Notes on Henrich’s “The WEIRDest People in the World” (2020)
Cross-posted to the Effective Altruism Forum (but with a brand new and improved structure)
I recently finished reading Henrich’s 2020 book The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. I would highly recommend it, along with Henrich’s 2015 book The Secret of Our Success; I’ve roughly ranked them the 8th and 9th most useful-to-me of the 47 effective-altruism-related books I’ve read since learning about effective altruism (EA).
In this post, I’ll:
Summarise my “four main updates” from this book
Share the Anki cards I made for myself when reading the book
I intend this as a lower-effort alternative to writing notes specifically for public consumption or writing a proper book review
If you want to download the cards themselves to import them into your own deck, follow this link.
My hope is that this will be a low-effort way for me to help some people to quickly:
Gain some key insights from the book
Work out whether reading/listening to the book is worth their time
You may find it also/more useful to read
This review of the book on LessWrong (which I haven’t read myself)
My four main updates
I wrote this quickly and only after finishing the book; take it all with a grain of salt.
Here are what I think are the four main ways in which WEIRDest People shifted my beliefs on relatively high-level points that seem potentially decision-relevant, as distinct from specific facts I learned:
The book made me a bit less concerned about unrecoverable collapse and unrecoverable dystopia (i.e., the two types of existential catastrophe other than extinction, in Toby Ord’s breakdown)
This is because a big part of my concern was based on the idea that the current state and trend for things like values, institutions, and political systems seems unusually good by historical standards, and we don’t fully understand how that state and trend came about, so we should worry that any “major disruption” could somehow throw us off course and that we wouldn’t be able to get back on course (see Beckstead, 2015).
E.g., perhaps a major war could knock us from a stable equilibrium with many liberal democracies to a stable equilibrium with many authoritarian regimes.
But WEIRDest People made me a bit more confident that our current values, institutions, and political systems would stick around or re-emerge even after a “major disruption”, because they or the things driving them are “fit” in a cultural evolutionary sense.
The book made me less confident that the Industrial Revolution involved a stark change in a number of key trends, and/or made me more open to the idea that the drivers of the changes in those trends began long before the Industrial Revolution
My previous belief was quite influenced by a post by Luke Muehlhauser
Henrich seems to provide strong evidence that some key trends started long before 1750 (some starting in the first millennium CE, most starting by 1200-1500)
But I’m not sure how much Henrich’s book and Muehlhauser’s post actually conflict with each other
E.g., perhaps Henrich would agree (a) that there were discontinuities in all the metrics Muehlhauser looked at, and (b) that those metrics are more directly important than the metrics Henrich looked at; perhaps Henrich would say that the earlier discontinuities in the metrics he looked at were just the things that laid the foundations, not what directly mattered
The book made me less confident that economic growth/prosperity is one of the main drivers of various ways in which the world seems to have gotten better over time (e.g., more democracy, more science, more concern for all of humanity rather than just one’s ingroup)
The book made me more open to the idea that other factors (WEIRD psychology and institutions) caused both economic growth/prosperity and those other positive trends
E.g., I felt that the book pushed somewhat against an attitude expressed in this GiveWell post on flow-through effects
This is related in some ways to my above-mentioned update about the industrial revolution
The book made me more inclined to think that it’s really hard to design institutions/systems based on explicit ideas about how they’ll succeed in achieving desired objectives, or at least that humans tend to be bad at that, and that success more often results from a process of random variation followed by competition.
In reality, this update was mainly caused by Henrich’s previous book, Secret of Our Success. But WEIRDest People drummed it in further, and it seemed worth mentioning here.
Each of those update was more like a partial shift than a total reversal of my previous views
I made this list only after finishing the book, and hadn’t been taking notes with this in mind along the way
So I might be distorting these updates or forgetting other important updates
My Anki cards
See the bottom of this shortform for caveats about my Anki cards.
The indented parts are the questions, the answers are in “spoiler blocks” (hover over them to reveal the text), and the parts in square brackets are my notes-to-self.
Henrich’s team found that people from more market-integrated societies made ___ offers in the ultimatum game (compared to people from less market-integrated societies)
Higher, more equal
Credence goods are…
those that buyers can’t easily assess for quality (e.g. a steel sword, whose carbon content is hard to determine)
Henrich discusses strategies to allow trade to happen in absence of market norms. Three I found interesting were…
Silent trade; divine oaths; and a single, widely scattered clan or ethnic group handling all aspects of moving goods through a vast trade network
Four things Henrich said KII and prevalence of cousin marriage were positively correlated with were…
High claims (dishonesty) in the Impersonal Honesty Game
Unpaid parking tickets per diplomat
Seven things Henrich said KII, prevalence of cousin marriage, and/or contemporary KII were negatively correlated with were…
Importance of intentionality in judging a “theft”
Contributions in the Public Good Game [there were two proxies for this]
Voluntary blood donations per 1,000 people
[Some of these things were measured by proxies I’m somewhat skeptical of the relevance/significance of.]
In India and China, analytic thinking (as measured using the triad task) is negatively correlated with…
Percentage of land under rice paddy cultivation
What are three effects Henrich suggests that exposure to war tends to have?
Tightening of interdependent network bonds
Strengthening of commitments to important social norms
Deepening of people’s religious devotion
What 2 things does Henrich suggest has some similar effects to exposure to war?
Exposure to natural disasters
Nonviolent intergroup competition (e.g. between firms) [though he suggests this’ll likely have smaller or no effects on religious devotion]
Henrich argues that at least 2 things (a) arose in part due to the emerging WEIRD psychology in the second millennium CE [and maybe the first as well?], and (b) then further contributed to the emergence of that WEIRD psychology. What are those 2 things?
Democracy and/or participatory governance
[He may have also mentioned other things. E.g., I think maybe he sees scientific thinking, universities, and more rational legal systems as also fitting that bill.]
What were the two key findings of Gurven et al. (2013)? [This has to do with personality.]
In the first test of the five-factor model of personality variation in a largely illiterate, indigenous society, Gurven et al. failed to find support for the model
That society’s personality variation seemed to display 2 principal factors that may reflect socioecological characteristics common to small-scale societies
[I learned of this study via Henrich’s WEIRDest People.]
What does Henrich say increases suicide rates?
Rates of Protestants relative to Catholics in an area
[He says historical Protestantism rates increased suicide rates at that time. I can’t remember if he also says historical P rates increase present suicide rates, or that present P rates increase present suicide rates. But I’m guessing he believes those things.]
Does Henrich seem to think Protestants tend to basically have more extreme versions of WEIRD tendencies than Catholics do?
Muthukrishna and Henrich argue that rates of innovation are heavily influenced by what 3 factors?
sociality (seemingly meaning both size and interconnectedness of a population)
cultural variance (analogous to genetic variance)
Henrich says that 4 voluntary associations (particularly) contributed to broadening the flow of knowledge and technology around Europe. These were:
Charter cities, monasteries, apprenticeships, universities
Henrich says that, historically, kings and other elites have tended to crack down on people with new ideas, inventions, or techniques that might shake up the existing power structure. He says this problem was mitigated in Europe [maybe just in the second millennium CE?] by 2 factors:
Political disunity (there were many competing states)
Relative cultural unity (due to transnational networks like the church, guilds, and the republic of letters)
[So people and groups could escape oppression by moving to other places.]
Henrich says it seems like banking deregulation increased ___, which in turn increased ___.
Interfirm competition; impersonal trust
What was the main way Henrich updated me away from the impression I’d gotten from Muehlhauser’s industrial revolution post?
Henrich seems to provide strong evidence that key trends started long before 1750 (some starting in the first millennium CE, most starting by 1200-1500)
[See caveats in the “My four main updates” section.]
The emergence of sedentary agriculture drove a(n) ____ in/of kin-based institutions.
[This led to norms related to things like cousin marriage, corporate ownership, patrilocal residence, segmentary lineages, and ancestor worship.]
Diamond argues that continents that are spread out in an ___ direction, such as ___, had a developmental advantage because of ___.
the ease with which crops, animals, ideas and technologies could spread between areas of similar latitude
[Quoting a PBS webpage on Guns, Germs and Steel.]
What does Henrich say is the basic relationship between his arguments and Diamond’s arguments in Guns, Germs and Steel?
Henrich’s arguments essentially pick up where Diamond’s arguments leave off
[I.e. Diamond’s arguments explain global inequality up to ~1000CE well, but don’t explain things like why the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain, whereas Henrich’s arguments can explain those later events.]
Henrich says that one reason why democracy hasn’t been taken up as effectively/thoroughly in Islamic countries is that Islam...
Says daughters should inherit half of what sons inherit (rather than nothing/very little), which likely drove the spread of and/or sustained a custom in which daughters marry their father’s brother’s sons, or more broadly a custom of marrying within clans. [This is to keep wealth within a family/clan.]
This encourages intensive forms of kinship, which favours certain ways of thinking and institutions that don’t mesh well with democracy.
[I may be slightly misrepresenting the ideas.
Japan, South Korea, and China have been able to adapt relatively rapidly to the economic configurations and global opportunities created by WEIRD societies. Henrich says that one factor that was likely important in that was that these societies had experienced long histories of ___, which had ___.
agriculture and state-level governance;
fostered the evolution of cultural values, customs, and norms encouraging formal education, industriousness, and a willingness to defer gratification.
[These can be seen as pre-existing cultural institutions that happened to dovetail nicely with the new institutions acquired from WEIRD societies.]
Japan, South Korea, and China have been able to adapt relatively rapidly to the economic configurations and global opportunities created by WEIRD societies. Henrich says that one factor that was likely important in that was that these societies had powerful ___, which ___.
helped them rapidly adopt and implement key kin-based institutions acquired from WEIRD societies (e.g. abolishing polygamy, clans, arranged marriages).
Henrich says studies on the effects of evolution by natural selection (not cultural selection) on length of time people spend in school indicate that...
Evolution by natural selection reduced that time by about 8 months over the 20th century
[And by about 1.5 months per generation—maybe just more recently.
But this was very much offset by cultural evolution increasing the length of time in school by a larger amount.]
 See here for the article that inspired me to actually start using Anki properly. Hat tip to Michelle Hutchinson for linking to that article and thus prompting me to read it. Note that some of the Anki cards that I made and include in this post violate some of the advice in that article—in particular, the advice to try to ensure that questions and answers each express only one idea.
 Caveats about these Anki cards:
It’s possible that some of these cards include mistakes, or will be confusing or misleading out of context.
I haven’t fact-checked Henrich on any of these points.
I only started making the cards after I was more than halfway through the book
I of course only made cards for some of the interesting insights in the remaining chapters
Some of these cards include direct quotes without having quote marks.
Some other cards are just my own interpretations -rather than definitely 100% parroting what the book is saying—but don’t note that fact.
A lot of the value of the book is not for the specific facts it collects, but rather its overarching theories and ways of looking at things. I think Anki cards could directly focus on those things, but I was making the cards for myself, so I mostly made them about specific facts that I thought would keep my memory of the theories and frameworks fresh.