Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

The weirdest people in the world?

Joseph Henricha1, Steven J. Heinea2 and Ara Norenzayana3

a1 Department of Psychology and Department of Economics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver V6T 1Z4, Canada.

a2 Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver V6T 1Z4, Canada.

a3 Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver V6T 1Z4, Canada.


Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world's top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior – hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

Joseph Henrich holds the Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition, and Evolution at the University of British Columbia, where he is appointed Professor in both Economics and Psychology. His theoretical work focuses on how natural selection has shaped human learning and how this in turn influences cultural evolution, and culture-gene coevolution. Methodologically, his research synthesizes experimental and analytical tools drawn from behavioural economics and psychology with in-depth quantitative ethnography, and he has performed long-term fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon, rural Chile, and in Fiji. Trained in anthropology, Dr. Henrich's work has been published in the top journals in biology, anthropology, and economics. In 2004 he was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award, the highest award bestowed by the United States upon scientists early in their careers. In 2007 he co-authored Why Humans Cooperate. In 2009 the Human Behavior and Evolution Society awarded him their Early Career Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions.

Ara Norenzayan is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1999, was a postdoctoral fellow at the Ecole Polytechnique, Paris, and served on the faculty of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign before his appointment at UBC. His most recent work addresses the evolution of religious beliefs and behaviors.

Steven J. Heine is Professor of Psychology and Distinguished University Scholar at the University of British Columbia. Much of his work has focused on how culture shapes people's self-concepts, particularly their motivations for self-esteem. Dr. Heine has received the Early Career Award from the International Society of Self and Identity and the Distinguished Scientist Early Career Award for Social Psychology from the American Psychological Association. He is the author of a textbook entitled Cultural Psychology, published in 2008.