Nilesh's Reviews > The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich
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it was amazing
bookshelves: behavioral-fields, good-non-fiction

In the times we live in, it is not easy to unabashedly glorify a race as highly successful and sing songs of its unique facets as reasons behind that success. This is particularly difficult when the unique list consists of cultural norms and practices that might be widely unacceptable in other civilizations, implicitly demeaning others' practices.

The provocative book on the WEIRD does this and far worse. The author spends almost no effort on sugarcoating by highlighting any of the WEIRD cultures' adverse outcomes. He agrees in passing that there have been a few substantial ones, but the book sticks to its purpose of explaining why a particular group of people could embark on a substantial innovation quest while others could not.

The claims that different races are psychologically wired differently and the causes lie in their cultural history are sensational, if not outright sacrilegious. The author explicitly links these claims to these races' economic and lifestyle divergences, which is even more scandalous.

The book might not sit easily with a lot of people, but it is a compelling read with myriads of powerful and highly original arguments. If the text smacks of triumphalism of some kind, which could be abused by bigots with relevant agendas, it is a small side effect as those with perverse purposes do not necessarily need such books.

The main point about the co-evolution of psychology and culture is staggering. It might not be as theoretically solid as the author thinks, but it is worth exploring and knowing. That certain first Catholic, and subsequently Protestant, habits bred individuals that were less connected to and who less identified with their kins, which became the seed that eventually bloomed to market-oriented, selfish homo economicus is not an easy construct. The book makes the case solidly.

With many case studies, historical anecdotes, and behavioral experiments, the author has something new to offer in virtually every section of the book. Even those who vehemently disagree with the conclusions could walk away with a lot of new knowledge and information, given the breadth of the academic landscape traversed by the author.

From simple things like how people from different races respond to a simple question like who are you to the parking tickets of different countries' delegates at the UN, the distinction between guilt and shame to the way different cultures interact with strangers, how literate people's brains behave in recognizing faces to polygamy's impact on hormones...the book fluently moves from one new set of information to the next with staggering clarity and alacrity.

As more work is done and more books are written on the idea threads that originated in this book, a lot of criticism will be heaped on every logical leap made in the book. The bigger issue is what it means for future: WEIRD tendencies were great for a particular stage in human evolution - like in the last five- or so hundred years, but they would not have worked well in a hunter-gatherer community, for instance. Or, not when one is fighting a pandemic!

There is a massive transformation in many other societies in the post-tech world because of the changed lifestyles and information availability. From the author's well-argued different psychological starting points, one can argue, different societies are psychologically transforming differently and will likely have completely different economic evolutions going forward. In other words, it is quite possible that WEIRD may not remain economically ahead forever.

In summary, this is one of the rare works which will spawn a new field. The author's style and writing skills supplement staggering conclusions and mountains of new information/arguments. Worth reading multiple times.

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Reading Progress

January 29, 2021 – Started Reading
January 30, 2021 – Finished Reading
February 1, 2021 – Shelved
February 1, 2021 – Shelved as: behavioral-fields
February 1, 2021 – Shelved as: good-non-fiction

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