We recently had a discussion at the latest Chicago Rationality meet-up on Jonathan Schulz’s paper on WEIRD psychology – and its possible origins in the Catholic church banning kin marriage.
At some point, Joseph Heinrich realized that huge volumes of social psychology research is conducted on volunteer university students at prestigious institutions.
Sure, everyone can recognize that there may be some challenges in extrapolating results from university students to other types of folks. You know, like people who have actual jobs – especially since scientists have recently discovered a dangerous link between book learnin’ and back talk.
But, what if there were something deeper that made findings on Western subjects non-generalizable to people throughout the world?
The acronym WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich & Democratic.
It seems that folks in those cultures are simultaneously both more individualistic and more trusting of institutions. They are also less nepotistic and clannish.
In our discussion on the differences in cultural psychology, we ended up touching on something that I thought was insightful in terms of clarifying the cultural axis of WEIRDness.
The question is: How do you expect things to work?
If you were going to try to start a business (kind of a WEIRD idea in and of itself), what would you do?
Would you fill out some forms on a government website and actually expect something to happen? [Even if the forms were opaque, the user interface was outdated, and it took longer than seems reasonable to get confirmation in the mail.]
Then, would you sign up for a Squarespace account, start a mailing list, and expect people to sign up for it based upon the interestingness of your idea?
Or, would you hope that your cousin manages to take power in a government position and starts giving you lucrative contracts?
If you expect institutions to actually work roughly as advertised and to create an environment in which you – as an individual – can strike out on your own to do what you want and change the world then you are WEIRD as hell.
If you expect institutions to only work for those who are in power – so the only way to get things done is through a nepotistic connection – then you are not quite so WEIRD.
In fact, we can potentially understand many of the culture war dynamics at play on both the left and the right as a “breaking” of standard WEIRD dynamics.
People for whom institutions have failed are not going to trust those institutions, and are thus going to fall back onto nepotistic groups as their default way of organizing in the world. If there are no institutions that can be trusted, it’s not safe to be an individual. We can see this in identity politics on the left and populism on the right.
In these groups, there’s an assumption that no one is actually doing the right thing for the sake of institutions and for society as a whole and that it’s all a big con so that the powerful can get more power and the rich can get more money. So, opaque, procedural and techoncratic government is viewed as an elaborate ruse hiding the self-dealing and grift that everyone knows is going on behind closed doors, right?
Based upon this, populist leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro are able to claim to fight corruption while being the most transparently corrupt type of politician possible.
However, this is the type of corruption that people understand – especially people who don’t trust institutions. It’s not couched in policy wonk language. It’s really straight-forward, old-fashioned fixin’, double-dealin’ and takin’ a bit off the top. But, this time, it’s being done by someone on our team for once.