Why is Western culture so WEIRD?

Peter Wyatt writes: Working as a minister in an outer urban estate for almost ten years often creates questions: why do some people ignore you whilst others are warm and friendly? Why do some people seem open and others closed? Why is mission more fruitful with those who are on the edge of things rather than those who have strong family networks? On a broader front why has the Western world got into “culture wars”—the people who are from “somewhere” versus the people from “nowhere” as Theresa May put it?

The answer, according to Joseph Henrich, is cultural psychology. For many decades psychologists have assumed that everyone in the world acts like an undergraduate from the USA in terms of motivations and behaviours. According to Henrich, this is mistaken, and his new book The Weirdest People in the World seeks to explain that western people are the exception rather than the rule. He is an anthropologist and his book is brim full of data, charts and statistical analysis. His thesis is that culture is the software on the hardware of genetics, and in the same way as our genes evolve, cultures evolves in the face of competition and conflict, to create the most successful society.

In The Weirdest People in the World, Joseph Henrich says that western people are WEIRD—Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. They tend to have certain features in common—an individualistic sense of identity and purpose, weak ties to extended family, a universal sense of morality with guilt as a means of social control, less obedience to elders and tradition, not marrying blood relatives, and more trusting of people outside your own family.  He argues that this is an unusual state of affairs in the history of the human race, as most societies were and still are what he calls ‘kin-based’. Features of kin-based societies include an overwhelmingly corporate sense of identity with strong family ties, a tendency to marrying cousins, being loyal to one’s tribe or family, using shame as a means of social punishment, distrusting people outside one’s clan, having respect for elders, and conforming to the group norms. In fact Henrich uses ‘cousin-marriage societies’ as almost an interchangeable term for kin-based societies.

Furthermore, WEIRD and non-WEIRD people define themselves in totally different ways. WEIRD people will more often define themselves by their personal attributes, abilities and aspirations—for example, I am “passionate”, a “scientist”, a “cyclist”. Non-WEIRD people tend to define themselves by their social relationships—I am “Josh’s mum” or “Maya’s dad”. The latter seems, on the face of it, a more humanly fulfilling way to live, and perhaps even a more Christian one, where people are put before things, and our being is defined by our relationships. But Henrich would argue that there is a trade-off. In traditional kin-based societies, it is the family or tribal network that comes first, not the person. The result is that those outside the network are ignored and those inside are constrained and, at worst, crushed. Is there another way?

Henrich says that “weirdness”, or cultural software, has created advantages over more traditional kin cultures and resulted in inventiveness, meritocracy, trust, representative government and even patience and restraint.  He cites countless studies which show that WEIRD societies are more “pro-social”—in other words, more likely to do things that benefit wider society such as donating blood, not parking illegally, being willing to report your own family to the police if they’ve committed a crime, to name a few.

To answer my opening questions, Henrich would say those who have a dense family or kin network, on my London council estate, are more distrustful of strangers (me), and less open to give their allegiance to a new way of life (Christianity). Those who aren’t in strong networks are conversely more open to new people and new experiences. I would say that this is fairly well borne out in practice, from my own experience.

Where did all this weirdness come from? Henrich says it started with Christianity and, in particular, the Catholic church. From the earliest point, the Catholic church systematically outlawed both polygamy, and marriage to close relatives including first and second cousins, brother- or sister-in-laws as well as uncles or aunts. He calls it the church’s Marriage and Family Program (MFP) and he plots the march of this program across spheres of influence and the resulting effect on cousin marriage and polygamy.

Cousin marriage was a major pillar of kin-based societies in that it created stronger interlinking familial ties within clans, and the MFP gradually destroyed these links over a period of hundreds of years. By 1500, kin-based societies were pushed to the margins of Europe, for example in Sicily and Southern Italy which were not under direct Catholic control. The destruction of kin-based social structures, Henrich suggests, led instead to other forms of communal activity—voluntary associations, trade and craft guilds and, of course, church congregations. Freed from obligations to clan or kin and yet restrained by a sense that God was watching your actions, Henrich argues that people became more prosocial—acting in ways that benefit society as a whole rather than just your family—the opposite of antisocial.

In the 16th century the Reformation came along and supercharged the whole process. This aspect of the thesis, of course, isn’t new but dates back to Max Weber and his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism published in 1905. The Reformation pushed people to see themselves as sinners standing before God alone, rather than being defined as part of any group membership. Because of this, Protestantism led to an explosion of teaching children to read, of enterprise, industry and creativity in the last five hundred years. Henrich maps the establishment of schools in Germany in the 16th century and correlates this with the spread of Protestant ideas, and the growing prosperity of these regions.

But then Henrich takes the argument much further with batteries of experimental data looking at how WEIRD and non-WEIRD people behave in different ways even to this day. One example is unpaid parking tickets given to foreign diplomats in New York. Surprisingly, you can accurately correlate the number of unpaid tickets to what Henrich calls the “kin-intensity-index” (KII) of the diplomat’s home country. The higher the KII, the higher the number of unpaid parking tickets – the highest being Egypt and lowest being Sweden. Another fascinating example is that blood donation is high in Northern Italy (with a low KII), whereas it is low in Southern Italy (with a high KII). Indeed, the corruption index of countries correlate strongly with the kin intensity index. WEIRD societies work in a completely different, more prosocial way, according to Henrich.

Henrich presents a wall of empirical evidence which is hard to argue against, but there are omissions. Barely does he mention the impact of racism and colonialism, and how the West seemed to entirely forget their supposed prosocial values when grabbing whatever resources they could from their colonies. Neither does he account for other great civilisations such as Rome or China, which produced amazing technology for their time, and yet had a variation of kin-based culture. Clearly these societies weren’t influenced by the Catholic church and its Marriage and Family Program. Furthermore, Henrich doesn’t describe why the Catholic church created its marriage restrictions in the first place; he merely suggests that it was a lucky accident of cultural evolution. Christians would disagree! Furthermore, there is a danger that the sustained critique of kin-based societies could be seen as a narrative of western supremacy.

What are Christians to make of this? Some have criticised Henrich for saying that Christianity is purely individualistic and anti-communal. This is to misunderstand Henrich: rather he is saying that the church created alternative communal structures, which were not tied to clan or kin groups, such as voluntary associations and indeed the church itself. Yes, this came with a heavy dose of individualism, but for hundreds of years this was kept in check by the corporate nature of Christian fellowship. This allowed a delicate balance of individual enterprise and creativity, whilst at the same time asserting the church’s prosocial duty—to be fighting for the good of all in terms of social projects such as the abolition of slavery, child-labour and many other welfare improvements.

Only in the 20th and 21st centuries have Western societies abandoned their Christian foundations and become what you might call “hyper-individualistic”— one result of which is our current culture war. Instead, I think Henrich is onto something. The New Testament clearly calls for a new communality where there is neither male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free, which sounds like WEIRD society at its best. The New Testament clearly calls the people to act in a prosocial way—helping your neighbour whatever clan they come from. Perhaps this is what makes the parable of the Good Samaritan so radical—because in the kin-based society of first century Israel, to reach out and help a member of a rival clan would have been extraordinary. In addition, the New Testament clearly calls for law enforcement to be impartial and consistent and for fidelity and monogamy in marriage. What Henrich is saying that this cultural software is not just accidental or irrelevant but intrinsic to the success of the modern world. What Christians should point out to him is that this success, even when it is flawed in many ways, needs spiritual moorings to ensure that it doesn’t spiral off into an extreme form of individualism which would then lose all the benefits of our kin-based ancestry and at the same the positives of our WEIRD culture that dominates in the West.

From a Christian point of view it is clear that both traditional and modern societies can become in thrall to idols of their own making. In the one, the kin or tribe becomes the idol which controls its members, excludes others, and restricts innovation and creativity; in the Western model, the idol is the notion of individual liberty, which results in dangerous conflicts between competing identities, rejects any idea of obligation to one’s fellow human beings and leaves many suffering loneliness. Neither can create a flourishing and enriching society, encouraging creativity enterprise but instilling a duty of compassion and connection to others. Dare I suggest that only when faith in God is placed at the centre can a better balance be struck, with the New Testament providing a model of a diverse fellowship of believers caring for each other but also allowing a personal response of faith to God.

To conclude, Henrich offers an insightful study of the psychology of cultures and busts the myth that the whole world thinks like Westerners. Instead, Henrich places the Christian church as the prime influence in creating our western society—firstly in the Roman Catholic abolition of cousin marriage and secondly in the individualism of the Protestant Reformation. This has led to the western world as we know with its prosperity and its psychological peculiarities. There are many material benefits to this historical process, but also some dangers for the future. The question is: Can the Christian church can once again be an influence in the evolution of our culture, or has it completely abandoned the “salt and light” it once delivered to the world?

Rev Peter Wyatt is married to Michelle and has two teenage children. He is a Church of England minister in a council estate in Croydon where his church runs various social action projects such as a community food shop, support groups and homeless shelter.

If you would like to review a book about contemporary culture, faith or biblical studies, get in touch with me through the contact page.



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21 thoughts on “Why is Western culture so WEIRD?”

  1. A very useful article that I could embroider with all sorts of Illustrations from my time in Lebanon. a) Our children were constantly embarrassed by being asked for details of their extended family and finding that our family tree was impoverished compared to that of their friends, b) As someone who used to teach a subject ( geology) that required some degree of awareness of place, I was astonished to find that my students understood location primarily in terms of family and individuals rather than abstract geographical points. c) In discussing career decisions with students it was astonishing how frequently they would say that what they studied was a family decision. d) Morality was often perceived in terms of how shame or honour would be passed on to the family.

    Now here is the ‘biggie’ that to me completely undermines the arguments that ‘Substitutionary atonement is immoral’. One day I had to individually the English language university entry exams and I was warned that I had to carefully scrutinise identity cards. I asked why and was told that it was considered perfectly acceptable with some families for an older and more English proficient sibling to stand in for a younger one. Family solidarity trumped any concept of individualism. I subsequently came across other instances where a brother would stand in for another brother. So I’ve always figured that if by coming to faith in Jesus we become one of his brothers and sisters, he can substitute for us on the grounds that we are now family.

  2. I’ve just read how Moses offered himself to take the place of the rebellious Israelites but God refused his offer saying he would deal with sinners individually. Reminds me of Paul wishing he could do the same. We may suffer collectively but we are responsible individually.

    • How about Passover? And the unilateral covenant by God with Abraham, Gen 15, which was fulfilled unilaterally in Covenant, by Christ alone in the fullness of his Godness/Sonness/Lambness on the cross. Divine substition; Divine exchange; our life his, his life his righteousness, ours: a new family, a new world-wide (and weird) humanity in Christ the last Adam.

  3. I think the broad brush picture here is right, and shows how radical the Gospel was as it broke out of the Jewish culture into the diverse urban world of the Roman Empire where a new radical pseudo kin culture of the church took root. (Brothers, sisters etc…)

    I’m surprised the discussion hasn’t made reference to the Social Capital literature of Putnam and his school.. Though there are some problems with this as it doesn’t really address the inequalities in economic and other forms of capital – which is where Bordieu is more helpful.

    There are of course lots of nuances and cautions about the data and how to interpret it, but yes there does seem to be a correlation between those who are kin/family focussed and those who are more individualistic, yet more likely to join associations, do volunteering and join and actively take part in church. I suspect this also has impacts on COVID transmission networks – maybe helping to explain why prevalence seems higher in some minority communities, though there are also the impacts of poverty, which is also linked to other health issues.
    What does this say for evangelism? Are there some cultures and some groups where it should be household / family focussed rather than a call for personal conversion? Does this help explain why for example Muslim Background believers struggle to belong and integrate in Western churches?

    • Is that *bonding* social capital, or *bridging* social capital?
      Is not Christianity, at its core, both, bonding and bridging, without coercion that can be present in some forms of *bridging*.
      Even at local authority, geographical level there can be little bridging between communities, even when there is a common cause.
      Of course, we can always seek to employ some form of demographically targeted social marketing, for the common good even if it will not necessarily function as, or bring about, bridging social capital.
      Can recall attending a prof. Putnam lecture, Kate Aidie presented, when his teaching was flavour of the month in some public sector quarters.
      I suspect his teaching had some influence on David Cameron’s *Big Society* big idea that vapourised after the London Olympics.

  4. how the West seemed to entirely forget their supposed prosocial values when grabbing whatever resources they could from their colonies

    Did they? I’d like to see some evidence for this assertion. Also a distinction between the various colonial powers — a British colony was very different from a Portuguese colony and both were difference from a French, Spanish or Dutch colony — and possibly seeing whether the ‘prosocialness’ of a colonial power’s treatment of its colonies varied according to the kin-index of its home society?

  5. Fascinating…

    I’m wondering about this, among other things…

    Weird :”and more trusting of people outside your own family”

    I’ve worked in extremely diverse parishes in England. I’d suggest that in an urban industrial town this *may* have some traction within it but the very opposite might be true in their viewing of “outsiders”. These might be “incomers” or surrounding areas. It (as much as “it” means something) can behave with kinship as a group…. If I’m correct we might be wise not to view the Western world in a completely monochrome way?

  6. Thank you, Peter. It would be good to tease out more the pastoral implications of the theoretical distinction in terms of both class and ethnicity – for example Pakistani Christians tend to assume that meeting a cousin at the airport overrides church commitments. I have never met one of my cousins at the airport. I try to explore cross-cultural issues in my blog “Out of Many, One People” (accessed at [email protected]).
    Possibly greater wariness of strangers also contributes to the low vaccine take up amongst ethnic minorities.

  7. It would seem that one of your main criterions of thinking is that individualism is bad. You start from this judgment without debate.

  8. I have big reservations about Henrich’s thesis. First the Roman empire was centred on individual property rights, think Roman villas ,and the Romans banned cousin marriages. A classicist historian Brent Shaw has analysed the surviving records and he finds that of the 33 aristocratic marriages he has studied not one was a cousin marriage.

    So when Henrich says, p.315, that Europe was like everywhere else in the world in 400 AD this is not true. There were also many other sophisticated and individualistic civilizations before 400AD but Henrich assumes that EVERY society was still non-WEIRD at that point.

    Search though I might in his footnotes, i could find no evidence for the Church having such control over marriages from 400. The Catholic Church certainly offered marriage as an ideal and developed rules of conduct but as the church did not even require a couple to get married in a church until the end of the medieval period for it to be a valid marriage they had no way of controlling who married whom. The main book on medieval sex and the Church is by James Brundage and he records the frustration of the Church that people disregarded its rules. On consanguinity, I can find only one article from forty years ago which discusses the consanguinity laws and that only for nobles. The ordinary population could not find the time or opportunity to marry outside their largely rural communities which is why my later father-in-law, a GP, was still dealing with the medical consequences of village inbreeding in Norfolk as late as the 1950s. And an elderly vicar friend of mine had to include on his rounds a ‘hospital’ for those who suffered mental handicaps as a result of inbreeding. So one must be cautious in accepting Henrich’s break-up of society. Until 1800 the vast majority of Europeans were tied to the land and married within their local communities. When i was researching my local Suffolk villages at the outbreak of World War One, many lads had never left their villages before they were called up.

    So while one can give support to Christian marriage ideals, the medieval reality may be very different. And there is the added issue of how the WEIRD culture got transmitted down the generations when there is so much cultural and linguistic diversity in Europe.

    If you take the components of WEIRD, then Western is self evident but Henrich includes the US, Australia and new Zealand as WEIRD cultures despite their many ethnic minorities. Educated- well: Britain only had universal education in 1870, at which point fifty per cent of children did not go to school at all. Rich- well hardly for the majority until the 1960s and the wealth before then came from a subservient working class, slavery plantations and the destruction of economies such as India. Democratic- only late nineteenth century and then only for men. So I would argue that it is only in the last 150 years that you can talk of WEIRDness being a feature of western societies.

    I think this book needs much further discussion. Social scientists and cultural psychologists love it and it is very engaging. I think that historians would challenge its assumptions. The debate over the medieval Church’s actual control of marriage would be a good place to start as everything in the book follows from this assumption. My own view is that WEIRDness is a comparatively recent phenomenon not a medieval one.

    • That’s all very interesting and helpful. But two things worth noting:

      a. Roman society was still very much based on questions of honour and shame, and membership of the wealthy elite was defined by family.

      b. I don’t think Henrich is saying that medieval culture was WEIRD, but that modern day WEIRDness has medieval roots, which is different. As Peter says, Christendom had a different kind of ‘kinship’ loyalty defined spiritually.

      Have you come across other reviews of Henrich that make similar points?

      And are you aware of the Hajnal line, which also points to the distinctive nature of Western culture? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hajnal_line

  9. That’s not true. As Ian says their positive and negative aspects of individualism that has made western society what it is today. I don’t think we realise what living under the opposite would be like – see the comments from Chris Walley. When I was at theological college the thrust of the teaching was that individualism has caused many losses to society and the church, but perhaps we need to recover the positive side which allows the church to model a society of every tongue, tribe and nation.

  10. The gospels aren’t mentioned much in the article. It would be fascinating to set these ideas against gospel examples. Jesus came to a kinship society, where the family to whom you belonged dictated your place in the community. What should we make, then, of Jesus calling his first disciples and their willingness to leave their father and kinship groups?

    Another thing which occurs: we use the word ‘individualism’ all the time to describe western culture, which is accurate. But it’s not a Christian term. In trinitarian terms we are persons, not individuals, and only persons when in relation. It would be interesting to see how this critiques our assumptions about society, culture and community.


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