Skip to content

Joseph Henrich Claims Non-Westerners Have “Fewer Personality Dimensions” Than Whites — 13

Hard to believe the discipline of psychology has always assumed that the “patterns and dimensions of personality observed” among Americans and Europeans “represent the human pattern.” In fact, the social sciences in general teach their white students that their personality dispositions for impersonal prosociality, time thrift, love of choice, honesty and fairness towards strangers, and analytical thinking, are universal traits that can be found anywhere in the world because they are anchored in human nature. The reason for this major error in our understanding of human nature, Henrich explains, is that “most of what was known experimentally about human psychology and behavior was based on studies with undergraduates from Western societies”. Ninety-six percent of “experimental participants were drawn from northern Europe, North America, or Australia”. There were studies done with participants from outside the West but these relied heavily on highly Westernized “relationally mobile university students in urban centers”.

Biology and Geography Can’t Reveal Western Uniqueness

Henrich’s central argument that the WEIRD psychology of Europeans was a product of cultural evolution, not genetic evolution, will likely repel many on the Dissident Right. The argument that culture can change the psychology of humans will be seen as just another version of “social constructionism”. The Right prefers to talk about human nature, innate biological drives, and differences in the average intelligence of populations. Phillipe Rushton and Henry C. Harpending have both called for a biological interpretation of history “using a gene-based evolutionary theory that takes IQ differences into account”.

This is what Michael Hart attempted in his book, Understanding Human History (2007). He argued that differences in average intelligence between separate groups should be given priority in our efforts to understand the divergent historical patterns of civilizations and nations. The origination of a modern technological culture required a population with a high level of intelligence. But while Hart offered a persuasive explanation about how in the course of time various physical differences arose between “human groups widely separated from each other geographically, with relatively little interbreeding between them,” he was never able to explain why East Asians with their higher average intelligence were unable to create the first modern scientific civilization.

On the other side of the spectrum, the geographical approach of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was very good at explaining why the cultures of Eurasia got a head start in the development of complex civilizations, by showing that this area had most of the wild crops and wild animals that could be domesticated, and by showing that the east-west orientation of this area favored the diffusion of domesticated crops, animals, and knowledge. But, again, Diamond failed to explain why the civilization of Europe within Eurasia moved past the Asian world after 1500.

Henrich’s Cultural Approach

What makes Henrich’s cultural approach different from standard cultural approaches is that it goes deeper into the brains and psychology of Europeans to explain their divergent path. He does not assume that all humans have a common or fixed psychology. He does not say that the psychology of anyone in the world can be easily altered in a WEIRD direction if only they are encouraged to read different books or placed inside “rationalistic” and individualistic” institutions. He is talking about deeper ontogenetic changes in the psychology of Europeans (e.g. in the neurological wiring of the brain) brought about through a long historical process involving the demolition of their kinship institutions and their replacement with “voluntary” associations and impersonal markets.

Henrich sets up a non-WEIRD/kinship based psychology versus a WEIRD/non-kinship based psychology. It would be wrong to think that kinship is one institution among others. Anthropologists have long believed that kinship is the key to understanding the behavior of “traditional man”. From the very beginnings of this disciplinary field it became apparent that kinship was the foundational institution of all human societies before the onset of modernity. Kinship is all about descent and lineage, the biological relationships between people in the society, the norms guiding the relationships between husband and wife, brother and sister, cousin marriage, polygamy. It is also an institution with widespread societal links dictating relationships between clans and between tribes and underlying the norms of complex civilizations. Kinship norms dictate the most basic relationships between humans, and the criteria for membership within societies: who belongs in the group and who is an outsider.

Henrich does underplay the role of genetic variation between different ethnic populations. He  takes it as a given that humans have a common genetic stock, and from this position moves on to explain why the psychology of Westerners has been so different for centuries. Kevin MacDonald’s Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition is the only book I know from an evolutionary psychologist that focuses on the cultural differences between Europeans and non-Europeans. It argues that Westerners originated the modern world because they had a weak kinship system characterized by the nuclear family, exogamous and monogamous marriage, and trust based on an individual’s reputation.

Similarly to Henrich, MacDonald explains that Europeans had a different individualistic psychology. While he does not carry a detailed examination of the role of kinship institutions in the evolutionary upscaling of societies, and does not offer detailed assessments and experimental surveys demonstrating the WEIRD personality of Europeans, MacDonald does mount a very effective historically-based argument showing how the weak ethnocentrism of Europeans, their high levels of trust and moral universalism, explain in large measure why they are allowing their nations to be colonized by outsiders. It is within this historical context that MacDonald assesses how the Jews with their strong ingroup identity have effectively exploited the weak ingroup identities of Europeans to promote mass immigration and race mixing.

However, MacDonald traces the origins of the unique family system of Europeans to the “harsh evolutionary pressures of the Ice Age”. This environment selected for smaller family groups in relative social isolation, as contrasted to the “extended kinship networks and collectivist groups” that were typical in the non-Western world. In the north-western climes of Europe there were strong selective pressures for males to provision simple households or nuclear families characterized by monogamy, exogamy, and bilateral kinship, because the ecology and availability of resources could not have selected for large polygynous families.

But we have seen that for Henrich it all started in the early Middle Ages when the Church dismantled kinship groups and “unintentionally” set up a cultural dynamic in Europe that led to the rise of institutions based on WEIRD principles. I tend to agree with MacDonald that the divergent path of Europeans began much earlier than the Middle Ages, but we still need to explain in more detail how it was that monogamy was adopted in the southern environment of ancient Greece. MacDonald thinks that southern Europe saw more extended family types but recognizes at the same time that monogamy was legally enforced in ancient in Greece.

There are strong reasons to think that monogamy really began with the Greeks in the sense that they intentionally came to oppose polygamy and emphasize the virtues of monogamy, whereas in hunting and gathering Europe monogamy was practiced in lieu of environmental pressures and lack of resources. Once the societies of north-western Europe managed to create sizable surpluses, as chiefdoms emerged in the Copper and Bronze ages, the ruling elite happily went on to express its biological predilection for polygamy. Keep in mind, however, MacDonald’s observation (which I also expressed in a slightly different way in Uniqueness) that these kin groups were not as strong as they were in the non-Western world, not as collective in their ownership of land, but quite individualistic in their heroic ethos and their institutions. Nevertheless MacDonald recognizes that the Germanic barbarian elites the Church encountered were polygamous and that the Church did play a big role in the imposition of monogamy upon this elite. What I would insist upon is the cultural intentionality of the Church in mandating monogamy.

Having emerged in the Hellenistic-Roman world, and having assimilated the rational discourse of the Greeks, the Church intentionally set out to abolish kinship groups and promote family values which recognized the “free will” of men, women, and children. Intentionality goes to the heart of what it means to be a human being capable of acting autonomously rather than being motivated solely by animalistic wants and desires. This movement in the liberation of the mind from external determinations started in the ancient Greek world although it is rooted in the aristocratic heroic culture of Indo-Europeans. With the Presocratics and Socrates we witness the beginnings of the idea that true insight comes when thinking starts to determine itself within itself, rather than in abeyance to some mandated norm rooted in our kin-based institutions.

I like the systematic manner in which Henrich goes about demonstrating, by way of numerous experimental surveys (about which I will write in a future post), that Westerners do have a WEIRD personality characterized by “self-focus,” “guilt over shame,” “free will,” and thinking based on impartial principles rather than on the prejudgments of kinship authorities. But Henrich’s conception of freedom and individuality is disconnected from the history of philosophy, the history of the greatest Western minds and books. It is really a pop psychological conception anchored in the construction of experimental surveys that measure the personality dispositions of average individuals in response to simple questions about their everyday life choices and motivations. This is not to deny the indispensable, rock solid nature of his research.

Five Personality Dimensions

In chapter 11, which I will be examining now, Henrich brings up the widely accepted theory that

humans have five largely independent dimensions of personality: (1) openness to experience (‘adventurousness’), (2) conscientiousness (‘self-discipline’), (3) extraversion (vs. introversion), (4) agreeableness (‘cooperativeness’ or ‘compassion’), and (5) neuroticism (’emotional instability’).

In the discipline of psychology, Henrich observers, these personality dimensions “have often been interpreted as capturing the innate structure of the human personality”. This is a mistaken view based on “non-representative samples” or studies of individuals in non-Western societies who inhabit highly modernized and Westernized urban centers and universities. We now have rigorous data showing that people living in truly traditional non-Western milieus exhibit only two dimensions of the supposedly “innate structure of human personality”, which don’t even match up well with any of the 5 dimensions. The 2 dimensions that best capture the personality structure of non-white traditional people can be described in a very rough way as “interpersonal prosociality” (no impersonal), and “industriousness”. These are the personality dimensions that are required for success in a kinship oriented culture with a low division of labor. Everyone is a generalist who needs to be “industrious” in a wide set of tasks as farmers, craftsmen, builders. And they need to be sociable with regards to their kinship obligations with other people.

Moreover, among WEIRD people each of the 5 dimensions tends to be independent and uncorrelated, in the sense that knowing that an individual scores high in one dimension such as “agreeableness” does not reveal how that person will score in another dimension such as extraversion. There are “many social niches available to WEIRD people” for different dimensions of their personality to find expression in different combinations. But in traditional cultures everyone has to be a generalist and so one finds higher correlations in the dimensions to the point that we can only speak roughly of two personality dimensions. Henrich thinks the number of personality dimensions can be explainable in terms of “differences in urbanization or occupational diversity”. WEIRD cultures have more personality dimensions because they have a wider range of jobs and social niches where people can express more than one dimension. A movie actor, for example, can be both extroverted and neurotic. An academic who studies risky subjects can be both introverted and adventurous.

Four Temperaments of Ancient Greece

Something is missing in Henrich’s idea that the rise of a multifarious personality can be traced back to the increasing rates of urbanization, impersonal markets, and occupational diversity that Europe saw after the abolition of kinship groups. The ancient Greeks had already discovered four dimensions of the five dimensions current psychologists teach about. The Greek physician Hippocrates (460 –370 BC) used the term “the four temperaments” to designate four personality types: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. Later on, Galen (AD 129–216) came up with a comprehensive dissertation, Die Temperamentis, explaining the nature of these four temperaments and speculating on the physiological reasons for these temperaments. This thesis recognized that a personality can share two or more temperaments.

The ancient Greeks could not have come up with this outlook unless they were already living in a culture where these four dimensions were apparent. I would not argue that the adoption of monogamy generated these richer personality but would prefer to say that monogamy was intentionally introduced by a Greek culture that was already developing a richer personality. In Uniqueness I wrote about the “emergence of the self” and the “beginnings of genuine personalities” in Homeric Greece and the Indo-European world of aristocratic heroes. I have elaborated this idea in subsequent writings. It is a complicated argument. Understanding the origins of personalities that are conscious of their consciousness requires far more than experimental surveys of average individuals.

Once the self rises above a child like existence in which the ego is not fully differentiated from its surroundings, it begins to manifest its creative powers, giving birth to multiple dimensions of the personality. To understand the beginnings of personalities in history one has to take seriously the history of Western literature in all its expressions, starting with the Greek invention of the epic and lyric forms of poetry, the invention of drama and comedy, and many other literary styles all the way to the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century with its infinite variety of characters and keen insights into the “inner depths” of countless personalities.

The Psychology of Europe’s Economic History

Nevertheless, one should not underestimate Henrich’s breakthrough idea that the common factor underlying the multiple technological novelties, new patterns of economic behavior, and institutional arrangements Europeans originated between 1000 to 1800 was a whole new personality. In this chapter he contrasts the way individuals behave and judge personalities in kin-based societies and WEIRD societies. It is a dramatic contrast. In kin-based cultures, the occupational choices of individuals are strongly set by families, clans, or ethnic groups. In the emerging WEIRD cultures of medieval Europe, where one finds an increasing number of individuals seeking to join voluntary associations, guilds, cities, apprenticeships, business partnerships, individuals had to “sell themselves” by emphasizing their personal abilities and attributes. Personal connections, as they do today, remained important,  but personal success was heavily dependent on one’s reputation in a world of strangers. Having a reputation as a hard and reliable worker  with the proper specialized talents and the personality aptitudes to do the job become crucial.

Cistercian Abbey – Galway County

It is from the perspective of this new psychology that Henrich offers many new insights on the economic history of this period. The field of economic history has produced many excellent scholarly contributions on the factors that led Europe to become the first industrial civilization. But these studies have faced numerous quandaries and impasses on a wide variety of pertinent subjects, such as: the spread of mechanical clocks in the Middle Ages and why Europeans became obsessed with punctuality, and why so many Cistercian monasteries were founded before 1300 (long before the rise of the Protestant work ethic) emphasizing hard work and self-discipline. Why did western Europe see a steady decline in interests rates, below 5 percent in England and Holland before the Industrial Revolution, compared to the otherwise advanced economies of Asia where rates tended to average between 25 and 50 percent?

The flaw in all prior answers, Henrich explains, lay in the assumed notion among economic historians that the psychology of economic actors throughout the world was fixed and generic. Rather than focusing on how low interest rates reflect a people’s willingness to delay gratification, economic historians looked to a whole range of factors affecting the risk of lending, or at the ways new credit banks eased the lending of money. Similarly, when trying to explain the rapid spread of mechanical clocks they looked at the demands of capitalism for punctuality, rather than at the underlying psychological importance WEIRD people attach to spending time productively and cultivating a reputation for punctuality and reliability.

It was the emerging WEIRD psychology of Europeans in the Middle Ages that prompted them to create a new type of capitalism based on this new psychology. (Max Weber, it turns out, was far closer to the truth than Marx). China had developed mechanical water clocks but these remained mere “showpieces and curiosities” even though this civilization had widespread markets. When the true mechanical clocks from Europe arrived in the Islamic world there was little interest in this culture where occupations were set by family ties, reputations were dependent on one’s adherence to kinship norms, and prayer times were based on the sun’s position

One of the other consequences of the spread of WEIRD traits is that Europeans began to work longer and harder. Contrary to popular notions and images, Third World peoples work far less than Westerners. It is common to witness in the Near East men sitting all day in cafes. Western welfare earmarked for Muslims reinforces this lack of work ethic. But among Europeans studies show an “industrious revolution” from the 1650s on led by the middle classes with the workweek lengthened by  40 percent in London during the 1750s. After 1800 people were working about 1,000 hours more per year, or about an extra 19 hours per week.

The common explanation was that demographic pressures were forcing people to work longer. There is some truth to this, population was increasing steadily through the eighteenth century, but studies now show that when one compares diverse societies, the men who are involved in the commercial sector tend to increase their work time on average by about 5 hours per week. Henrich thus recognizes the role that the spread of markets on their own have on psychology; however, what was going on in Europe was deeper than having the opportunity to buy newly available commercial goods, tea, sugar, coffee, pepper, nutmeg, and rum. People were also working more intensively. They had a different personality, a greater inclination to postpone gratification, a more clock-time mind set, and a wish to cultivate a reputation for self-discipline and punctuality.

So we see how a focus on the emergence of a new psychology in Europe allows Henrich to pull together a wide array of historical trends and novelties into one uniformly powerful explanation. There is nevertheless an intrinsic tendency on his part to think of this new psychology in terms of its role in bringing about a modern industrial society without any appreciation of additional personality traits Europeans may have been expressing in the world of music, painting, philosophy, literature, architecture. Like most scholars who have examined the rise of the West, Henrich thinks it is all about the creation of a modern scientific economy. This may explain in part why he ignores altogether ancient Greece and Rome, believing that the first steps in the creation of a modern economy are to be found in the Middle Ages. But we have seen that ancient Greece was already showing strong proto-WEIRD tendencies. It may be that these tendencies did not manifest themselves in a different type of economic/technological form of development, but it can’t be denied that even in the realm of science, Greece established a firm foundation for it and for analytical thinking, both with the logic of Aristotle and with an Euclidean geometry that continued to be the standard source of deductive reasoning for centuries thereafter into the age of Newtonian science, not to mention many other scientists of the Hellenistic era.

Please follow and like us: