Here are a bunch of loosely organized ideas that didn’t have a natural place in my review of WEIRDest People.
Heuristics and Biases
WEIRDest People is almost as important for understanding human biases as is Thinking Fast and Slow.
This is likely connected in some way with WEIRD beliefs in universal rules, and/or reduced attention to context-sensitive knowledge.
Testosterone and Monogamy
WEIRD cultures have lowered testosterone levels via monogamy.
That’s important, since it reduces impulsivity, reduces competitive urges, and increases positive-sum thinking. Those effects make it easier to create teams, voluntary organizations, etc.
Monogamy is hardly the only influence on testosterone. Something has been decreasing testosterone over the past few decades. That’s presumably desirable for society as a whole, even if it isn’t so great for the individuals who are leading the decline.
WEIRD populations reproduce at a slower rate. Various rules contributed to later marriage, smaller family sizes, and an unusual number of women remaining unmarried.
This presumably made it easier to break out of the Malthusian trap. But it seems unusual for a population that reproduces slowly to out-compete its neighbors.
I’m surprised to find large differences in how much various cultures care about distinguishing intentional and accidental harm, with WEIRD people caring the most, and a few cultures barely distinguishing them at all.
Some of this might be a byproduct of other differences in cognition. WEIRD people pay more attention to the internal mental states of others (due to individualism?).
Could this be related to Julian Jaynes’ ideas? Jaynes’ claims sort of sound like an extreme version of what Henrich says about internal mental states. Presumably Jaynes would have disagreed with Henrich about when European culture began becoming WEIRD (dating it a millennium or two earlier than Henrich).
In most other cultures, a clan as a whole is typically responsible for any actions of a clan member that would require compensating an aggrieved clan. Also, property seems to be mostly clan property, not individual property. I suspect that group-level responsibility reduces the importance of evaluating intent.
Would other cultures have adopted the Western judicial practices regarding intent if they relied on individual responsibility? Or is the WEIRD focus on intent strange enough that I should be really puzzled about what caused it? I’m confused.
What about within-clan disputes? Apparently few of those are handled by anything like a judicial system?
Jewish culture seems to have most features of WEIRD culture. The main difference that Henrich mentions is that Jews place much less emphasis on intent when evaluating behavior. I’m confused as to what Henrich’s model says about how successful Jewish culture should be.
The Amish seem to have some success at combining the benefits of WEIRD culture with strong social bonds.
Mormons seem to be pretty WEIRD, now that Western marriage rules have been imposed on them. Henrich’s model implies that their polygamy must have caused some harm, if only via increased testosterone. Henrich is able to identify young Mormon men as having some problems, but it’s unclear whether Mormon culture as a whole is having any trouble keeping up with WEIRD success. That might mean that it was relatively safe for them to adopt polygamy once Christianity had subdued kin loyalty and elevated religious loyalty.
Islam has rather rigid religious prescriptions based on strong adherence to the text of the Koran. Their resistance to changing marriage rules may explain why the Mideast has been culturally stable and stagnant, and more resistant to Western attempts to impose WEIRD culture on them.
Less WEIRD Protestants
What about US south and Appalachia? They’re pretty Protestant, yet seem to have weaker versions of some features of WEIRD culture.
I’m guessing the explanation is something along the lines of Albion’s Seed: there was a lot of variation in Protestant culture at the time when various parts of the eastern US were settled, and it seems that the initial southern settlers hadn’t adopted key WEIRD features such as the rule against cousin marriage. This seems to be an example of a phenomenon that Henrich swept under the rug.
Henrich’s discussion of China, Japan, and Korea is too cryptic. Why have they been more able than most non-European countries to assimilate parts of WEIRD culture, thereby mostly matching Western affluence? Alas, the book is big enough already that I wouldn’t have wanted him to add another hundred pages, and I’m guessing it would require more than that to adequately analyze east Asia.
I’ll speculate that most east Asian nations developed ways of partly expanding trust beyond kin networks. Something associated with that made them more open to WEIRD ideas than are most large cultures. (Lots of hand-waving here; I hope someone else analyzes this more carefully.)
Marxism incorporates many WEIRD memes, and likely helped install more of Western culture than most people realize (e.g. China westernized marriage around 1950). But Marxism seems not to be a main cause of east Asia catching up with the West (see Taiwan and South Korea). I’ll guess Marxism was mainly a symptom of openness to WEIRD culture.
Chinese culture has guanxi, which seems to generate some of the benefits of extended kin networks, in a manner that’s much more dynamic than networks based on birth and marriage. That’s likely a key reason why China became a large and enduring empire.
Reliance on guanxi, instead of WEIRD universal rules and trust of strangers, causes China to be classified as corrupt by Western standards. Note that to non-WEIRD people, what we call “corruption” corresponds to what they call “family loyalty”. Chinese culture seems to ensure that corruption causes less harm than do most non-WEIRD cultures.
Henrich suggests that it’s hard to generate WEIRD anti-corruption norms without some rather pervasive changes to culture. So I don’t expect China to adopt WEIRD anti-corruption norms anytime soon.
India is too complicated for me to analyze. Having two major multinational religions likely has some strange effects. Britain devoted a relatively large amount of time and effort to imposing WEIRD culture on India, and maybe similar efforts elsewhere would produce similar mixed successes (South Africa seems somewhat close to that?).
Rituals are important means of influencing who cooperates with whom.
Rituals … exploit the bugs in our mental programs … Synchrony seems to exploit both our evolved action-representation system and our mentalizing abilities. When moving in step with others, the neurological mechanisms used to represent our own actions and those used for others’ actions overlap in our brains. This is a neurological by-product of how our body’s own representational system is deployed to help model and predict others’ movements – it’s a glitch. The convergence in these representations blurs the distinction between ourselves and others, which leads us to perceive others as more like us and possibly even extensions of ourselves. For evolutionary reasons, this illusion draws people closer together and creates a feeling of interdependence.
Henrich gets some pretty important things right here. That makes it all the more frustrating when he intersperses those insights with words like bugs, glitch, and illusion, for what look to me like very valuable features. I see here a tension between the notion of identity that’s codified by our legal system, and a much richer (but less legible) notion of identity that our minds often act on.
When I use a spoon to stir food that I’m cooking, significant parts of my mind treat the spoon as an extension of my body. When I’m driving a car, I mostly treat the car as if it were part of me. My computer sometimes functions as part of my memory. Those are not illusions. They’re reflections of the extent to which my mind controls the behavior of those tools. It seems quite natural for my mind to apply to tools many of the heuristics that it uses for my limbs. It’s not obvious why I should exclude members of my tribe from those patterns. Henrich seems to be using a WEIRD rule that blinds him to my perspective.
P.S. I also have some related comments on LessWrong.