The trouble with people living in WEIRD countries is, we don’t know how WEIRD we are.
WEIRD stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. Many countries have some of these characteristics, but only a few have them all, which makes them . . . weird.
The map above shows where 90% of psychological studies come from, adjusting country size by population. These WEIRD countries account for only about 15% of the world’s population. Some researchers are starting to think these studies must be culturally biased, and that broader studies are needed to understand human nature more fully.
This is because WEIRD countries are different. They have certain traits that set them apart from other nations which lead to their wealth, freedom and high social trust.
Yes, IQ is a factor, but note that high IQ nations like China do not belong in the club. It goes a lot deeper than that.
WEIRD countries are in or derive from Western Europe. What was going on there to explain the development of this cultural phenomenon?
A likely factor is historic marriage practices, whose differences in Europe are bounded by the ‘Hajnal line‘:
Here the colours depict perceived levels of corruption.
From good old Wiki:
To the west of the line, marriage rates and thus fertility were comparatively low and a significant minority of women married late or remained single; to the east of the line and in the Mediterranean and select pockets of Northwestern Europe, early marriage was the norm and high fertility was countered by high mortality.
In addition to r-selection, most countries within the Hajnal line adhered to the Catholic prohibition on cousin marriage, and their manorial system helped enforce it. Families were mostly small – nuclear or including only grandparents, as opposed to extended family or community groups more typical in the East.
Over many centuries, these factors appear to have weakened familial and tribal loyalties and allowed a broader, more egalitarian circle of empathy to develop. The WEIRD countries began their journey to weirdness – they nurtured an unusual focus on the individual, respect for the rule of law, guilt morality, high rates of volunteer participation and so on.
They became the high trust societies.
This social capital improved incentives for labour, commerce, industry and scientific progress. Personal connections were less essential to advancement than they had once been – talent and motivation alone would get you much further than in tribal societies or Asiatic despotisms. Over time, these societies became richer, freer, more democratic and perhaps safer than any other societies in history.
WEIRD people think differently. The see universal rules where others see relationships (guanxi). Their moral feelings are based on fairness, not on communal roles. In other words, who/whom is normal. Selfishness, nepotism, tribalism and corruption are normal. The blindfolded Lady Justice is WEIRD.
Imagine you have a job approving business license applications. Should you elicit bribes for stamping them? In much of the world, you should. After all, your first responsibility is to yourself and your own family, then ‘your people’ – grasping cousins and layabout nephews who expect your largess because you’ve got that fancy job. In most of the world, wage theft, cutting corners, sharp deals and patronage networks are expected and justified. It is mostly Westerners who will feel guilty about such sins and lay awake at night, tortured by their transgression.
You can see how the definition of ‘psychopath’, based only on data from Western countries, might be skewed.
Can normal countries become WEIRD? Some can, to an extent. The North Asian Tigers are much WEIRDer than they used to be, although guanxi still reins in some settings. One of the WEIRDest non-Western nation is Japan, where social trust is extremely high at the grassroots level, but even there court cases can be decided upon a who/whom basis or according to a prioritizing of social harmony rather than the unbiased application of the law.
This hints that some of the high trust and prosperity in Eastern societies has non-Western origins. In Japan, it comes from the supreme cultural value placed upon wa.
Taiwan is also quite WEIRD. Everyday corruption is very rare and shopkeepers will run after you if you leave change behind. However, I had to explain to my Taiwanese friend how our guilt culture works. In Oriental societies, they feel shame if they are caught doing something antisocial or embarrassing. In WEIRD countries, getting caught has nothing to do with it; we feel terrible if we know we’ve done something wrong. The best way I could describe it to her was like having a policeman inside my head, but that feeling you get in the guts when you’ve been unfair is hard to put into words.
Migrants coming from normal countries to Western countries may or may not become WEIRD, but we’ll get to that later.
It is possible for Westerners to become normal. Japan is notorious for making young whitefellas loose their sense of sexual morality. Thank God that never happened to me. Some Western businessmen, formerly honest, become cheating mongrels if they stay in China too long. There is nothing in our blood that makes us angels.
Are all Westerners WEIRD? In terms of these values, of course not. We have our bums, arseholes, malingerers and journalists, just like anywhere else. However, these egalitarian moral instincts are the standard by which we judge ourselves and others. When someone does something unconscionable, we wonder: how can he live with himself? We need to be reminded that not everyone has a policeman in his head.
Our values, in the generality, lead in convoluted ways to all sorts of Western-only or primarily Western social phenomena. These change over time and can be positive or negative. Legitimate democracy, free markets and respect for individual rights used to be right up there. Sometimes we suffer moral panics like the witch burnings, Wars of Religion, WWI or Prohibition.
These day we see a unique concern for animal welfare, multiculturalism, feminism, gay liberation, trans activism, affirmative action, high immigration from non-like societies, religious freedom, acceptance of refugees, protected classes, BLM, Antifa and all that sort of thing.
Ain’t no tranny story time in Mongolia. Yet.
Each of these movements is underpinned by a WEIRD principle: we are all equal and everyone ought to have a fair go. You might not agree with the conclusion, but the starting premise was inherently Western – inclusion of the Other, a turning away from giving preference to our own kind.
And yes, some of these outcomes may have stemmed from normal people hacking our WEIRD ways, though that is no excuse for us.
Many people around the world want to move to WEIRD countries, or invest in them. While they will not always admit it, they know that this is where they will be treated fairly, where they and their property will be protected by the rule of law, and where they can enjoy a safe and pleasant life. In comparison, at home they are often hamstrung by corruption, arbitrary rulings and a lack of connections. I’ve seen this first-hand in the Philippines, where many good positions can only be got through personal relationships or the cash to bribe your way in. Board exams are a scam, designed to only let the right people through.
In the West, bright and motivated people are free to succeed, however humble their origins. Our system is not perfect, but the others are worse.
When WEIRD and normal peoples collide, there can be clashes which those on our side find baffling. Take the following two Chinese examples:
For the next, start at 42:00:
We can learn a lot from the differing Western and Chinese reactions to these videos. In the first, Westerners were shocked. How could she have so little consideration for others, and even flaunt her selfishness? Chinese viewers were more positive. And why not? She was Chinese, helping Chinese people at the expense of their rivals, dumb Americans. Good job.
When the video began circulating widely outside China, the attitude changed. Chinese commenters expressed concern that she was giving China a bad name. In other words, getting caught causes shame to herself and her community. That’s what makes it bad. The social context matters more than the specific harm caused.
The second video bewilders Westerners. After all that kerfuffle about ‘racist’ bans against travelers from China, they screech, you go and treat all foreigners, no matter where they’re from, like this? Even though you’d scream blue murder if there were a single case of it happening to a Chinese person in the West? Even though most Westerners would be on your side condemning the silliness of it, and even though not a single Chinese person is even surprised at this behaviour occurring in their own country, let alone protesting it?
We all scream like babies: “It’s not fair!” Thus is the the war-cry of the Westerner.
Ours is a WEIRD way to see it. To Chinese, the very concepts of ‘fairness’ and ‘racism’ are merely tools to get what they or their in-group want. Masks, pride, feelz, access to foreign lands, whatever. The concepts themselves mean nothing. There is no policeman in the Chinese mind pointing out that this is a bit hypocritical. Hypocrisy only matters if you have a universal moral view. If you don’t – if your moral universe only extends as far as yourself, your family, and then maybe your co-ethnics if socially required – then hypocrisy is no problem. It is common sense.
No doubt there are Westernized Chinese who can see things our way, but the vast bulk of Mainlanders see it their way: they look out for themselves and their own, which is quite natural for most people on Earth.
The word ‘hypocrisy’ only makes sense in WEIRD countries. There is nothing strange about an Indian complaining about how Westerners discriminate against him, while also hiring only Indians and being racist against blacks. The reason is simple: he is Indian. He sees the world from his own point of view. To 85% of the world, that makes perfect sense.
Once you can get your head around this, other instances of clashes between WEIRD and normal people start to make more sense. Pakistani gangs prey on British girls because they themselves are Pakistani, not British. They protect their own. Attacks on members of their own community in good standing would not be tolerated. Meanwhile, WEIRD British authorities took decades to act because they lacked an in-group preference and feared being unfair to the Other, or that others might see it that way.
Muslims and Orthodox Jews continued to congregate in large groups and pray in contempt of corona lockdown laws because they care about their own group’s need to follow its religious imperatives, not the broader, largely alien community’s desire to control infection rates. Migrants are happy to take welfare from European countries while continuing to complain about how badly they are treated there, because it suits themselves and their families to remain, and complaining about racism further strengthens their position within the host society.
Indians in the West hire other Indians, especially from their own state, religion, caste, and if possible, their own village and extended family. Turks hire Turks. Chinese hire Chinese. Jewish charities often focus on helping fellow Jews. In the UK, subsidized NHK medicines are fraudulently obtained and sent to relatives abroad, or simply exported for profit, while visiting health tourists take advantage of the high-trust system and return home before they can be made to pay.
We allow almost everyone with an international driver’s license to drive, though in some countries these can be obtained with bribes, and so we have regular carnage on the Great Ocean Road. The US allows birthright citizenship, and many who take advantage of it would never, ever allow such a right to exist in their own land, and feel not the slightest loyalty to America once they’ve got it.
Chinese billionaires get their kids on Canadian welfare. In electorates with a high percentage of Chinese, often both candidates have to be Chinese to have a chance. This is the same for black and Muslim areas. Meanwhile, in areas still predominantly white, a minority candidate has as good a chance as anyone.
In the US, blacks and others will riot if a black is shot by police, but whites will not riot when the opposite occurs. No one riots over black gangsters shooting each other.
All these are cases of normal people behaving normally in a WEIRD, WEIRD world. They are not wicked in their own eyes. According to their own, often very strict standards, this behaviour is fine.
Corruption, fraud, ethnocentrism, and nepotism are the norm. Egalitarianism, consciousnesses and due process are WEIRD.
There are exceptions, but there is also the rule. Many migrants from normal countries are unable to assimilate to, nor even comprehend, WEIRD values, any more than the average Westerner would ever feel comfortable paying a bribe to get his driver’s license while staying in the Third World.
This misunderstanding is the source of much friction between WEIRD and normal peoples in the West. We are like the Nice Guy™ who has a ‘covert contract‘ with the world – I’ll be really nice and politically correct, and youse give me a good job and a gf and all that. Then he’s devastated when he gets friend-zoned.
In the same way, WEIRD people secretly expect that normal people will adopt our values upon arrival on our magic dirt, but we don’t explicitly make them sign something to this effect, nor do we enforce our way of doing things. Instead, we erroneously assume that Indians will forget about caste, their dislike of blacks and so on upon arrival, and will start freely hiring whites, Vietnamese, Aborigines and whoever else best suits any available position. Then we silently fume when they don’t do any of those things, and assume that they know we are fuming because we think they think like us. And we wonder why they show no sign of noticing or caring.
Migrants who are immersed in the local culture are more likely to assimilate than those who remain within their own, ethnic bubble. You can see this when you compare foreigners living in rural Japan versus those in the big cities. However, with the current pattern of mass migration, there is less and less need for normal migrants to strike out into our WEIRD world and adopt our values aside from the the superficial platitudes required for political correctness. In other words, Indians will openly agree that hiring practices should be non-discriminatory, but they’ll still hire exclusively Indians wherever possible.
This is not to say that normal people are horrible. They can be extraordinarily kind and generous. Nevertheless, you have to see this in context. Often, such empathy must be first enabled by a personal connection. Most normal people would go to great lengths to help out a good foreign friend or a valued foreign colleague.
In the case of strangers, honour cultures demand kind treatment of guests. However, this is not motivated by some universalist value of respecting all peoples regardless of background. Rather, it has to do with pride and shame – the man who is able to demonstrate his wealth and hospitality to a foreign stranger has an opportunity to gain face, while failing to live up to such expectations would result in shame.
Without a personal connection or specific obligation, normal people will act as though strangers do not exist. See: Taiwanese driving, Chinese food scandals, Filipino corruption and Eritrean slavery.
Compare: at our extremes, WEIRD folk will kiss the boots of any black stranger on the street.
Being WEIRD is both a blessing and a curse. It makes for fantastic countries to live in, ones that are envied around the world. On the other hand, it makes us prone to self-destructive purity spirals and highly vulnerable to opportunistic normal people who are able to take advantage of our fairness and high trust, settle in, and make our societies, little by little, less WEIRD than they used to be
Some have noted that leaders of ethno-nationalist groups in the West often have some normal ancestry – Eastern European, Turkish, Jewish, Lebanese or whatever. This makes sense, when you think about it. WEIRD people are, for the moment, far too nice to suggest banning a whole group from entering their country, while normal people suffer no squeamishness advocating the idea.
This also helps explain why nationalist parties never manage to gain a majority of seats in the West these days, while nationalist policies are the norm everywhere else.
WEIRD people are not genetically predetermined to be WEIRD. We are capable of being normal, tribal, low-trust people who prioritize our own needs at the expense of other groups. Early colonialism was like this, before the moralizing of the 1800s. Slavery and Jim Crow are further examples. And I’m sure I do not need to remind the reader of history’s most violent case of Germanic reversion to brutal, normal tribalism.
So far as humans go, the dissident right is normal. They represent a portion of heritage Westerners who are, unknowingly, backsliding from their unique cultural traditions and are beginning to act like everyone else. A future post will examine how WEIRD values are currently being undermined on both sides of the political spectrum.
We need sensible bounds to our universalist values in recognition of the fact that others do not share them. We need a perimeter around our society if we intend to maintain it, however moderate and porous that border may be. Should our WEIRDness disappear entirely, our wealth, freedom, democracy and high-trust culture will go with it. That is the likely outcome if we continue our present course.
Below is a description of ‘Whiteness’ displayed on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture web page on “Whiteness.” H/T: iSteve. It originates from Some Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States, by Judith H. Katz, 1990.
It is a pretty good summary of WEIRD values, except for the snarks about ‘aggression’, ‘submissive wives’, and similar nonsense which were inserted due to a transparent ethnic grudge. WEIRD societies have long given women more freedom and independence than most others.
Note also that these values are not applicable in their entirety to whites outside the Hajnal line – Russians, Sicilians, Hungarians, etc. They do things differently there, and we can see the result.
Americans might think of these as WASP values. There is a strong overlap because the WASPs were the main group of WEIRD people to colonize North America, while the later Irish, Poles and Southern Italians were closer to being normal. Back in Europe, you’ll find French and German Catholics who are WEIRD enough. Americans, note also that your Scotch-Irish hill people were different, and maybe still are – some extend the Hajnal Line along Hadrian’s Wall.
For that matter, isn’t it funny how the Irish have gone more Woke than the WASPs these days. They became real WEIRD real quick.
Anyway, after that lengthy preamble, here it is:
Next in this series: How and why the West is becoming less WEIRD.
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