided among a network of relatives or going laterally out to cousins. As a result, all of these restructured European families — from kindreds, clans, and other formations that anthropologists have documented around the world — formed into monogamous nuclear families. In the book, I provide evidence suggesting that it’s this particular family structure and variation and the variants of it that lead to particular ways of thinking that are more individualistic, analytic, and impersonal.”




Alexander Beiner:

"WEIRD. This acronym (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) has been popularised by Harvard psychologist Joseph Henrich and informed the work of scholars like Jonathan Haidt. In his new book ‘The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous’ Henrich performs a kind of reverse anthropology to look at Western psychology and how it arose from our geography and history.

In doing so, I believe he inadvertently sheds light not just on our relationship with social media, but on the cultural fragmentation and the wider crisis of meaning we’re experiencing in the West.

Henrich’s research was inspired when, around a decade ago, he and other scholars began to notice that most published papers in psychology used educated undergraduates in Western countries as samples. As they dug into this imbalance, they uncovered something interesting; people in WEIRD countries are not representative of the psychological make-up of the rest of the world. They are outliers.

Henrich explains:

WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical. We focus on ourselves — our attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations — over our relationships and social roles. We aim to be “ourselves” across contexts and see inconsistencies in others as hypocrisy rather than flexibility. Like everyone else, we are inclined to go along with our peers and authority figures; but, we are less willing to conform to others when this conflicts with our own beliefs, observations, and preferences. We see ourselves as unique beings, not as nodes in a social network that stretches out through space and back in time. When acting, we prefer a sense of control and the feeling of making our own choices. (‘The WEIRDest People in the World’ p.21)

WEIRD psychology is best understood in relation to cultures that hold different values. It’s important here to point out that WEIRD and other psychologies aren’t better or worse than one another — they are adaptations to particular cultural, geographical and historical realities." (


Alexander Beiner:

"So what are non-WEIRD cultures like? Many of them — including European society before the Protestant Reformation and other cultural shifts — were and still are held together by complex web of familial relationships. Individuals belong to a wider group or land, and enjoy the cohesion of tight, supportive in-groups (though these in-groups often compete with others)."



Alexander Beiner:

"web of in-group relationships, obligations and roles, people tend to be more suspicious of those outside the group. It makes sense; outsiders aren’t part of that web of embedded obligations. They don’t face consequences for not playing by your rules, and are therefore riskier to interact with.

WEIRD people are different. Henrich argues that our cultural evolution selected for impersonal prosociality.

He explains:

- “As life was increasingly defined dealing with nonrelations or strangers, people came to prefer impartial rules and impersonal laws that applied to those in their groups or communities (their cities, guilds, monasteries, etc.) independent of social relationships, tribal identity, or social class.” (‘The Weirdest People in the World’ p. 397)

While we are uncharacteristically focused on ourselves and our own success, we are also more generous to strangers, and more willing to engage with those different to ourselves. This is in part because, instead of trusting our in-group, we outsourced our trust to large institutions — the church or the state, for example — and hoped that, on the whole, others would be following the same rules as us."

Associationism vs kinship

"Moving away from allegiance to kin-groups didn’t just lead to increased impersonal prosociality, but also created a culture in which voluntary associations became increasingly important. As people began moving from the countryside to work in the cities, they needed to join other social groups outside of their family or tribe, like a university, a guild, or a political party.

This combination of voluntary association and impersonal pro-sociality reliant on foundational institutions is hugely significant. It isn’t just something we do — it’s who we are, embedded deep in our cultural wiring. And it creates enormous pressure, both on the individual — who must be a sovereign agent in the world and choose where to belong — and on the cohesiveness of our institutions — which must remain trustworthy for our pro-sociality to work. All the multicultural, inclusive values our societies now strive for rely on these."

Guilt vs. Shame

"Henrich argues that guilt forms a core aspect of WEIRD psychology. It’s different from shame, another human universal. Shame is about what others might think of your behaviour (and particularly strong in kin-based societies). Guilt is the feeling we have when we don’t live up to our own values, and it’s particularly prevalent among WEIRD people. Understanding the role guilt plays in the various ‘change the world’ tribes can be revealing."


More information

• Book: Joseph Henrich. “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.”