Transcript of Episode 104 – Joe Henrich on WEIRD People

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Joe Henrich. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Joe Henrich from Harvard University where he is professor and chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. His research deploys evolutionary theory to understand how human psychology gives rise to cultural evolution, and how this has changed our species’ genetic evolution. Today, we’re mostly going to be focusing on his new book, WEIRD, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. But before we go to his book, we’re going to jump back a little bit and talk about one of Joe’s earlier works, which was published in 2010, a paper with very similar name, The WEIRDest People in the World. That paper’s had a big impact on how we think about the world of experimental psychology. So Joe, talk a little bit about that paper and maybe start off by defining what WEIRD people are and what does WERID stand for?

Joe: Sure. Hey, Jim. It’s good to be with you. So WEIRD is an acronym that stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, and my colleagues at the University of British Columbia, Steve Heine and Ara Norenzayan, we coined that term back in the 20 aughts when we began to look at psychological variation across populations. So the three of us came together. We’d each been specializing in different areas of psychology. And we noticed that in our areas of specialization, not only was there a substantial variation in how people responded to psychology experiments and other ways of measuring psychology around the globe, but that the populations most commonly studied by psychologists and behavioral economists and other experimental researchers anchored the extreme end of the distribution. So not just one population among many but an extreme and outlier population. So we coined the term WEIRD as a way of consciousness raising about how unusual the most common subjects are in these populations. So this is 95%/96% of the pool of participants in psychological studies. So it really is what dominates the textbooks.

Jim: Yeah. As I mentioned in our People Chat-

Joe: And so trends that you’re not representative of in this thesis.

Jim: I was one of those undergraduate research subjects and probably fell into that same bucket. So yeah. Exactly. And you guys did a bunch of work across a number of behavioral sciences. [crosstalk 00:02:24]. There was a rather vast difference in the results.

Joe: Yeah. And one of the key ideas I’ve been working on that we got to understand where that psychological variation comes from. And so one key idea is that our minds adapt to the social worlds that we confront to the institutions and technologies and other things that we have to navigate and that we learn to navigate while growing up.

Jim: Indeed. One of the areas we talk about a fair amount on the show is the sociology of science. We’ve had Brian Nosek on talking about the replication failures in psychology and other places. So interested, your paper, I went back and looked, has had lots of citations over 7,000.

Joe: Yeah, that’s been an interested-

Jim: What’s your view on the impact of it on [crosstalk 00:03:08]?

Joe: … because it’s widely cited and we got the message out there. And in the last decade, new data has come in. So if I had to double down and rewrite the paper, I could be a lot stronger and a lot more confident. So you’ll notice the book title is very similar to the papal title except I removed the question mark. So it’s the WEIRDest People in the World? And now I’m pretty confident about it. So while this new evidence has come in, it’s still the case. So updates. So we use data from 2008 when we came up with 96% of students in our participants in psychology are WEIRD. In 2015/2016, it’s 95%. In developmental psychology where you think people would be very concerned with the effects of development on thinking and on cognitive development, it’s 92%. So maybe slightly better.

Joe: In evolutionary journals, for example, like Evolution and Human Behavior, it’s more like 80%. So they do a bit better. And there’s anthropologists involved, which tap broader samples. So overall, the impact hasn’t been large in terms of getting psychology to take this question seriously although I must say in economics, there’s been quite a change. And so economics had the same problem. Behavioral economics was heavily focused on using student subjects and relying on WEIRD populations. But economic historians and development economists have gotten into the act. And that’s where the big shift has occurred.

Jim: Yeah, it’s interesting. I recently had Sam Bowles on the show who’s an economist and we talked a lot about the behavioral economic studies he’s done all across the world, including with a lot of forager people, as well as agricultural or industrial people all over the world. He had a good example of economists [crosstalk 00:05:00].

Joe: Well, yeah. That’s part of the origin of the [crosstalk 00:05:03] around 1994. I took a behavioral game called the ultimatum game to a remote part of the Peruvian Amazon. And I did the experiment there, and unexpectedly, I got quite different results because I had been led to believe that the ultimatum game was reliably producible in diverse populations. There was a paper in a leading economics journal that had made that case in 1991. And I brought that back. And actually, Sam Bowles was involved with a research group along with my advisor, Rob Boyd. And so Sam’s group eventually funded us to conduct experiments around the world. I think that’s probably the research that Sam was talking about.

Jim: Yeah, very interesting. Anyway, let’s jump into your book. You start off with an interesting teaser. You describe a learned behavior, which has rewired our brain. Talk about that a little bit. Tell us more.

Joe: Yes. So the example I use is a skill that people in a particular society acquire, and it thickens their corpus callosum, and it gives them specialized circuitry in their left ventral hemisphere. It gives them longer verbal memory. Does a number of other sort of basic psychological process and neurophysiological changes to the brain. And I tease the reader a little bit because I don’t tell them what the skill is. And it turns out the skill is literacy. So when you learn to read, your brain kind of specializes for reading. And it’s just an example that I want to start off with because most people over our human history haven’t learned to read. So whatever this does to our brains, this is a novel thing that has to do with something our society values, learning to read. And we have schools and we make sure our children learn to read. And importantly, it changes our brain.

Joe: So I think there’s a natural inclination for people to think dualistically. To think that things about psychology and culture are somehow non-material. And that things like brains, of course, are material. But this is a case where something we learn and acquire, it shapes the physical substructure of our brains. And so literacy is a good case where we know about that and we know something about the history of literacy, and when people became literate. So it wasn’t until the 16th century that widespread literacy began spreading. And it’s really just been in the 20th century, essentially, that literacy becomes widespread in most places in the world.

Jim: Yeah, very interesting [crosstalk 00:07:33].

Joe: Yeah. Before this current book, I have a book called The Secret of our Success. And in that book, I make the case that actually, the massive expansion in brains that the human lineage experienced was to make our brains kind of cultural acquisition machines. So we’ve evolved to be particularly good at acquiring, storing, and organizing this large body of cultural information. And part of that involves kind of embedding these things and having some plasticity in our ability to wire up. So we have the motivations and information processing strategies and heuristics that are demanded by the culturally constructed worlds that we have to navigate. So the institutions and the values and the other kinds of incentives.

Jim: And of course, interestingly, applying those brains to the modern world is what we might call an exaptation since most of our evolutionary history was in much smaller groups and forager groups 20 to maybe 100 people or thereabouts. And yet, the same brain [crosstalk 00:08:35].

Joe: Yeah, exactly. And that’s part of what I’m trying to unravel, is to understand how basically a primate like us that has brains that evolved in these smaller scale societies for a very different lifestyle evolves. And so what’s the structure of institutions? What’s the role of families? All this, you kind of need to recognize that humans are a product of genetic evolution. And then we have certain instincts and whatnot that affect how our institutions are going to function.

Jim: Yeah. And then, of course, our institutions are [crosstalk 00:09:11]-

Joe: Yeah. And so that’s one of the key ideas I developed in The WEIRDest People in the World.

Jim: … by most of our genetic and cultural inheritances at any given time. All right. So let’s jump in.

Joe: So there’s a number of different domains.

Jim: How are these WEIRD people significantly different than [crosstalk 00:09:25]?

Joe: So one key the domain, the domain I typically start with is domain of individualism. So how people think about themselves and the relationships. So WEIRD people tend to be highly individualistic. They focus on themselves, their own attributes and aspirations over their relationships, roles, and responsibilities. So when you give people the test and it’s called the 20 Statements Test. So you have a statement “I am” and you have to fill it in. So I am a scientist. I am a kayaker. Or might be ways that I would have filled it in. But I could have also filled it in by saying, “I am Josh’s dad or Natalie’s husband,” but with relationships. And so this gives this sense of how people think about themselves. Are they a bundle of attributes, aspirations, and characteristics? Or are they a nexus of a set of relationships?

Joe: So individualism is one thing that seems to vary. And this may be related to a style of thinking that psychologists have distinguished, analytic versus holistic thinking. So when you think about problems, do you break them down into its constituent parts and assign property to those parts the way physicists would assign properties to particles or psychologists assign personalities to individuals? Or do you look at the relationships between things? And there seems to be quite a bit of variation in that between what’s called analytic thinking or holistic thinking. And WEIRD people tend to be at the extreme end of the analytic scale.

Joe: A final example I’ll give you, there’s many more, but I’ll just give you three is impersonal pro-sociality. So how inclined are people to cooperate with strangers versus make decisions that benefit friends and relatives and those kinds of things? WEIRD people call it nepotism, which has a kind of negative connotation. But in a lot of cases, to not be nepotistic would be to do the immoral thing. And this seems to vary quite a bit around the world. And this is a lot of what you detect when you do behavioral games. So things like the ultimatum game or the public goods game.

Jim: Yeah, very interesting. We’re going to get into a lot of those individual topics later on, but let’s start on [crosstalk 00:11:33].

Joe: Yeah. This is an interesting one because psychological anthropologists have long recognized or made the distinction between guilt-based societies and shame-based societies. And so famously, Ruth Benedict distinguished Japan as a shame-based society. This is back in the 1940s. And the idea is that there’s these emotions which affect our social decision making. And if you’re concerned with guilt, the way to think about this is that you have a set of personal standards. Now, it doesn’t mean personal standards aren’t influenced by society standards, but there might be things like you want to go to the gym, or you want to learn how to speak Spanish or something. And that if you’re not doing the things you need to do, you’re not going to the gym, or you’re skipping class or whatever, you feel guilty. You might feel guilty for not doing it.

Joe: But not like other people. Your neighbor doesn’t care whether you go to the gym or something like that. Whereas a shame-based society, which means what you’re concerned about are society standards about whether you lose face. And shame is interesting because unlike guilt, it bleeds over to other people. So if your brother does something very shameful, the shame actually bleeds over to you in a shame society. And we’re able to detect this now with the available data. So in the book, I provide some comparative experiments done with students, but then you can even find it in Google searches. So whether people search on the word shame or guilt, and I try to explain this variation across societies.

Jim: One of the things I always thought was interesting on the shame versus guilt dichotomy with respect to its impact on kind of social self-organization is guilt has the interesting aspect that you can feel guilty even if nobody knows about your behavior. While shame, as long as you stay with it, nobody knows about the bad thing you did. You don’t pay any cost for it.

Joe: Right, right. So that’s the interesting thing is that shame [crosstalk 00:13:25] trying to understand this question is that if nobody knows about it, people are still afraid. But what they seem to have is they’re afraid that people might find out. So it’s kind of like fear of future shame that you suffer. Whereas with guilt, it seems to be a purely internalized thing where you’ve kind of fallen below your own social standards, and you’re looking at yourself disapprovingly.

Jim: That makes some sense. Next topic we’ll get into, you mentioned that imagine if aliens had come from Alpha Centauri or some such place around 1,000 AD. I think that’s a very [crosstalk 00:14:05].

Joe: Yeah, I think that’s a fun experiment. And part, I want to emphasize [crosstalk 00:14:09] cultural change and populations have changed rapidly in the last 1,000 years. So if they were to look at Europe, it would have looked like a relative backwater compared to what they saw in the Islamic world, Central Asia, and China. So science, at least a kind of science had been thriving in Central Asia at this point, Islamic Society, it’s spread all over the world, large complex societies, of course in China. A lot of technological developments well ahead of what was being seen in Europe. And so then the question is it would have been hard for them to predict the massive expansion of European populations, the spread of Europeans around the world after 1,500, colonialism, and then of course, the Industrial Revolution with rapid innovation, steam engines, and then the last 200 years of massive innovation.

Jim: Yeah. But then you make the point there were some things going on in the Middle Ages that they may not have been to detect. [crosstalk 00:15:12].

Joe: Yeah. There’s a core set of arguments in the book as to what led to this psychological transformation. And one of the key things I look at and this derives from an anthropologist named Jack Goody, but a number of historians have picked up on it as well, people like Michael Mitterauer arguing that it was the Catholic Church. So one particular branch of Christianity became sort of strangely obsessed with certain marriage and family practices. So besides ending polygyny and concubinage and sex slavery, also ending cousin marriage. So in lots of societies, people will marry their cousins. Altering inheritance systems in particular ways so that individuals could own their property and bequeath it to future generations and in clans.

Joe: And so a number of these religious prohibitions seem to have transformed Europe from kind of complex clans and kindreds and these other kinds of intensive kinship units that we see elsewhere in the world anthropologically into monogamous nuclear families. And at least in some parts of Europe, this is in place by about 1000 CE. And that’s when we see what historians call the commercial revolution, the beginning of these charter towns where people join, have membership, and a proliferation of lots of voluntary associations. So guilds which originally start as kind of neutral insurance groups become occupational, universities began spreading, lots of new monasteries began spreading, and these are independent and whatnot.

Joe: And so I make the case that it was the demolition of these independent nuclear families that kind of forced people into a situation where they had to make their way in the world as individuals. And one of the ways they did that was by building these voluntary associations which have quite a different character than the kind of kin-based and tribal-based organizations that characterize most of human history.

Jim: One thing I didn’t pick out of the book, and maybe I missed it or maybe you just [crosstalk 00:17:18].

Joe: Well, that’s a matter of scholar intake. I think the evidence comes down to it not being… I mean, there’s no evidence that it was intentional. Certainly nobody could foresee where this was going. There is a quote which you’ll see in the book by St. Augustine’s. So this is like fourth century Rome antiquity. He knows the kind of basic feature of this, which is that by preventing cousin marriage, you’re multiplying ties amongst people who wouldn’t otherwise know each other. But then when you look at all these church councils which made all these marriage and family rules, they’re doing it because they think God wants it. And they’re worried God might send a plague and the plague was because He’s not happy with all the incest which is the cousin marriage. And they’re not saying what we got to do is transform the social structure to create more individualism. That’s not one of the main lines of argument. So I don’t think there’s much of a case.

Joe: Now, there could be cases in which individual bishops, for example, saw that when they made certain rules like this, their coffers tended to fill a bit more. So there could have been like strategic biases, decisions made at a more local level. But there certainly wasn’t any… I haven’t seen any evidence of an overall strategy. This is one point where I part ways with Jack Goody who I do otherwise rely on for a number of things, is that he sort of sees this and infers a kind of almost conspiracy that the church was doing this intentionally to get rich because it did result in the church getting a lot of wealth through bequests. And they eventually commoditized cousin marriage and begin selling it. And they also sell divorce through annulments. But they certainly didn’t have the big vision that it was going to transform Europe into a more individualistic society.

Jim: Yeah, it seems probably reasonable. But what is interesting that you can sort of compare that with the institutional structure of the church, which is kind of peculiarly anti-family based. Right? The idea of a celibate priesthood that, at least in theory, can’t pass on its position to its family. It seems to be another signal that there’s something about distrust of kin-based networks and kin-based institutions.

Joe: Yeah. And so that really comes through in the historical material, and this is that if you’re joining a monastery or you’re becoming a religious member of the clergy, you’ve got to dissolve your family ties. And this becomes increasingly important. So what’s interesting… So in Ireland, Catholicism gets to Ireland early before this whole program gets started. So in Ireland, monasteries and abbeys are clan-owned. They’re family affairs because the kin-based ties hadn’t been dissolved by the Celtic version of Christianity. It was only this particularly Christianity under the Bishop of Rome, under the pope, that develops this marriage and family program.

Joe: And so there eventually by 1000 CE, you have these kind of independent, almost transnational franchise-looking monasteries where they’re electing their abbots. There’s none of this family ties and stuff like that as opposed to this kind of clan patrimony which you see elsewhere in Christianity.

Jim: Oh, I did not know that. It’s interesting. Let’s just jump in a little bit and talk about in some detail, what kin-based [crosstalk 00:20:44]?

Joe: Yeah, I think that’s important because for many listeners, they might not be familiar in how important this is. So when I first got in… My background is in cultural anthropology. So I did my undergraduate, MA, and PhD in cultural anthropology. And one of the things that always impressed me when I first got into this, which is I was asking myself, why are these anthropologist so obsessed with kinship? I mean, you read all these ethnographies. It always will go on and on about the kinship network. You have to learn all this specialized language. There is complicated diagrams because how important could that be? Right? Isn’t it about the kind of economics of daily life and maybe religion’s important?

Joe: But when I went to actually live in societies, I found that anthropologists are obsessed with this because people are obsessed with this. That when they’re organizing their life, they’re thinking about and maintaining these kin networks. When you ask like, “So if I’m in Fiji and we need someone to do some say carpentry work or something,” I was building a laboratory at one point, you immediately get recommendations about people’s cousins who have skills. So that when they think, they’re thinking, “Who in my family network can I benefit through this?” I was going to pay them.

Joe: And so it’s just a different way of thinking about the world in a very relational way of thinking about the world. And in the book, I put together historical and anthropological evidence to make the case that actually, there’s new genetic evidence showing this as well that these kin-based institutions are ways in which as agriculture began to spread, people were controlling territory by moving to patrilineal or matrilineal clans as a way of building more dense networks that had greater solidarity and could cooperate more effectively.

Jim: Yeah. That was an interesting question I had as a follow-up, which is forager societies seem to be less strongly structured on broader kinship relationships. At least what I’ve read is that surprisingly, forager bands are rather dynamic. People came and went, merged and split, et cetera. And it wasn’t until settled agriculture where land became a valuable and inheritable [crosstalk 00:22:54].

Joe: That’s why I think the evidence currently supports. So it’s not something linear, right? So mobile hunter/gatherers definitely maintained these looser networks. Now, it’s not the same as the kind of individualistic world that we live in because people still rely on kin networks. But for example, lots of foragers have taboos against marrying close cousins because that forces people to marry more distant relatives, which gives them important extensive ties. So for example, if there’s a shock and we have a drought, and our waterhole dries up, we have relationships through various mechanisms to other bands living in other places. So we can go visit our in-laws or some other relative that we’ve built one of these distant relationships with.

Joe: And this obviously has kind of risk and economic… it’s economically important. So that does seem to be something you see in lots of different mobile forager groups. Now, it’s also not something we should just think of as changing through time because no doubt in the Paleolithic as in the Holocene, there were sedentary hunter/gatherers who might have controlled salmon runs or some other valuable resource. And you may have seen the development of this more intensive kinship in those places. The interesting thing about agriculture was it was this economic package, which you could take over large swaths of land where without agriculture, those could have only been inhabited by mobile groups.

Jim: That makes sense. Interesting. And of course, the Bible is full of obsession about kinships and lineages and land. I just did my once every 10 years rereading of the Pentateuch plus Joshua even though I’m a nonbeliever in such things. I do find it interesting to refresh my memory of the basis of it. And once again, it was astounding how much of it is laying out these kinships and the relationship to the land and the concept of the Jubilee is basically a mechanism to make sure that the land can’t be alienated from the kinship lineage for very long, et cetera. It’s really quite remarkable.

Joe: Yeah, the Old Testament, the Torah, it’s very interesting because if you look at that in comparison to anthropological data, it’s pretty standard issue patrilineal kinship. I mean, they even have Levirate marriage where if your husband dies, you marry his brother, which is something one of the first things to church banned in late antiquity.

Jim: Interesting. What are some of the attributes of these kin-based societies in terms of how people work with each other, who they listen to, how policing of behavior happened, all those things?

Joe: Yeah. So I’ve described the relationship. So one thing to emphasize is there’s lots of interesting variability, but there’s typically some kind of traditional hierarchy. There’s often authority based on age and being male. Of course, that does vary to a degree between patrilineal and matrilineal societies. Your kinship group is so important for many reasons because it’s usually the centerpiece of the organization of economic production. So you work with members of your family, or at least some set of relatives for economic production. Crucially, they’re your social safety net.

Joe: So if something bad happens, and you get injured, for example, that’s the people you rely on. They’re your old age security. So you get old, who’s going to take care of you? Your spouse dies, who’s going to take care of you? All these things are supplied by the kinship group. So that’s why it was so transformative when the church begins breaking all these things down because then people had to figure out alternative ways to take care of old people, to provide mutual insurance, to organize economic production, and that’s where these voluntary associations get involved.

Jim: And so let’s contrast that with what a non-kinship based society starts to look like. Obviously, these things don’t happen discontinuously. They evolved over time, but what are some of the high water marks of how we live in non-kin based society?

Joe: Well, interestingly, people often think of feudalism, so the kind of classic European feudalism, manorialism as not related to the kind of individualism and the economic growth that came later. But it was a response to it, or at least I think it was a response to it in that it was these individual lords building personal relationships with other individuals’ non-kin. So these were non-kin. They were sacred relationships and they were personal relationships. But it does seem to have been a response to not being able to use a giant clan network, not being able to use polygynous marriage to build lots of additional family ties. So I think that was partially a response.

Joe: And then you get these guilds, which guilds obviously become increasingly important throughout the Middle Ages, but the early guild, so we’re like 900, 1,000, 1,100 are the social safety net. So this is the group that everyone swears to help the other guy if he gets injured, help them in times of need if they have too many children and they’re not able to feed them. And then of course, old age and stuff like that. The church also steps in and begins doing this. So the church’s activities create lots of orphans and widows which then the church creates mechanisms to take in widows. Women can join the church instead of getting married. And orphans often become some of the most loyal, I guess, members of the church because they’re raised within the church community. So that’s some of the ways in which it gets restructured.

Jim: Another thing you talk about is that in a non-kin based society, there’s a special emphasis on our honing of our own special attributes [crosstalk 00:28:40].

Joe: Yeah. One of the key ideas is this distinction between a relational society. So in a relational society, you’re born into one of these dense networks. And the way you make your way in the world… I mean, most of your relationships are preset. And if you’re going to make a new relationship with somebody who you don’t already have relationship with, what makes them trustworthy and kind of a reliable partner is the fact that you share other ties. So it’s your uncle has a relationship with them, or it’s your uncle’s cousin or something like that. And that makes them more reliable. And the more of those intersecting ties you have with your new partner, the more they’re likely to be trustworthy and whatnot.

Joe: In a world where those ties have been dissolved or they’re just very limited, you’re relying more on disposition. So you’re looking for people who have some skill or some ability or something that’s complimentary to you. And you’re looking for dispositions like trustworthiness, honesty, all those kinds of things. So in the more individualistic world, you have to cultivate and advertise what makes you special because you’re trying to find relationships because you don’t have a lot of prebuilt ones. And you also have to distinguish yourself. So why would someone want to have a relationship with one person versus another? Whereas there’s much less pressure on that in the world of relationships because mostly what’s making you are these things you get at birth, these set of family and extended family ties.

Jim: I guess one might say that kinship-based societies might be less stressful. On the other hand, there’s less incentive to develop your human capital as economists would say.

Joe: Yeah. I mean, my impression is that they’re less stressful in terms of developing this sense of uniqueness and cultivating that uniqueness there. It could be more stressful in the sense that people worry a lot about shame, and there’s lots of little rules and things you don’t want to do. So it’s a bit nuanced.

Jim: Yeah. And just sort of quite different. Static versus dynamic, I suppose, is another way to look at it. Another interesting thing about the differences between the two kinds of societies is that… I was not really aware of this and I thought it was very interesting is that there’s a fundamentally view of justice [crosstalk 00:30:54].

Joe: Yeah. That’s a surprise to many because I think a lot of WEIRD people have a strong sense that if you’re judging someone morally, one of the key facts you want to know is what their mental states are. So what their intentions are and what their beliefs are. So for example, in western law, there’s all these ways to mitigate someone’s crime if they didn’t intend to do it. Of course, that can change things a lot worse. If they had a false belief, they’re operating under a mistaken impression, that can make them less guilty. Whereas my colleagues, Clark Barrett, and a number of other researchers, a team of anthropologists did experiments around the world. And we found that societies that had these intensive kinship structures, when they were judging strangers, so people outside the kinship network, they didn’t seem to worry or they actually varied a lot.

Joe: So they went from some societies where people didn’t use intentions at all and judging someone’s guilt for say a theft to the extreme, to WEIRD people at the other extreme end where intent really dominates the moral judgment. And this fits with a lot of what we know about history, early European law codes, and the anthropology of law around the world. So if you look at early European law codes or all these penalties that were [inaudible 00:32:06]. So you had to pay some amount of money for doing crimes against someone in another clan. And there, the intentionality is often not taken into account. It’s just if you kill them, we don’t want your story about why you killed him. It’s just you owe this amount of money.

Joe: And so yeah. So intent becomes increasingly important over European history. And in lots of anthropological societies, you see the same kind of thing where intentions aren’t taking into account.

Jim: It’s kind of very parallel to the discussion in the philosophy of ethics between the arguments of the anthological versus consequential effects was kind of very similar in their outlaw.

Joe: So I think it plays a role in people’s inclinations to go with the different responses to a trolley problem.

Jim: Exactly, right? Okay. The next topic we’re going to talk about, get a little bit closer to the current world, is that your works found that more individualistic countries [crosstalk 00:33:11].

Joe: Yeah. So one of the things I wanted to explain in the book is why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe and not these other places which looked… You go back to my alien observer from orbit in the year 1000. The alien observer would have bet on China or the Islamic World or something like that. So why did it occur in Europe? And in my previous book, The Secret of Our Success, I make the case that a lot of human, what I call cumulative cultural evolution or innovation is driven by the collective brain. So most new ideas are actually recombinations of old ideas. And what you need to do is have a large population where people can make lots of mistakes, do lots of experiments, and then recombine ideas from diverse minds. Different ways of approaching it, drawing from different fields or from different populations to create new recombination.

Joe: And I make the case that what happened in Europe was that the populations became increasingly interconnected for a bunch of reasons. One was people were increasingly literate. So they were sharing information and the printing press was spreading, and this was allowing people to be more interconnected. But they were also more trusting of strangers. And there were large flows of commerce among European urban areas. And so this was creating a larger and more interconnected brain which was capable of creating more new recombinations. And when European populations expanded around the world, they also began to get ideas from different places, bring them back to Europe, and create new kinds of innovations. So this is what I argue that this leads to more rapid innovation into economic growth in Europe.

Jim: Thinking back to the earlier conversation we had about honing one’s own special attributes, thinking about it as an agent-based model which is one of the things I do along the way, one could see that… and especially in the world that is becoming more interconnected and there are more things potential to learn and to filter out what’s useful and what’s not for one’s own personal situation, one could see how that could lead to a bootstrapping [crosstalk 00:35:23].

Joe: Yeah. And so part of individualism is the idea of being an inventor comes up and people want to distinguish themselves by being the inventor of things. So one of the interesting historical markers of this kind of thing is that people begin naming inventions like the fallopian tubes after the first discoverer or one of the inventors along the way. Now, as a scientific matter, I’m pretty critical of the approach of naming things after the inventor because there’s usually very rarely one inventor. I probably point out in the book that Edison, it was the 43rd patent or something like that on light bulbs, and there had been a whole bunch of previous light bulbs. And in England, the inventor of the light bulb is Swan. And in Russia, it’s another guy because these ideas were percolating around and people were just experimenting with lots of different combinations.

Joe: So giving all the credit to Edison or pick your favorite inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, doesn’t capture the historical process, but there is this desire to give someone credit for it. And this practice of naming things by inventor or discoverer starts spreading sometime after 1500 in Europe. And even notions of plagiarism begin spreading. I think plagiarism comes from Latin, to kidnap. And so previously, people weren’t worried about kidnapping others ideas. But soon, they began to worry about that and eventually put it into law.

Jim: It also became very important in the evolution of Western science. Go back and read some of the old papers from the Royal Society journals, et cetera. These amazing arguments about priority. Who wrote this first? Right? In fact, one of the reasons for the journal was to establish a mechanism to determine who had priority on the idea.

Joe: Yeah. And that’s the kind of thing which you’re going to get that more strongly in a society where people are individualistic. They want to distinguish themselves. They want to set themselves apart. And the priority on deferring to tradition, deferring to elders has been weakened by this point. So one of the things we were talking about, the things that come from intensive kinship, one is respecting elders and the ancestors. And those things get very important. And that, you can see the effect of people like Aristotle and Plato in Europe, and they had a great deal of respect. But part of what happens with the emergence of science is people decide it’s okay to say that Plato and Aristotle were wrong. And that eventually, they just stopped even referencing them anymore. It turned out they were wrong about a great many things.

Jim: Yeah. That’s part of this bootstrap mechanism as I’m starting to pull these threads together to [crosstalk 00:38:04].

Joe: One of the important things about science is [crosstalk 00:38:05] is science is kind of a voluntary association of individualists, right? So everybody wants credit. And we have these journals that assign credit and date-stamp everything to try to resolve all those issues. But we ultimately operate as we have peer review, right? And whether something gets published and gets the stamp of approval kind of depends on the judgment of the community. And different individuals have different way depending on their status in the field. But it’s a voluntary association of individualists.

Jim: With a sense making mechanism, as we’d call it, through peer review or though interestingly, and more and more science, people are bypassing peer review and publishing directly on the archives. For instance, in physics, almost everything is now pre published on the archives and machine learning to a slowly increasing degree in biochemistry. So there’s some evolution in that institutional form towards even more individualism.

Joe: Yeah, yeah. It’ll be interesting to see whether that is a positive or negative effect. I don’t have a take at this point myself.

Jim: Doesn’t seem to negatively impact physics, but physics is its own strange discipline where results are more cut and dried. Where things are murkier, particularly in the social sciences and the biological science, yeah, time will tell. But let’s dig into some of the experimental results that have been found when you compare weird to non-weird populations and how they differ. One of the ones I found kind of interesting was the patience in self-control test, the famous marshmallow test.

Joe: Yeah. So in that part, I bring together two different kinds of data. One is the famous marshmallow test where you put a kid in a room. You give him a marshmallow and you tell them if they’re willing to wait till the experimenter returns, that they’ll get a second marshmallow. And then the measurement is basically how long they’re willing to wait. So the experiments vary. Sometimes the experimenter comes in after 15 minutes. And so if the kid’s able to wait the full 15 minutes, they get the second marshmallow. A bunch of kids just eat it right away. And then another group wait some period of time between when the experimenter leaves in the 15 minutes.

Joe: And this seems to be predictive. I mean, there’s a little bit of controversy surrounding this stuff. But in general, it seems to be predictive of the future, staying in school, saving money, avoiding drugs. And this seems to be related to what economists measure as temporal discounting. So if you give people choices between a smaller sum of money now and a larger sum of money at a later date, there’s a point at which people trade these off. And that gives you a measure of their temporal discounting. And that seems to predict a lot of the same things. And there’s tremendous global variation in the variation and it’s probably affected by lots of factors. But I think that the intensive kinship stuff we talked about is certainly one of them because in a relational society, you often store things. You don’t have bank accounts, right? So you store things in the goodwill and in the relationships. So by giving gifts in that kind of world or having experiences together, you’re investing in your future by strengthening these ties of the individuals that will eventually help you or your kinfolk in the future.

Joe: Whereas in a world without lots of those ties where you can have a secure bank account, you might be better off to put it in the bank account. So it favors distinct strategies in this regard.

Jim: Interesting. What are some of the other results, field results, that come up that support these strong outlier tendencies of WEIRD folk?

Joe: Well, we talked about the use of mental states. One interesting one is called the passenger’s dilemma in which what you do is… So it’s a vignette experiment in which you’re asked to imagine yourself. You’re in a car with a friend. Your friend is driving too fast in say a 25 mile an hour zone a bit recklessly and they hit someone. And their lawyers tells you if you testify that they were going under the speed limit, your friend will get off, but if you don’t, then he might go to jail or something. And so your friend asked you to testify. And so then the subject is asked, “Was this okay for your friend to ask this? And would you testify in court?” And this is an interesting dilemma because it there’s two virtues here, right?

Joe: One is probably everyone thinks that being loyal to your friend and helping your friend is important. But also, there’s these impersonal rules like not lying in court, telling the truth and whatnot for the justice system to function correctly. And there’s quite a bit of variation that’s around the world and whether people kind of lean towards the virtue of friendship, building those relationships with people who are going to help you later, or going with the impersonal rule and subjecting one’s friends to possible jail time. So that varies a lot around the world and can be predicted by the intensity of kinship. So the more societies traditionally have had these intensive kinship structures, the more inclined people are to help their friends.

Jim: And that makes some sense.

Joe: Another one is so if you’ve taken a course in social psychology, there’s something called the Asch Conformity Test where individuals come into a room and there’s some confederates of the experimenter working there, but the person thinks that those are just other subjects. And then they have to match. It’s just a perception test like this line here matches which of these other lines in terms of the length? And the there’s a series of other lines. And you do this a bunch of times. And on certain critical trials, the confederates give the same wrong answer. And the question is, how often does the subject in a test where they would normally get it right 97%/98% of the time, how long did they go along with the other people? So it’s a measure of pure conformity. And this varies quite a bit around the world and can be predicted by this intensity of kinship. So in the more individualistic societies with monogamous nuclear families, you get people are least likely to go along with the peers.

Jim: Yeah, that makes sense. And again, we’ve come back to this bootstrapping social evolution, one could see how that in the era of the emergence of science and knowledge may well make WEIRD societies more efficacious in sorting out the shit from the shinola, shall we say?

Joe: Yeah, because it’s more okay to disagree with the current majority basically.

Jim: Exactly. Till 1500 thereabouts, to disagree with Aristotle meant death pretty much, right? Even Galileo got into lots of trouble for it a little later than that. But now, that’s frankly the whole game of science. One makes one’s reputation by saying, “Hell no, this elder is full of shit, right? I’ve got the right answer.”

Joe: Yeah, that’s the game.

Jim: And in a society where that is sanction, the bootstrap of creation of real knowledge is not going to work as well.

Joe: Yeah. So that’s a key part of the case that I make about why you can get variation in innovation across countries and why something that seemingly as disconnected as kin-based norms could actually cash out indifferences in the likelihood of innovation across societies.

Jim: Interesting. Another one that you talk about, some lab results on is the analytical versus holistic thinking and thinking particularly about how people evaluate images or scenes.

Joe: Yeah. So that’s one of the ways… it’s called the triad tasks. And it’s one of the ways that psychologists use to measure this holistic versus analytic thinking. So a typical triad might be so they give you a picture of a rabbit and you have to say whether the rabbit goes with the dog or goes with a carrot. And if you’re putting together things analytically, you say, “Well, two animals, rabbit and dog, put those together.” If you’re thinking more holistically, functionally, you say, “Well, rabbits eat carrots.” So you put the rabbit with the carrot. So you give participants a bunch of these, and they make one or the other choice, and then you give them a score that’s a percentage of how many of the responses were holistic or analytic. And that goes from some populations are 60%, 70%, 80% in terms of analytic answers and some are zero since I worked in this population in rural southern Chile where it was hard to get anybody to give a non-holistic answer.

Jim: Interesting, and wonder what that means. Any thoughts on what kind of society you get if you’re mostly thinking holistically versus analytically?

Joe: Well, I think of it as kind of your… If you want to explain something, what’s your first go-to explanation? And I think that what you try to do if you’re an analytic thinker is you say, “Well, what are the relevant categories here?” So we’ve talked about physics. And so physicists like to define types of things. So you got your types of particles and then we assign some property to those particles. Once you assign the properties, then everything else goes from that. Whereas if you’re looking for the other strategy, you’re thinking a bit more concretely. And you’re looking for the relationships between the objects that don’t involve putting them into categories and assigning them properties.

Jim: Okay, that’s interesting. So it would seem based on the evidence that analytical thinking has been more efficacious in bootstrapping societies forward. I wonder what we missed though.

Joe: Yeah. So that’s the key. And I think in the book, I discuss the kinds of… So when you break things down, the tricky part is always figuring out how to reassemble them. So I think we’ve seen science make rather fast progress in thinking about individuals and properties. But then thinking about things like networks has taken longer because then you got to start theorizing the relationships and then how the relationships affect the properties. And it can get complex. Or things like agent-based modeling or something like that is an effort to kind of take the next step in complexity and move things up to begin to think about the relationships between things. But it often starts by assigning properties to agents and then going from there.

Jim: Yeah, of course, that’s pretty much what our work at the Santa Fe Institute is all about, is attempting to look at those emergent phenomena from the reductionist agents when you put them in play, agents or ideas, and the emergent complex phenomena that come from that. So that’s, I would say, a little bit more holistic thinking, but that doesn’t abandon the analytical thinking about trying to understand, what are the lower level drivers of the more simple elements in this system, I would suggest, or we suggest at Santa Fe that the way forward is kind of attention in balance between analytical and holistic thinking. That may be the next level and that societies that figure that out will out-beat those that are anchored on either analytical or holistic thinking.

Jim: A couple other items that you discovered or you mentioned at least that are different across the dimension of kin-based and non-kin based or WEIRD and un-WEIRD at least is free will and moral universalism. Could you tell us about those a little bit?

Joe: Yeah. Well, the moral universalism, it’s intended to be a measure of the degree to which people think about kind of general principles or properties that would apply to all of humanity versus focusing on things like in-group loyalty or traditional hierarchies. And so there’s a psychologist named John Haidt working with Jesse Graham who has outlined five different foundations for human morality. Did kind of a big inductive project in which they tried to identify the major dimensions of human morality to kind of explain some large chunk of human morality and they came up with five. And if you break those five down, much of it is actually two dimensions going from this moral universalism where people are concerned about justice, and fairness, and equality, and another dimension where it’s about in-group loyalty, a bit of tribalism, religious purity folds into that hierarchy. And then that varies according to this dimension of kinship that I mentioned.

Jim: Of course, it also very strongly just within the United States itself. I’m quite familiar with Haidt’s work and he points out that the distinction between the two is a relatively good predictor of Team Red versus Team Blue politics in the United States.

Joe: Yeah. So we’ve been looking at that because one of my colleagues in Harvard Economics, Ben Enke, has shown that Haidtian measure of moral universalism versus parochialism predicts voting for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 even over and above once you statistically remove being Republican or the county having previously voted for Romney or McCain or something like that. So it’s actually the extra support that a county gives to Donald Trump over and above being Republican can be explained by this moral universalism. So we’ve been looking at the kind of networks and mobility and trying to explain the psychology based on the variation among US counties in networks and mobility. And our work is still preliminary at this point, but we find that counties that have lower relational mobility, stronger kin ties as measured by census last names seem to be more moral parochial or less moral universalism. So it tests the same theory just kind of looking a little bit more general at relationships.

Jim: How about the other one, free will? That’s one I would not have necessarily thought about as residing on this continuum.

Joe: Yeah. So free will is just the degree to which you see your actions as having an effect on your choices as being important and central. So part of being an individual in many ways is believing that the things you decide can have impacts on your world, can shape your relationships and shape your future. Some of that you get just from having these world religions. So that includes Christianity, but also Islam and other religions seem to increase people’s understanding of free will or the role of free will. But then it gets particularly stronger as you get these more individualistic societies and the role of a person’s own choices in affecting the world.

Jim: That makes some sense. Now, you make the claim and the evidence is certainly strongly correlated between weirdness and prosperity. What about causality? Could it be that… I know you dig into this, that prosperity causes non-kin relationships rather than vice versa. What’s the evidence that the causality points the other way?

Joe: I mean, that’s a great question and something that we’ve worked on and thought about a lot. I mean, I think it’s the case that with the spread of secular institutions, democratic governments, forms of corporations, kind of modern corporations, the rising urbanization in lots of societies, that actually does create a push to break down kin groups. So if you have a social insurance system or you have wage employment where people don’t have to rely on this kin group for their economic production, they can move to an urban area, things like unemployment insurance. Anything that reduces the kind of functional role of kin groups will weaken the kin groups. In lots of places, they’ve imposed things like you can only have monogamous marriage. So that puts a pressure against polygynous marriage and weakens the ability of that to have a rule. Laws about cousin marriage actually vary quite a bit, but if you have laws against cousin marriage, which lots of countries adopted by copying European civil codes, that can have an effect on your kin institutions.

Joe: So in that sense, it’s been going against that economically. But my question was, “Where did all this get started?” And historically, I think there’s evidence to suggest that this church’s program, this transformation of European families long precedes any economic growth. So there’s a whole area of demographers and historians who work on demography suggesting that Europe had a unique family pattern by 1500, which by most people’s estimates is before the substantial economic growth in Europe. So the kinship stuff certainly precedes temporarily the big economic expansion. So it’s hard to tell a causal story that goes the other way.

Jim: I know an interesting historical demographic point that you brought up, which is the distance from a cathedral town actually predicts a few things.

Joe: Yeah. So I think the analysis you’re thinking of is what we did is we created a database of the bishoprics as they spread through Europe. Actually, you might have another analysis in mind, but let me just put this one out there, is that if your region of Europe was exposed to a bishopric for more centuries, you have a more individualistic psychology today, the population does. Also less conforming. We talked about the conformity with the Asch test, and greater trust in strangers and greater inclinations of fairness towards strangers. So we have four dimensions of psychology we’re able to measure from the European social survey and link that to the amount of time a European region has been under a Catholic bishopric.

Jim: Yeah. That’s what I meant when I said Cathedral town because the Cathedral town is the seat of bishopric. So yeah, that was, I thought, a very subtle analysis that you made a pretty strong point for causality pointing in the way that you were arguing for.

Joe: Yeah. So since I wrote the book, it’s inspired some of my colleagues to do additional analyses. So there’s an economist at the University of British Columbia, Squires, is the first author or one of the author’s names. And they’ve done an analysis where they looked at US States adopting laws against cousin marriage in the 19th and early 20th century. And they were able to show that states that had high cousin marriage that then subsequently adopted laws against cousin marriage had greater economic prosperity over the coming decades. So they’re able to get a kind of causal type analysis the kind of economists do that shows the causal effect of cousin marriage laws.

Jim: Of course, another effect, which you guys discovered is that university students are more WEIRD even if they don’t live in WEIRD societies. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Joe: Yeah. So when you compare university students, whether you’re looking at personality measures or measures on the “I am” kayaker test, you find the university students who it’s not surprising. Often, university students leave their natal home, their village, their families. They might live at the university. The university is a European institution. The educational system encourages individualism. There’s rules against plagiarism. The whole institution is a very individualistic institution. So even when these are in societies that aren’t very Western, they tend to westernize the populations that attend to them and we see that in the psychological data.

Jim: Obviously shows that there’s lots of things that drive this style of mind that we call WEIRDness from the long-term and perhaps fairly subtle like cousin marriage rules to things that perhaps do something similar in a much shorter period of time such as the institutions of modern science delivered in a non-WEIRD society.

Joe: Yeah. I mean, one of the things I try to emphasize in the book, which I hope people don’t overlook, is that these things can be changed relatively quickly. So if you look at… I use second generation immigrants in the book to illustrate the cultural nature of these processes because what you can do is our analyses where we look at, say, immigrants, second generation immigrants in Europe. So these are people whose parents came from another country, but they’ve grown up entirely in European country, went to European schools, fluent speakers of the language. But you can still predict something of their behavior using the kinship intensity where the church exposure of the places where their parents came from. So that shows the power of this affecting this. But it’s also worth emphasizing that these effects are echoes. So they’re smaller than you see with the parents, and they disappear a generation or two later. So the effects aren’t long-lasting.

Jim: Let me just toss out a counter example. Let’s get your thoughts to it. Are you familiar with the work of Edward Banfield and his work on what he calls amoral familialism in Southern Italy?

Joe: Yeah. I mean, I do know that work. And it’s actually inspired a lot of work in economics. I read it as an anthropologist, it’s an ethnography. But we think that we can account for some of those patterns using this approach. So people tend to think Italy is a great case because it has this interesting sociological pattern where the north is quite different from the south. But if you look back into the history of Italy, the north actually experienced… And of course, Italy is all Catholic now, right? Or at least the church has been present in Italy for a long time.

Joe: But if you look back into the history of Italy, the north experienced a quite different history and it was under the Carolingian Empire. So in the historical case I make in the book, the biggest, earliest, and strongest doses of this marriage and family program, this transformation of the family was in the Carolingian Empire because the Carolingian rulers team up with a pope and the Catholic church and begin a series of reforms and changes that really imposed this marriage and family program. And they controlled Northern Italy. So that gets the full dosage of this. Meanwhile, Southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia are not under this and they’re not getting this. They’re parts of it under the Byzantine Empire. So Greek orthodox and under Islamic rule for periods of time.

Joe: So if you look at the rates of cousin marriage across Italy, it varies. It’s quite low in the north, higher in the south, and quite high in Sicily. So this is where you know the family is very important. So thinking about things like the mafia traces to Sicily and Southern Italy. Whereas in Northern Italy, you have the Renaissance, rise of the banking industry, those kinds of things. We can explain variation amongst modern day Italians in their sort of trusting strangers or the willingness to give blood to strangers using the amount of cousin marriage in the mid-20th century in the Italian provinces.

Jim: Very good. Yet more evidence that seems to support your story. Let’s go on to our last topic now. It actually touches on your professional field of human evolutionary biology. What’s the evidence or lack of evidence for what impact the emergence of WEIRDness in the West has had on the genetics of the people in the West?

Joe: Yeah. So in a lot of times when people deal with these big questions about the poverty and wealth of nations, they avoid the genetics questions because the sort of sociology of the field is you don’t actually have to tackle it. But I feel that that leaves the door open for nonscientific accounts of the role of genetics. So I wanted to take the question really seriously and consider the possibility that some of these changes, these changes in institutions and culture of the kind that Greg Clark is thinking about, the economist, Greg Clark, and asked to wonder whether this could have affected genes leading to genetic variation amongst populations that might be linked to psychology.

Joe: And at this point, there’s no reason to think that there’s genetic variation among populations that explain any of this psychological variation. But in fact, I think the argument would go the opposite direction. And what I lay out in the last chapter is that the kinds of processes I’m describing occur mostly in the rapidly growing urban centers, towns, cities, free cities, in different parts of Europe. And that’s where a lot of this action occurs in terms of the development of representative governments and these guilds and not so much monasteries, but other kinds of voluntary associations. And the thing that I think gets forgotten is that European cities up until the last few centuries were death traps, right? These were places where people got sick and got plague. So people were moving into the cities. And in order to grow, cities had to have a large inflow of people from the rural areas because some of them were going to die from various epidemic infectious diseases.

Joe: If there was genetic variation in these psychological traits actually would have been selected against because people were moving into these towns and cities, which weren’t healthy until public health gets started in the early 19th century, and then really doesn’t get rolling until the end of the 19th century. So it was only in the 20th century that cities become healthy places to be. In fact, cities in the West are healthier than the countryside, at least urbanites are healthier than people in the countryside. But that’s a relatively recent phenomena and would have been the opposite way in the past. So if anything, the genetic story goes in the opposite direction that one might think.

Jim: I found that to be a really interesting, and as you say, kind of counterintuitive result that you’re able to find. And that’s been an area that I know a little bit about. It turns out that the cities in the West were net killers until 1900. Only then did natural increase in western cities actually get above zero because again, one of the great surprises to me of intellectual history, the germ theory didn’t really get nailed down until 1870. So you really couldn’t do scientific public health. You could do trial and error public health before that and they made some progress. But until you understood the germ theory, it was really kind of hard to do high power public health. And so until 1900, the city stopped being net killers makes one wonder if in the future, one will start to see some genetic coevolution between WEIRDness and genes as those differential reproductive rates start to point the other way.

Joe: Yeah. The only thing is that… I mean, I don’t know which way this is going to go ultimately, but urbanites as I understand it still have fewer kids.

Jim: That’s probably true.

Joe: Although the mortality side of the equation is off or has switched, the number of kids hasn’t switched.

Jim: Yeah. So I think it’s the bottom line from that is that it shows us the power of cultural evolution that really doesn’t require any significant amount of genetic bootstrapping to go quite a long way.

Joe: Right. And they don’t have to go in the same direction.

Jim: Absolutely. A good point. Well, I like to thank you, Joe, maybe unless you have some final comments. You want to make wrapping up?

Joe: That was fun, Jim. Thanks.

Jim: Yeah, this is really good. I enjoyed it very much. I strongly recommend the book and thanks for being on the show.

Joe: All right. Great. Bye-bye.

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