« Heresy of the week: There should be more than one National Curriculum | Main | Corporate tax dodgers make us all poorer, but the poorest people in the world suffer most »

Faith and community
1 April 2013

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably WEIRD

Readers of ConservativeHome aren’t necessarily weird, but they’re almost certainly WEIRD – western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. It’s a useful acronym, because it reminds us that most people in the world aren’t WEIRD, and it is we westerners who are the exception.

The point is explored in a fascinating article by Ethan Watters for the Pacific Standard:

  • “It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors.”

Watters draws upon the groundbreaking work of the anthropologist Joe Henrich, who argues that most academic research in human behaviour is based on a massively unrepresentative sample of humanity:

  • “A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how… more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population...
  • “...Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.”

Re-running the studies with people from non-WEIRD parts of the world uncovers a variety of hitherto unsuspected differences. Across a range of thought processes – from visual perception to moral reasoning – it turns out that we don’t all think alike.

But why should this be? It’s not down to biological differences – people everywhere have much the same thinking equipment. Rather, it is culture that makes the difference, influencing not only what we think about, but how we think about it:

  • “Ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, economic status, parenting styles, rural upbringing versus urban or suburban—there are hundreds of cultural differences that individually and in endless combinations influence our conceptions of fairness, how we categorize things, our method of judging and decision making, and our deeply held beliefs about the nature of the self, among other aspects of our psychological makeup.”

Of course, any proper conservative could have told the academics that tradition plays a vital role in shaping and perpetuating ways of thought. But, unfortunately, conservatism is no longer the dominant philosophy of the WEIRD world. Its place in the western mind has been usurped by liberalism, which places extreme emphasis on the autonomy of the individual. It is a value system that can be summed up in that universal moral justification of our age: ‘I’m just being myself.’

The reason why it took the academics so long to realise the importance of culture and tradition is that they themselves are the supreme exponents of the liberal way of thinking:

  • “Taking an object (in this case the human mind) out of its context is, after all, what distinguishes the analytic reasoning style prevalent in the West. Similarly, we may have underestimated the impact of culture because the very ideas of being subject to the will of larger historical currents and of unconsciously mimicking the cognition of those around us challenges our Western conception of the self as independent and self-determined. The historical missteps of Western researchers, in other words, have been the predictable consequences of the WEIRD mind doing the thinking.”

How’s that for an irony?


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.

Register to get The Deep End delivered to your inbox.