WEIRDest People and Us

When I first went abroad to the US for my PhD, I, like most other Indians, was very surprised by many of the customs and ways of life that I encountered there on a daily basis. For example, once when I went to meet our Statistics teacher, right at the beginning of the term, and addressed him ‘Sir’, like we are used to in India, he smiled and asked me to call him ‘Roger’ (his first name)! Imagine calling a white-haired man, old enough to be my grandfather by his first name! Similarly, another professor asked me to address him ‘Rich’ (Richard shortened). It’s been more than a decade I’ve completed my Ph.D. and I still haven’t been able to keep their requests. Whenever, therefore, I write emails to them, I take a sort of middle path and start by saying ‘Hello’, and neither ‘Roger’ or ‘Rich’, as they asked me to, nor ‘Sir’, as I am used to.

There were numerous other instances as well. For instance, the almost instinctive ritual of standing up when a teacher entered a classroom, was quite unthinkable there. Students who were late, often used to just stroll in, without even bothering to excuse oneself – imagine entering a classroom here, late, and while the instructor is teaching, completely ignoring the teacher!

And of course, with Goddess Saraswati, occupying a central position in the psyche of a Bengali student, who often believe that the Goddess resides in textbooks and exercise books, it would be a rather nasty shock to see American students actually resting their feet on their bags while taking a nap on a college bench or the college lawns.

In short therefore, our generally reverential, submissive and humble attitude and disposition, often bordering on a sense of inferiority, made for a big contrast to the generally over-confident and superior sense that students of the ‘West’ often donned naturally. It is possibly not a surprise therefore, that in spite of doing very well in graduate school, Indian students may not feel at home and on ‘top of the class’, even when they are so academically.

WEIRD people are weird too!

WEIRDest People in the WorldJoseph 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”, would actually have you believe that if you think your ‘Indianness’ is responsible for making you feel out of place, you should think twice. It is, in fact, the people from the so-called developed ‘West’, the WEIRDest people, who are actually the out-of-place weird ones here, compared to the world populations, and not us. WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, and it turns out that they are the people who are weird, compared to the rest of the world! In other words, the Americans should feel amidst the rest of the world, a bit like how an Indian feels amidst the Americans!

In the inside jacket of this daunting-looking 700-page book (though the last 200 pages are notes, appendices and bibliography), part of the book’s description reads as follows: “Unlike much of the world today, and most people who have ever lived, WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, analytical, and trusting of strangers. They focus on themselves – their attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations – over their relationships and social roles.”

As evidence of his claim, Henrich urges us to complete the following sentence in about 10 different ways:

I am ——————.

If we’re WEIRD, we’d probably write “curious”, or “passionate” and phrases like “a scientist”, or “a surgeon”, rather than things like “Soham’s dad” or “Ritika’s mom”, even though these are equally true and possibly more important to our lives. And if you’re thinking that’s not weird at all, and is probably how everyone in the world thinks and would have answered the question, you’re wrong. That’s why WEIRD people are weird!

When a well-thought out experiment regarding the “Who am I?” and “I am…” tasks were carried out in the Africa and the South Pacific, it turned out that at one end of the spectrum, were the American undergraduates (people I came across during my studies in the US, remember!), who focus almost exclusively on their individual attributes, aspirations and achievements. At the other end are Maasai and Samburu (two tribal groups in rural Kenya, who organise themselves in patrilineal clans and maintain a traditional cattle-herding lifestyle), who referred to their social roles and responsibilities 80% of the times, while they highlighted their personal attributes or achievements only 10% of the times. A similar message cries out from other such experiments as well –  American undergraduates are typically at one end of the spectrum, sometimes showing zero social-relational responses – that’s what makes them weird!

And evidence on their other weird traits keep accumulating. “WEIRD people don’t value conformity or see “obedience” as a virtue that needs to be instilled in children. They also don’t venerate either traditions or ancient sages as much as most other societies have, and elders simply don’t carry the same weight that they do in many other places.” So much for Goddess Saraswati then, I understand!

“Consider the question: How many people do you personally know who married their cousins?

If you know none, that’s WEIRD, since 1 in 10 marriages around the world today is to a cousin or other relative. … people in the Middle East and Africa marry relatives at least a quarter of the time, though in some places these numbers reach up above 50 percent – so over half of marriages are among relatives. … By contrast, really WEIRD countries like the United States, Britain and the Netherlands have rates of about 0.2 percent, or one-fifth of 1 percent.”

The author goes on to summarize: Five kinship traits that characterise WEIRD societies are: (1) bilateral descent (relatedness is traced (roughly) equally through both parents), (2) little or no cousin marriage, (3) monogamous marriage only (people are permitted to have only one spouse at a time), (4) nuclear family households (domestic life is organised around married couples and their children), (5) neolocal residence (newly married couples set up a separate household). Well, that’s how the developed world appears to us anyway.

Not-so-WEIRD world

Henrich then takes you on a tour of how the rest of the world looks like and even the WEIRD people looked like earlier. How does the other end of the spectrum look like? “Throughout most of human history, people grew up enmeshed in dense family networks that knitted together distant cousins and in-laws. In these regulated-relational worlds, people’s survival, identity, security, marriages, and success depended on the health and prosperity of kin-based networks… This is the world of the Maasai, Samburu… Within this enduring networks, everyone is endowed with an extensive array of inherited obligations, responsibilities, and privileges in relation to others in a dense social web.”

“For example, a man could be obligated to avenge the murder of one type of second cousin (through his paternal great-grandfather), privileged to marry his mother’s brother’s daughters but tabooed from marrying strangers, and responsible for performing expensive rituals to honour his ancestors, who will shower bad luck on his entire lineage if he’s negligent.” Such “kin-based institutions, constrain people from shopping widely for new friends, business partners, or spouses.”

Accidental genius kicking a pebble: Marriage, Inheritance, After-life

But then if most of the world had been like this, how did WEIRD people come to be? According to the authors, “[t]he roots of WEIRD families can be found in the slowly expanding package of doctrines, prohibitions, and prescriptions that the Church gradually adopted and energetically promoted, starting before the end of the Western Roman Empire.” So, “[f]irst, between about 400 and 1200 CE, the intensive kin-based institutions of many European tribal populations were slowly degraded, dismantled, and eventually demolished by the branch of Christianity that evolved into the Roman Catholic Church. … Then, from the ruins of their traditional social structures, people began to form new voluntary associations based on shared interests or beliefs rather than on kinship or tribal affiliations. … the dissolution of intensive kin-based institutions and the gradual creation of independent monogamous nuclear families represents the proverbial pebble that started the avalanche to the modern world in Europe.”

How was this ‘pebble’ unknowingly kicked by the Church? “By undermining intensive kinship, the Church’s marriage and family policies gradually released individuals from responsibilities, obligations, and benefits of their clans and houses, creating both more opportunities and greater incentives for people to devote themselves to the Church and, later, to other voluntary organisations. The accidental genius of Western Christianity was in “figuring out” how to dismantle kin-based institutions while at the same time catalysing its own spread.”

“In pre-Christian Europe, as in much of the world until recently, marriage customs had evolved culturally to empower and expand large kin-based organisations or networks. Marital bonds establish economic and social ties between kin-groups that foster trade, cooperation, and security. To sustain such ties, long term marital exchanges are necessary, which usually means that new marriages must occur between blood or final relatives (in-laws). In patrilineal societies, senior males – the patriarchs – administer these ongoing spousal exchanges and thus use the marriage of their sisters, daughters, nieces and granddaughters to cement relations with other kin groups and nourish important alliances. …

The Church dramatically undercut the potency of marriage as a social technology and a source of patriarchal power by prohibiting polygynous unions, arranged marriages, and all marriages between both blood and affinal kinfolk. …”

For example, the author argues, “Under levirate marriage, a widow marries her husband’s brother (brother-in-law), who can be either a real brother or a cousin-brother. … Conceptually, this works because brothers usually occupy the same role within a kinship network, so they are interchangeable, from the kin-group’s point of view (though probably not from the wife’s point of view). … Similarly, in sororate marriage, if a wife dies, she should be replaced by her unmarried sister or sometimes her cousin-sister, which similarly sustains the marital links that binds kin-groups together. …

When the Church banned marriage to in-laws, classifying them as “siblings” to make such unions incestuous, the bonds between kin-groups were broken by the death of either spouse, since the surviving wife or husband was prohibited from incestuously marrying any of their affines.”

To keep a clan or a lineage alive, one must produce heirs in every generation. Now lineages with a few dozen or even a few hundred people will eventually fail to produce an adult of the “right” sex, like male in a patrilineal clan or dynasty. So cultural evolution had devised strategies of heirship like adoption, polygamy, and remarriage.

Generally speaking, what the Church did was continuously blocked these avenues for heirship. For example, adoption had been an important element in pre-Christian Europe but have not been seen in English law till 1926. The Church banned polygynous marriages. If you can’t have more wives to produce an heir, can you divorce and remarry in hopes of producing an heir? No, the Church shut this down too. Under these constraints many European dynasties died out for the lack of an heir.

Moreover the Church ensured massive flows of revenues by selling annulments: Remarriage was impossible, and under some conditions, first marriages could be annulled – rendered invalid, and treated never to have existed. Soon the Church became the largest landowner of Europe. Hence the Church’s incest prohibitions, not only freed people up from constrains of intensive kinship, thereby gradually decimating Europe’s kin-based institutions, but also generated a flow of wealth into the Church coffers.

At the same time, the Church promoted ‘individual ownership and inheritance by personal testaments (wills)’, which ended up massively benefitting the Church financially. In lineage or clan-based society for example, lands are often owned collectively by all the members of the clan. Inheritance in these situations is simply the new generation of clan members collectively inheriting from the previous generation. There is no concept of ‘selling’ such jointly owned inherited resources simply because no one member ‘owns’ it, and often these are deeply tied to the sentiments, rituals and identity of the clan.

So, hypothetically, even if a father wanted, he couldn’t disinherit his brothers or even his cousins in favour of his servant or priest. Inheritance isn’t a matter of personal preference at all. The Church manoeuvred this intrinsic and unbreakable bond between the clan and individual wealth by promulgating the idea that the “wealthy could indeed get into heaven by giving their wealth to the poor, through the Church.” In fact, the Church proposed an easier alternative too – “rich people could bequest some or all of their wealth to the poor at the time of their death” – which would be more appealing to some rich people at least since they could stay rich all their lives and donate generously at the time of their deaths.

These strategies meant kin-based groups continually lost land and wealth to Church – Christians gave what they could to Church to improve their prospects in after-life while those without heirs, unable to adopt or remarry, could potentially donate all their wealth to Church since they were relieved from inheritance and corporate ownership. “By 900 CE the Church owned about a third of the cultivated land in western Europe, including in Germany (35 percent) and France (44 percent).”

So the Church dissolved kin-based European tribes by “(1) establishing a pan-tribal social identity (Christian), (2) compelling individuals to look far and wide to find unrelated Christian spouses, and (3) providing a new set of norms about marriage, inheritance, and residence that would have set a foundation on which diverse tribal communities could begin to interact, marry, and coordinate.” Christians, not tied to kinship anymore, could obtain security by dedicating themselves to Church and other voluntary organisations, leading to development and spread of voluntary associations, novel institutions such as charter towns, professional guilds, and universities.

The author then goes on to substantiate how such developments led to psychological changes that finally led to what we started out with – WEIRD people.

What about us?

The book does not cover India substantially either in the experiments they cite or otherwise in the descriptive details, but the few places that talk about India, seem to say that, well, we’re somewhere in between. For example, rates of cousin marriage in India are in between the two extremes of Middle East and Africa (high rates) and WEIRD countries (very low rates).

We probably have strong emotional ties to very near ones like one’s parents, though the ties to the extended family has weakened considerably and is probably non-existent in many cases nowadays. Sometimes we do encounter “love” marriages, though arranged marriages are certainly widespread. Sometimes a newly-wed couple may start living on their own but that is surely not the norm always. We generally have monogamous marriages with only one spouse at a time and our nuclear families not only have the couple and their children but also sometimes the parents of the husband.

In short, had this book been written about two decades back, I would surely have better understood myself and the WEIRD people and so would have probably better tackled various situations that I found myself in during graduate school years.

When my mother had once said at a conference abroad many years back, that she would have to come back early because her daughter had an important examination, they had asked her how old is she. She said I was sixteen, and soon felt rather embarrassed when they almost had a hard time collectively smothering a hearty laugh! It was my Madhyamik examination (Class 10 Board examination) and think of the kind of fuss parents here create over the Class 10 exam of their kids. Gradually we realised that teenage kids in the WEIRD world often stay and earn independently and parents really have no business even talking to them about career etc., leave alone examinations. No wonder my mother’s colleagues at the conference, mostly from the WEIRD world had a hard time comprehending the urgency of my mother coming back to me. They were probably a tad bit surprised as well that I even stayed with her! Obviously ma made them feel weird, just like they made her feel!

Soumyanetra Munshi, Associate Professor, Economic Research Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata

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