A New York Times Notable Book of 2020
A bold, epic account of how the co-evolution of psychology and culture created the peculiar Western mind that has profoundly shaped the modern world.
Perhaps you are WEIRD: raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. If so, you’re rather psychologically peculiar.
Unlike much of the world today, and most people who have ever lived, WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical. They focus on themselves—their attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations—over their relationships and social roles. How did WEIRD populations become so psychologically distinct? What role did these psychological differences play in the industrial revolution and the global expansion of Europe during the last few centuries?
In The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich draws on cutting-edge research in anthropology, psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology to explore these questions and more. He illuminates the origins and evolution of family structures, marriage, and religion, and the profound impact these cultural transformations had on human psychology. Mapping these shifts through ancient history and late antiquity, Henrich reveals that the most fundamental institutions of kinship and marriage changed dramatically under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church. It was these changes that gave rise to the WEIRD psychology that would coevolve with impersonal markets, occupational specialization, and free competition—laying the foundation for the modern world.
Provocative and engaging in both its broad scope and its surprising details, The WEIRDest People in the World explores how culture, institutions, and psychology shape one another, and explains what this means for both our most personal sense of who we are as individuals and also the large-scale social, political, and economic forces that drive human history.
Includes black-and-white illustrations.
About the Author
Joseph Henrich is an anthropologist and the author of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, among other books. He is the chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, where his research focuses on evolutionary approaches to psychology, decision-making, and culture.
"Engagingly written, excellently organized and meticulously argued . . . This is an extraordinarily ambitious book, along the lines of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which gets a brief and respectful mention, but going much farther, and bolstering the argument at every point with evidence gathered by Henrich’s “lab,” with dozens of collaborators, and wielding data points from world history, anthropology, economics, game theory, psychology and biology, all knit together with “statistical razzle-dazzle” when everyday statistics is unable to distinguish signal from noise."
—Daniel C. Dennett, The New York Times
"Henrich brings to the argument the same intensity of detail that made the WEIRD article stand out like neon among its peers . . . these days, few anthropologists are willing to put their data on the table, make a claim, and welcome challengers. We need more big books like this one. It is very much worth reading."
—T.M. Luhrman, The American Scholar
"[The WEIRDEST People in the World] is a landmark in social thought . . . read it in a state of such excitement that I did nothing else for two days. It amounts to nothing less than a reinterpretation of human history, based on the psychological differences between societies discovered in Henrich’s field work."
—Matthew Sayed, The Times
"Henrich offers a capacious new perspective that could facilitate the necessary work of sorting out what's irredeemable and what's invaluable in the singular, impressive, and wildly problematic legacy of Western domination."
—Judith Schulevitz, The Atlantic
"A fascinating, vigorously argued work that probes deeply into the way “WEIRD people” think."
"Ambitious and fascinating . . . This meaty book is ready-made for involved discussions."
"[A] sweeping and magisterial book, likely to become as foundational to cultural psychology as the WEIRD acronym [Henrich] and his colleagues coined a decade ago."
—Alex Mackiel, Quillette
"Joseph Henrich's The WEIRDest People in the World . . . makes for stunning reading. (It is also written with such wit and humor, and luminous clarity.) Probably an understatement to say that it is one of the most important books of the year."
—Cass Sunstein, author of The War According to Star Wars
"Joseph Henrich has undertaken a massively ambitious work that explains the transition to the modern world from kin-based societies, drawing on a wealth of data across disciplines that significantly contributes to our understanding of this classic issue in social theory."
—Francis Fukuyama, author of The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay
"This delightful and thought-provoking book argues there is nothing natural about most of the values, attitudes and priorities of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) people. They have evolved over time, in response to specific historical, institutional environmental circumstances. It is more vital than ever to understand how we can improve living standards throughout the world and deal with spectacular global challenges. Understanding where humanity's diversity has come from and in what way it matters for confronting our problems is vital. This fascinating book is a must-read for everybody who cares about these questions."
—Daron Acemoglu, co-author of Why Nations Fails and co-author of The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty
"A dazzling achievement. In the course of explaining how modern Western culture differs from all others past and present, Joseph Henrich has both altered and unified the fields of anthropology, history, psychology and economics. He destroys the assumption, common in psychology and endemic in economics, that human nature is everywhere the same. His account makes it possible to understand why some cultures have readily adopted Western tools to transform their societies, economies and politics while others reject those tools."
—Richard Nisbett, author of Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking
“Henrich’s book combines a startling account of the mental and social oddities of westerners with a persuasive new explanation for them. The concept of a universal human psyche will never be the same again.”
—Richard Wrangham, author of The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution
"This is a deep and important book of tremendous erudition, engagingly written with vivid examples, that highlights at once the ways in which human beings are similar and dissimilar the world over.”
—Nicholas Christakis, author of Blueprint
"This book is a tour de force. It seamlessly combines ideas from evolutionary biology and cultural evolution with data from the psychology laboratory, field experiments in remote villages, high-tech econometrics and ethnographic anecdote to explain why people in western societies think differently than other people, and how these differences culturally evolved over the last 1500 years. The WEIRDest People in the World sets a new standard in the human sciences."
—Robert Boyd, author of How Humans Evolved
"There's nothing so fascinating as a social anthropologist's analysis of his own tribe. Joseph Henrich shows how strange and exceptional Western society is when compared with most of the world, and links it with features of the WEIRD brain."
—John Barton, author of A History of the Bible
“In the last 500 years, Westerners have become more educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic than any other societies in history—which, says Joe Henrich, has made Westerners think differently about the world from everyone else. Drawing on anthropology, economics, history, and psychology, this magnificent book measures and even explains just how different Westerners are. It is a major contribution to the debates over why the West rules. It will make you think even more differently about the world than you already do.”
—Ian Morris, author of War! What is it Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots
“Joe Henrich has thought more deeply about cultural evolution than anybody alive. His fascinating insights into just how weird people like he and I are, with our western lifestyles, and what the implications of that are for better and for worse, are a great contribution to scholarship and literature.”
—Matt Ridley, author of How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom
"Written in clear and vivid prose, Joseph Henrich’s new book argues that the psychological characteristics of populations in modern prosperous countries are not universal to human societies. They were the result of institutional changes brought about by the Catholic Church in Europe during the middle ages, and laid the foundation for almost everything else that followed. Whether or not you agree, this bold and original book will shape the debate about the origins of modern society for years to come."
—Paul Seabright, author of The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life
“Reading this book feels like digging in your backyard and discovering a lost city. What Henrich has unearthed is truly astonishing: The modern West owes its prosperity to strange ways of thinking, created by accident centuries before the European Enlightenment. If that sounds improbable to you, prepare to meet a mountain of evidence, compiled by one of the great systematic thinkers of our time. This book is at once monumental and thrilling."
—Joshua Greene, author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them
“In this brilliant synthesis of cultural evolution and social psychology, Joseph Henrich explores the deep historical roots of individualism, generalized trust, impersonal prosociality, and analytical thinking—in short, the psychological traits that make people WEIRD.”
—Peter Turchin, the author of Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth
"Polymath and pioneering thinker Joseph Henrich has made a major contribution to the social sciences by demonstrating, through careful study, how Western societies are psychologically odd, relative to the rest of humanity. Now, in this engaging and accessible text, Henrich elaborates on these important ideas, by explaining how the West got to be WEIRD in the first place, and how the peculiar psychology of Western countries proved instrumental to their success. Along the way, Henrich makes a compelling case that human minds are not fated to think in a universal manner, but tune themselves surprisingly flexibly to the idiosyncrasies of local culture."
—Kevin Laland, author of Evolutionary Causation: Biological and Philosophical Reflections
"Generations of scholars have grappled with the question of why the West rose. Henrich’s intriguing new answer reveals how history shaped psychology and psychology changed history. Western Europe’s shift from traditional kinship networks to voluntary associations fostered the individualism and literacy that opened up a uniquely WEIRD path to transformative progress. Propelled by a bold vision, this landmark study is required reading for anyone curious about the origins of modernity."
—Walter Scheidel, author of Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity
"The most absorbing, provocative, and compelling book I have read in a long time. Joseph Henrich’s thrilling exposé of cultural variety and evolution is grounded in meticulous science, and his arguments go beyond the milestone of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. You will never look again in the same way at your own seemingly universal values.
—Uta Frith, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development, University College London
“A masterpiece. Staggering in range, intricate in detail, thrilling in ambition, this book is a landmark in social thought. Henrich may go down as the most influential social scientist of the first half of the twenty-first century.”
—Matthew Syed, author of Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking
"If you are considering reading this book, you are almost certainly WEIRD. Henrich lucidly explains how and why you got that way. Going beyond both blank slate, social constructivist and naïve models of common human psychology, he also makes a powerful case that, for human beings, culture and biology are always inextricably intertwined.”
—Edward Slingerland, Distinguished University Scholar and Professor of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia and author of Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity
"The Weirdest People in the World is a novel and fascinating look at our democratic western societies. The book presents a wealth of evidence that cultural learning and specific cultural rules of kinship relations generated the psychological foundations underlying the economic success of “the West”. It is an exciting read that covers economics, sociology, psychology, history, and neuroscience."
—Ernst Fehr, University of Zurich, author of Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain