Book Reviews - Autumn 2020

Varieties of Experience

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Culture rewires our brains and shapes how we think

By T. M. Luhrmann | September 23, 2020
chepté cormani/Pexels
chepté cormani/Pexels

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 704 pp., $35

There is a puzzle at the heart of my academic work. I am an anthropologist, and among other things, I study the voices (or auditory hallucinations) of people in different countries who have schizophrenia. Their voices are clearly shaped by local culture. In Shanghai, the hospital patients hear politicians, and in Chennai, they hear their kin. But the voices reported in the United States stand out from the rest—more violent, more alien, more mean. It’s weird.

The puzzle of that weirdness is the point of this big book. Joseph Henrich, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, is the lead author (with coauthors Steve Heine and Ara Norenzayan) of a famous 2010 article in Brain and Behavioral Sciences that demonstrated that people who were Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic—or WEIRD—were often outliers on all kinds of basic psychological measures, compared with other people across the globe.

Take the Müller-Lyer illusion, in which viewers perceive two identical lines to be of different lengths because one has arrowheads pointing in, the other arrowheads pointing out. The illusion is sometimes presented in psychology textbooks as an illustration of basic human cognitive processes. The problem is, people in Evanston, Illinois, are significantly more vulnerable to this strange error in perception than the Central African Fang, the Filipino Hanunoo, the Kalahari San foragers, and others outside Europe and the United States. Henrich and his coauthors march through many other examples, from spatial reasoning and cooperation to categorization and the heritability of IQ. Again and again, the WEIRD participants are shown to be outliers. And yet, most of what we know experimentally about human psychology is based on studies of WEIRD undergraduates, as if they were proxies for all humans—as if psychologists went searching for human nature and decided that they had found it when they looked under a streetlamp in the dark.

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