Most psychology studies involve people living in Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic societies. But the peculiarities of WEIRD thinking are far from universal
2 September 2020
HOW does the culture we live in influence our psychology, motivation and decision making? Joe Henrich was a cultural anthropologist working in the Amazon when he first tried to find out. He pioneered the use of experimental cooperation games like the prisoner’s dilemma and the ultimatum game outside the lab. Later, he realised that his findings have big implications for psychological research, which tends to focus on students from Western backgrounds. In 2010, he introduced the “WEIRD” concept to describe the unusual psychology of the subjects in the vast majority of these studies. Now professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, he tells New Scientist about the origins of WEIRDness, its impact on history and its role in the modern world.
Dan Jones: When did you realise that you, your colleagues and most of the people you teach are WEIRD?
Joe Henrich: The WEIRD label emerged from a series of lunches I started having around 2006 with two cultural psychologists, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan. We had noticed that in the behavioural sciences and psychology in particular, about 96 per cent of study participants were from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic societies – and that they were often psychological outliers in comparison with other populations. WEIRD people tend to show greater trust in strangers and fairness towards anonymous others; think more analytically rather than holistically; make more use of intentions in moral judgements; are more concerned with personality, the self and the cultivation of personal attributes; they are more individualistic and less loyal to their group; and they are more likely to judge the behaviour of …