WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) People

Thanks to George for sending along this fascinating link about a recent paper entitled "The weirdest people in the world?"authored by Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. I was able to find a copy of the paper here.

The core argument of the paper, based upon cross-cultural results examining how people play the Ultimatum Game or experience optical illusions, is that Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD) people are, well, weird when compared to the rest of the world.

From Adam McDowell's National Post article about this research:

The article, titled "The weirdest people in the world?", appears in the current issue of the journal Brain and Behavioral Sciences. Dr. Henrich and co-authors Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan argue that life-long members of societies that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic — people who are WEIRD — see the world in ways that are alien from the rest of the human family...

After analyzing reams of data from earlier studies, the UBC team found that WEIRD people reacted differently from others in experiment after experiment involving measures of fairness, anti-social punishment and co-operation, as well as visual illusions and questions of individualism and conformity.
Why are WEIRD people so weird? The researchers suspect that it's due to the how the brain has been affected and shaped by the Industrial Revolution:
If WEIRD people are indeed weird, it is the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that have made them so. In the example of the Muller-Lyer illusion, the UBC team hypothesizes that growing up in an industrial-era environment with plenty of 90-degree lines and carpentered edges led to WEIRD people's sense of vision being susceptible to the deception.

"We live in this world with police and institutions and pre-packaged food, TV, the Internet, watches and clocks and calendars. Our heads are loaded with all this information for navigating those environments. So we should expect our brains to be distorted," Dr. Henrich says.
All this raises a fascinating question: If the WEIRD mind has been "distorted" by the Industrial Revolution, how might this affect how WEIRD people think about God, faith, community and morality?

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11 thoughts on “WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) People”

  1. I think where our weirdness shows up most, is in the way we make the Bible into something of a technical manual, instead of letting it be a literary construction. Faith in Christ and salvation take on characteristics of a chemical reaction or mechanism; A+B turns into C; the "salvation prayer" flips a switch and turns God toward you.... The church is more a place of manufacturing than it is a garden.

    The literalist/technical approach to the scriptures, makes Jesus into an ingredient of the salvation recipe.

    The literary/meaning approach on the other hand, lets us see Jesus as the Human of humans, and allows us into a hope and faith that we can experience God with all the passion and immediacy He experienced.

  2. Maybe our WEIRDness (called exceptionalism in other contexts) came about because of our beliefs.

    Unlike the people on the plain of Shinar, we've found a way to build and serve each other without giving up our individuality. We are WEIRD because instead of giving up our unique abilities to make bricks for a state opposing God, we used our unique abilities to build a nation of servants.

    BTW, this is just an unthought-through-unholy-fusion of Matt Ridley's "Rational Optimism" and W. Cleon Skousen's "5000 Year Leap."

  3. Speaking with a few people who have traveled the world extensively,
    I get a general sense that Europeans (also Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) roll their eyes and shake their heads about Americans (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) while we Americans generally do the same toward Europeans. I guess there are other deep-rooted cultural factors and attitudes behind the perceived differences of WIERDness. A career naval officer I knew repeatedly emphasized how arrogant Americans were viewed by the rest of the world.

  4. When traveling I was able to pick Americans out of the crowd; once I was shown what to look for. Head up, willing to smile, willing to make eye contact, willing to get involved.

    The arrogance of the freedom makes us stand out.
    We are loud and obnoxious even when we are doing nothing but walking quietly to get lunch at the corner noodle shop.

  5. I found it interesting that North Americans were more generous than others in the "Ultimatum Game." And yet that very generosity is denigrated in other cultures.

    "Others punish participants perceived as too altruistic in co-operation games, but very few in the English-speaking West would ever dream of penalizing the generous."

    If that's the case, it seems that, as a nation, we shoot ourselves in the foot by trying to be a bread basket to the world.

  6. I like this point a lot.
    The conclusion seems to be WEIRDness is a result of the Industrial Revolution.
    What if the Industrial Revolution was caused by exceptionalism and the causalities are confused.

    "But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked."

  7. Richard,

    I was fascinated with this article and the study because it can teach us something about us WEIRD folk and non-WEIRD.

    But I think the the UBC folk do not push the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution assumption far enough. The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution have roots in Medieval Christian mindset which gave us the mechanical clock, canon law, Christian application of Arabic numerals, and the technology of the printed page. The very act of rationalized, structured, chronological, and collective work as we know it in our WEIRD world developed in the late 15th and early 16th century Venetian lace workshops (which were a kind of borrowed amalgam of Arabic, Persian, and Chinese practices).

    The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution put a premium on truth as accuracy and precision rather than the Biblical notion of truth as a communal narrative of "un-forgetting" or remembering.

    David's remarks are helpful here regarding the dynamism of charity.

  8. Guided by Jonathan Haidt's research (, I might say that one effect of becoming so WEIRD is a loss of three-fifths of our moral depth.

    Here's Jon's TED talk:
    And a talk he gave for the New Yorker:

  9. The argument from Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan that people in the WEIRD demo graphic are behavioral ‘outliers’ is open to dispute. 

    On what basis is the outlier status calculated?
 If by population size, then yes.

    But if by GDP, then according to IMF 2009 statistics of millions of GDP:
World 57,843,376

    European Union 16,414,697

    United States 14,119,050

    therefore the EU and USA account for 52.8% of world GDP alone. On this basis, they are not WEIRD at all, but the majority.

    If one does the analysis by population numbers, of course, the result is not the same.

    However, since the inevitable trend seems to be for more education, industrialisation and democracy (if not richness), then the WEIRD societies seem to indicate the trend that all the world is headed for, and therefore, in reality, an excellent source of experimental data if one is concerned with the future state of the world.

    So, I would suggest you think up another name – perhaps WIRED – Western Industrialised Rich Educated Democracies. This is much more in tune with the whole way everything is going, and as a bonus, does not reek of the defeatist left-liberal mind-set that created WEIRD.

    In addition, I would add that the invention of nonsense like WEIRD is exactly why psychologists have such a bad name with the general public.

  10. Adam McDowell's archives do not contain the review you cite. In fact there is no
    record of that review on the internet at all.

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