About 1,500 years ago, the world was a very different place; Pope Gregory was spreading Catholicism far and wide, a plague was running rampant, and some dominoes were about to start falling. The end of that cascade would result in a world in which a certain group of people started to think quite differently from those who had gone before them. Their brains began to change, the societies they built thrived and they grew so influential and culturally dominant that their way of thinking permeated our entire psychology.

In other words, the changes that began 1,500 years ago created W.E.I.R.D. people — a Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic population that grew into a global powerhouse.

That’s according to Joseph Henrich, chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and author of “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.” He writes that people who learn to read, who are educated in a Western way — no matter where they live in the world — have brains that look and operate unlike more traditional human brains.

Main Takeaways:

  • People who live in Western democracies or were educated using systems created by those societies are not representative of the entire world nor of our human ancestors. The ways in which we process numbers, recognize faces, exercise patience, understand directions, are distinct from those who were raised in cultures that don’t fit into the WEIRD categories.
  • Participants in psychological studies around the world are almost exclusively comprised of this WEIRD group, which raises doubts about how well psychologists can extrapolate their conclusions to all of humanity. This can have big consequences when attempting to apply findings in areas like behavioral economics, which are frequently used to shape government policy.
  • According to Henrich, the reason the West came to be so powerful in the first place began with marriage rues instituted about 1,500 years ago. When the Catholic church banned familial marriages, kinship and clan systems began to break down in Western societies, and the nuclear family took its place. This led to a new emphasis on individualism, which lent itself to a whole host of new traits, such as being analytically-minded and inventive. This, then, allowed for the rise of science, representative governments, and a huge amount of innovation, which led to the West dominating the world.