Can the Catholic Church help explain Western psychology?


During the past 10 years, social scientists have wrestled with a powerful criticism of their research: their favorite subjects, American college students, are often outliers compared to the global population. Economists and psychologists run studies on their students, and then sometimes use those results to make broad claims about human tolerance for risk, moral reasoning, or even the way people perceive lines on a page. But they often are just describing a W.E.I.R.D. subgroup of humanity—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—as an influential study calls them. That subgroup represents only 12 percent of the world’s population, but a whopping 96 percent of subjects in psychological studies. 

Joseph Henrich, professor of human evolutionary biology (HEB), was lead author on a 2010 paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences that proposed the WEIRD problem in social science. It has since received more than 5,000 citations, rocking the academic world. Henrich and his colleagues, all then at the University of British Columbia, describe in painstaking detail how WEIRD subjects differ from the global population, arguing for example that risk-averse behavior concerning money might be a recent development local to industrialized areas, rather than intrinsic to human nature. But he avoided any speculation as to why the West had such an unusual psychological makeup.

A paper published today in Science, coauthored by Henrich with Jonathan Schulz and Jonathan Beauchamp, both economists at George Mason University, and Duman Bahrami-Rad, a postdoctoral fellow in HEB’s culture, cognition, and coevolution lab, attempts to explain how Europeans came to be so atypical. In an argument fusing methods from anthropology, psychology, and history, the authors claim that the unusual levels of individualism seen in the West come in part from the emergence of the nuclear family—which is vanishingly rare outside of Europe.

Henrich had long been thinking about how families change the ways that people think. “I was influenced by my ongoing anthropological fieldwork at one of the outer islands of Fiji, where social life is still governed by strong norms of kinship, which endow everyone with a set of responsibilities, obligations, and privileges,” said Henrich in a news conference. “It seemed plausible that kinship systems, or what we call kin-based institutions, might have a big effect on people’s psychology.”

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