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7 October 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 2:51pm

Mad behaviour: the psychologist Joseph Henrich on what makes us weird

The Harvard professor on how most claims about human nature are based on people from “Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies”. 

By Sophie McBain

Imagine, for a moment, that a researcher has given you £100. In order to keep any of this money, you must first give some of it to a stranger. You can give away any amount, but if the stranger declines your gift, deciding you’re sharing too little with them, neither of you can keep the cash. How much would you give away? The chances are, you’d give away around half.

In 1994 Joseph Henrich, now a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, travelled to the Peruvian Amazon to conduct a version of this experiment with the Matsigenka, a remote community of slash-and-burn farmers. Henrich, who was a postgraduate anthropologist at the time, assumed the Matsigenka would respond much like the average New Statesman reader, and that the experiment might illuminate some psychological truth about our innate conception of fairness and our willingness to punish injustice.

But the Matsigenka saw the experiment differently: the majority gave away 15 per cent of their stake – a relatively generous offer, they felt – and the recipients were grateful. Why, they thought, would anyone feel obligated to give the stranger any money at all? For Henrich, this experiment was a sign that, as he put it to me over Zoom, “something interesting is going on” – that the traits economists and psychologists assume are universal may in fact be culturally specific.

In 2010 Henrich co-authored a landmark paper titled, “The weirdest people in the world?” It observed that almost every claim made about human psychology or behaviour is based on studying people who are “Weird”; that is, from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. These people are also weird – statistical outliers.

Henrich’s research suggests our cultural environment, the norms and institutions we inherit, alters our psychology – and even our biology – in profound ways. Take learning to read. Becoming literate thickens your corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s right and left hemispheres and alters the parts of the brain responsible for processing speech and thinking about other minds. Literate people tend to be worse than others at recognising faces and are more likely to think analytically – breaking problems or scenes into component parts – rather than holistically.

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Henrich contends that, compared with much of the world’s populations, “Weird” people are more individualistic and self-obsessed, and more likely to defer gratification, to stick to impartial rules and to trust strangers. They are less likely to extend special favours to friends or family. They’re more likely to feel guilt (a sense of having failed to meet one’s own self-imposed standards) than shame (a sense of having let down one’s community).

His new book, The Weirdest People in the World, is an ambitious study of the historic and cultural origins of the Weird mindset. It argues that from around 400 CE, the branch of Christianity that would become the Western Church set in motion a series of psychological changes that over centuries facilitated the rise of individualism, capitalism and liberal democracy in the West. “The cultural evolution of psychology is the dark matter that flows behind the scenes throughout history,” he writes.

The 52-year-old has had an unusually diverse academic career. As an undergraduate at Notre Dame in Indiana, Henrich simultaneously completed a BA in anthropology and a BSc in aerospace engineering. He worked as an engineer in Washington, DC for two years before returning to academia. “When I’m approaching a problem and I seem to be doing it differently than my colleagues in social sciences, I’m looking for mechanical interconnections,” he told me.

When his first anthropology research paper was rejected by Science, he sent it to the prestigious American Economic Review instead. “I kind of unwittingly sent it there and it ended up getting accepted, which gave me some credentials in economics,” he said. Henrich’s first tenure job was as an anthropology professor at Emory University, and he later became a professor of psychology and economics at the University of British Columbia. “I think a lot of people, when they’re doing a PhD, they’re trying to become a quote, ‘economist’, so they look around and think, ‘What do economists do? I’ll start doing that.’” He pushed disciplinary boundaries because he saw himself as being guided by one question: “How do you explain human behaviour?”

Henrich’s book poses a challenge to psychology, a field grappling with the so-called “replication crisis” – the realisation that when psychologists repeat an experiment, they often get different results. Henrich believes the discipline suffers from a “theoretical crisis”. “There’s no overarching theory that tells you what kind of effects you should expect. And that causes psychologists to try a bunch of stuff, which breeds a lot of false positives.”

The Weirdest People in the World is a provocative book. Human rights activists, for example, might bristle at its suggestion that in certain countries, individual rights aren’t a good psychological “fit”. But Henrich wants to avoid normative conclusions. “Like any science, [the book] can be useful to achieve your goals, but people might have different goals. I can see it being used by people who want to figure out how to spread human rights. I could see it being used by those who don’t.”

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid