Impersonal Prosociality & the Found Family

Impersonal Prosociality & the Found Family

There is a current trend in pop-culture movies and TV shows to emphasize the idea of the “found family.” This idea shows up in the Harry Potter series as Harry’s only remaining blood relatives are awful, but his found family in the Wizarding World become a true force for love. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a big story about the power of found family and the complexities and challenges of coming together to create a family out of people who previously didn’t have any family. Across a lot of current pop culture, stories feature the families we chose, not the families we are born into.
The idea of the found family could only exist in a world of impersonal prosociality which sets a baseline for how we behave and relate toward others. Impersonal prosociality is a WEIRD phenomenon. Through much of human history, tight knit clans and tribes based on immediate blood relations have been the driving force of human society. Marriages bridged gaps and brought families and people together. Survival and interaction beyond the family, tribe, or kin group was rare. Impersonal prosociality sets a foundation from which we can move beyond familial relations and create our own found families.
In his book The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich describes impersonal prosociality by writing:
“Impersonal trust is part of a psychological package called impersonal prosociality, which is associated with a set of social norms, expectations, and motivations for impartial fairness, probity, and cooperation with strangers, anonymous others, or even abstract institutions like the police or government. Impersonal prosociality includes the inclinations we feel toward a person who is not tied into our social network at all. How should I treat this person? It’s like a baseline level of prosociality with anonymous others, or a default strategy.”
My argument is that you cannot have a concept of a found family in a non-WEIRD world that does not have a high level of impersonal prosociality. If everyone in society is generally distrustful of strangers, is unwilling to cooperate and do business with people that they don’t know personally, and will not interact with people outside their tribe and kin, then a found family cannot exist. Found families are only possible when people can survive on their own and can work with and cooperate with complete strangers. From there, people can leave families that are abusive, that do not support their goals and ideologies, and that may be harmful for them as individuals. If society does not have a sufficient level of impersonal prosociality, then you cannot strike out on your own and you cannot chose to walk away from your direct relatives.
But when society does foster trust, communication, trade, and fairness between strangers, then an individual can walk away from family and chart their own path. Harry was welcomed into a supportive Wizarding World with strangers who were eager to help him, even before they actually knew who he was. Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy and all of his companions were able to live as rogue semi-outlaws on their own before finding that they could come together as a found family and be happier than they were on their own. When society embraces impersonal prosociality, people have more options to branch out and find those people who can become their true family, even if they are not blood relatives. Our current pop-culture fascination with the found family can only exist in our WEIRD culture.
WEIRD People Don't Value Conformity

WEIRD People Don’t Value Conformity

When we teach kids in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) countries, we don’t teach them in the same way that people in other countries, or in other times, teach and have taught their kids. In WEIRD societies, we are less focused on conformity and tradition and more focused on helping kids express their own uniqueness and work through challenges and problems in their own way. A fun example of this is the parenting style of the Turtle Crush in the movie Finding Nemo. Crush’s son splashes out of a fast moving current of water, scaring the titular character’s father, but not worrying Crush. The turtle is patient and waits to see if his son can figure out how to get back into the current on his own and he praises his son when he makes it back. Rather than chastising his son for falling out of the current and giving him specific instructions and directions for remaining in the current and getting back to the current, he encourages his son to find his own path and figure things out on his own.
The movie presents this style of parenting as optimal and praiseworthy, but it likely doesn’t resonate in every part of the world, and certainly wouldn’t resonate for humans from the past. For much of human history people have lived in relatively small tribal groups where elders made decisions that younger people were expected to follow. Obedience to authority was much more important in these tribal groups. This is a key idea that Joseph Henrich writes about in his book The WEIRDest People in the World:
“The willingness of WEIRD people to ignore others’ opinions, preferences, views, and requests extends well beyond peers to include elders, grandfathers, and traditional authorities. … 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.”
In the United States, when we think about ourselves relative to other countries, and when we think about religious groups within the United States relative to non-religious groups or elderly people relative to younger people, we should remember that values around conformity, tradition, and respect for authority matter a lot. Much of the difference and friction we see in the world today, I believe, has to do with the destruction of traditions and the near iconoclasm that WEIRD societies and people are not afraid to inflict on things that are old. We encourage kids to find their own way, be their own person, and to solve problems themselves. Consequentially, this has meant that younger people today in WEIRD countries are willing to throw out traditional ideas around marriage, gender, and elderly authority. We don’t value conformity, but instead value individual expression and uniqueness, and that is a very weird WEIRD way to view the world.
WEIRD People Feel More Guilt

WEIRD People Feel More Guilt

A definition from a Google search for guilt is, “a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation.” This definition is similar to, but slightly different from a Google search for the definition of shame, “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior,” or “a loss of respect or esteem; dishonor.”
These two emotional responses are similar, but manifest differently in WEIRD and non-WEIRD people. This is an idea that Joseph Henrich explores in his book The WEIRDest People in the World. Regarding guilt, Henrich writes, “the feeling of guilt emerges when one measures their own actions and feelings against a purely personal standard.” Guilt is very internal, and therefore very much an emotion that dominates individualistic cultures. To describe a guilty experience or situation, Henrich gives the example of a vegetarian, “as individuals cultivate their own unique attributes and talents, guilt is part of the affective machinery that motivates them to stick to their personal standards. Vegetarians, for example, might feel guilty for eating bacon even when they are traveling in distant cities surrounded by nonvegetarians.” People external from us likely don’t perceive our guilt and don’t judge us for the actions for which we are feeling guilty, much of the time at least. It’s likely that very few people care whether I blog each morning or go for a run each day. But I feel committed to these things, so when I don’t go for a run I feel guilty. I have felt guilty for not blogging consistently this year. These are internal standards and measures which really don’t mean much to anyone beyond myself. I’ve. created my own personal standards that I feel compelled to live up to, and if I don’t live up to those standards, I feel guilty.
Shame, on the other hand, still exists within individualistic societies, but is not as dominant of an emotion as guilt. “Shame is rooted in a genetically evolved psychological package that is associated with social devaluation in the eyes of others,” writes Henrich (emphasis his). Shame is more connected to social perceptions and values where guilt is more tied to internal values and opinions. There are likely secrets that we all have which we feel guilty about, and if those secrets get out we might be shamed for them. But unlike my blogging or non-running examples for which I feel guilty, shame involves people looking down on us, our families, or the groups to which we belong. Guilt is experienced by the individual, shame is perpetuated by the individual’s society. “If there is no public knowledge, there is no shame,” writes Henrich.
These two emotions are interesting to think about when we consider our own lives and the lives of other people across the globe. How we relate to each other, the pressures we feel, and the shame or guilt that we feel can differ to a great degree based on whether we live in an individualistic WEIRD society or in a different society. Guilt can be something that overwhelms us and causes incredible amounts of stress over relatively minor things in WEIRD societies. Shame can be a powerful tool used to punish those who don’t live up to social norms in cultures, even when those social norms are trivial or even harmful to overall societal well being. When we think about people who are different from us and who seem to have different cultural values and practices, we should try to understand the pressures people feel from a guilt versus shame standpoint. This will help us better understand ourselves and others, and better understand how we can work with and cooperate with more people on a global scale.
Fundamental Attribution Error - Judging People in a WEIRD Way

Fundamental Attribution Error – Judging People in a WEIRD Way

In his recent conversation with Indian TV journalis, Barkha Dutt, Tyler Cowen and and Dutt had the following exchange:
“Cowen: Plenty of Whites in the United States have resources, education, but is it possible the Brahmins of India who come to America — they’re better at cracking foreign cultural codes, they’re more used to diversity, they’re more used to strange environments? …
Dutt: I guess my hesitation in answering your question is that I hate essentialism. It’s the same way that I hate it when people say women are better leaders because we are more empathetic. …”
This part of the conversation really stuck with me. I found it really interesting that Cowen was trying to ask a question about what has made people from upper classes/castes in India become so successful with running companies in the United States (Sundar Pichai of Google is an example they mentioned). For Cowen, this was a normal seeming question, but for Dutt, the question was WEIRDly weird. What she saw in the question was an aspect of essentialism, which she seemed to view as a shortcut way of explaining complex social phenomenon by boiling something down to one particular element. For Dutt, she didn’t see success for people at the top group as entirely due to their own dispositions but in many ways as a result of how society has treated people who are at the top and who have vast resources. Rather than something essential about the individual, rather than being WEIRD and looking at individual dispositions, Dutt looked at people as part of a larger whole.
WEIRD people (Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic people) tend to see components rather than the whole. This means that when we look at individuals we don’t always see them in relation to society, but as individual actors with specific traits. Cowen’s question demonstrates this default way of thinking and how we judge ourselves and others.
In his book The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich writes about how dispositional ways of thinking about ourselves and others leads to both Cognitive Dissonance and Fundamental Attribution Error. Henrich writes,
“In WEIRD societies, the pressure to cultivate traits that are consistent across contexts and relationships leads to dispositionalism – a tendency to see people’s behavior as anchored in personality traits that influence their actions across many contexts. For example, the fact that he’s lazy (a disposition) explains why he’s not getting his work done.” We look at an individual, judge their behavior and the things they say and determine something fundamental about who they are. From this judgment we make predictions about them, treat them a certain way, and justify rewards or punishments that they receive. When we look at ourselves, Henrich explains that we do complex mental gymnastics to dismiss negative traits and characteristics while convincing ourselves that we posses good traits. Henrich continues,
“The available evidence suggests that WEIRD people suffer more severely from Cognitive Dissonance and do a range of mental gymnastics to relieve their discomfort. Second, dispositional thinking also influences how we judge others. Psychologists label this phenomenon Fundamental Attribution Error, though it’s clearly not that fundamental; it’s weird.”
Our tendency toward dispositionalism and essentialism is more common in WEIRD societies than in other societies. We make judgments about other people based on how we see them act and behave in one context. We project traits associate with that behavior onto the individual and assume that those traits are consistent across all contexts and relationships for the individual. We further project those traits among broader groups to which the individual belongs. And this can lead to many problems like bias (both positive and negative), discrimination, halo effects, and segregation. We lock up criminals for a long time because we assume they are purely evil. We hear a passionate campaign speech and assume a political figure and their party can do no wrong. We segregate our neighborhoods economically so that we can get away from lazy people who can’t hold good jobs. All of these are examples of us making a WEIRD judgment about an individual’s dispositions and projecting specific traits across all contexts for the individual and the groups to which they belong. We make fundamental errors in this attribution process and that can be quite damaging for ourselves and society in the long run. This is a WEIRD way to think about the world, and something we should be aware of as we try to understand ourselves and our societies.
A WEIRD Way to View the Self

A WEIRD Way to View the Self

“Compared to much of the world,” writes Joseph Henrich in his book The WEIRDest People in the World, “WEIRD people report behaving in more consistent ways … across different types of relationships, such as with younger peers, friends, parents, professors, and strangers. By contrast, Koreans and Japanese report consistency only within relational contexts – that is how they behave separately toward their mothers, friends, or professors across time.”
In the United States, we care a lot about the idea of our true self. We want to be able to be our true self in all of our relationships and in all of the various situations and settings that we may find ourselves in. It is important for us to understand this one true self and to be that person wherever we are. To fail to do so is to be inauthentic in our relationships with others, possibly dishonest with ourselves, and at worst a hypocrite.
But this is not a universal way of thinking about the self that all humans share. As Henrich notes, this is a pretty WEIRD (as in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) way to think about the self. Many other cultures don’t focus on being a single true self across various relationships. In the United States we try to be the same person with our co-workers, family, social groups, and grocery store strangers. We frown on the idea of being nice and sociable with our friends but cold and hard to engage when talking to a mechanic or grocery store clerk. We would criticize someone who is endearing around their mother or grandmother, but then tries to be a gangster around their friends. Other countries and cultures, however, do not share these concerns.
Henrich continues, “while Americans sometimes see behavioral flexibility as two-faced or hypocritical, many other populations see personal adjustments to differing relationships as reflecting wisdom, maturity, and social adeptness.”
Is it two faced to be highly respectful of your boss and to change your propensity for cussing when around them? Is it a display of social adeptness to be goofy and funny around small children but reserved around professional colleagues?
To me, it is really interesting that something so central to American culture can be such an outlier across the various cultures of our planet. It feels obvious to me that we should strive to be one person and not someone who presents different faces or different personalities and general dispositions to different people. But it is also incredibly difficult to always be the same person we strive to be across different contexts. It is incredibly emotionally challenging to be friendly and bubbly all day long and to maintain that attitude when running in for last minute groceries at the end of the day. Perhaps we don’t need to try so hard to be the same person all the time, perhaps we can remember that it is a WEIRD pressure that we feel when we feel a need to unify ourself across all settings and relationships. Perhaps we can step back and look at these different cultural approaches to the idea of the self and sometimes ease up on our WEIRD worries. But then again, maybe this WEIRD focus of ours is helping us and our culture move in better directions. Maybe it helps us be more thoughtful and considerate of others, and maybe it helps us strive to be better people in all that we do. 
Identity Through Individual Traits

Identity Through Individual Traits

If you are WEIRD, you probably think about yourself in terms of your personal traits that make you unique and one of a kind. For example, when I complete the sentence from Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World, “I am _________,” I say things like, “a runner,” “active,” “a college graduate,” or “a pizza enthusiast.” The first things that come to my mind are not, “my wife’s husband,” “my parent’s son,” or even, “American.” If I go long enough, things like, “a Nevadan,” a “Reno Native,” or “a middle child,” will come to mind, but those relationship qualities are not the first things I think about and if I expanded on them I would probably use them as further markers of my individual uniqueness, not as something that connects me with most other people.
Discussing this phenomenon, Henrich writes, “this focus on personal attributes, achievements, and membership in abstract or idealized social groups over personal relationships, inherited social roles, and face-to-face communities is a robust feature of WEIRD psychology, but one that makes us rather peculiar from a global perspective.” Something I have heard that differentiates Americans from many other people’s of the globe is that the first question we are likely to ask someone we have just met is, “what do you do?” This tells us if they are in a high status job, if they are likely to make a lot of money, if they are an interesting person with an interesting career, and more. But what it doesn’t necessarily tell us about is their family history, religious beliefs, or where they were born. In other countries, it is more common to ask someone you have just met, “where are you from?” which does give us a better sense of the person’s family background or religious beliefs.
America is WEIRD, which is to say; Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. These features also make us weird, which is to say outliers throughout much of the glob and much of human history in terms of how we approach common questions and what behaviors we find typical. Our psychology is different because our culture shapes different ways of thinking. We answer a fill in the blank question such as, “I am” with individual and unique traits that we alone posses. Many other people in different countries would answer the question with words that relate to social and familial structures, not with individual traits. The question would be answered to help another person see how the individual fits in with society, not to demonstrate how the individual stands out. This is not a typical way that humans have looked at themselves throughout much of human history. Seeing our identity through individual traits is both WEIRD and weird.
A Key Theme from The WEIRDest People in the World

A Key Theme from The WEIRDest People in the World

A key theme from The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich is the idea that cultural evolution can have real biological and psychological impacts on humans. Culture is often thought of as something that sits on top of our biology, influenced by the biological changes that evolution favors. But Henrich argues that culture can also shift our biology, by changing our brains.
In the introduction to his book, when calling this out as a key theme, he writes, “beliefs, practices, technologies, and social norms – culture – can shape our brains, biology, and psychology, including our motivations, mental abilities, and decision-making biases. You can’t separate culture from psychology or psychology from biology, because culture physically rewires our brains and thereby shapes how we think.”
For Henrich, this is evident in the way in which reading changes the physical structures of our brain. Our brains can adjust and change based on what we need them to do. Asking them to read a lot changes how brains are internally organized and structured, and that ends up creating further changes in how we perceive the world, how we think, and how we behave. Cultural practices can shape the brain which can then shift the way our thinking operates.
That is why we cannot separate culture and cultural evolution from psychology, biology, and human evolution as a whole. How we interact with and cooperate with others, what traits are favored and passed along, and what cultural practices spread and evolve are all intertwined in complex ways.
Protestantism Raised Literacy

Protestantism Raised Literacy

One important way in which Protestantism differs from Catholicism is that Protestantism encourages reading Christian scripture directly where Catholicism encourages learning scripture from religious leaders. Consequentially, the spread of Protestantism correlates to a spread of literacy across Europe from the 1500’s through the 1800’s. Joseph Henrich writes about this phenomena and its importance in his book The WEIRDest People in the World.
“The wave of Protestantism created by the Reformation raised literacy and schooling rates in its wake,” Henrich writes. The increased literacy in a region, created by the spread of Protestantism, had long lasting effects on literacy. Henrich continues, “countries made up entirely of Protestants had literacy rates nearly 20 percentile points higher than those that were all Catholic.” And he writes, “regions with early Protestant missions are associated with literacy rates that are about 16 percentile points higher on average than those associated with catholic missions.” Higher literacy spread throughout these regions and changed the cultures, “Protestantism likely caused a rise in female literacy.”
Henrich has shown that reading changes our brains and our psychologies. When a region is becoming more literate, more people’s brains and psychologies are changing, especially if literacy is expanding to women and other marginalized groups within a region. These changes help us understand why things like representative government and the industrial revolution took hold in Europe. By chance, a religion which encouraged direct reading and interpretation of religious texts spread through Europe. That religion increased literacy rates and eventually changed the way people’s brains were structured which changed how they thought and behaved. This created long lasting cultural differences that still shape how people from various regions think, behave, and are perceived. Protestantism raised literacy, started to create WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) people, and changed the world.
The Importance of Cultural Evolution & History

The Importance of Cultural Evolution & History

A little while back I wrote about conflicts surrounding accurate historical representations of modern societies. The way we tell and frame our histories is often a justification for modern inequalities and inequities. Casting other peoples as violent savages, as historical invading marauders, or as people given a spot in a land out of pure altruism can excuse historical genocide, dismiss current marginalization, or reframe modern rights disparities. Looking back through history is a threat to many groups and people and consequentially many people would rather continue living with false narratives of the past than truly explore accurate historical realities.
But such historical explorations are crucial for better understanding humanity today. In his book The WEIRDest People in the World author Joseph Henrich asks why reading and literacy took off in some parts of the world and explores how changes like literacy shaped our brains and psychology.  Having a very accurate history of humanity is important for understanding where we are and why our biology and cultures are the way they are. According to Henrich, “this turns a question about neuroscience, and global psychological diversity, into one about cultural evolution and history.”
In general, we undervalue humanities, history, and arts in modern American society. We praise sciences like neuroscience and economics which can unlock better health and prosperity while looking down at cultural studies which may tell us something interesting but considered futile or reveal something that could potentially disrupt our preferred narrative of history. This is the mindset Henrich is pushing back against in the opening prelude of his book.
Accurate understandings of cultural evolution and history are important if we are going to truly understand our psychology. This requires a level of objectivity when looking at our past institutions and cultures, a view that doesn’t advocate for certain peoples to be inherently better than others, but rather examines what took place among and between cultures and how shifts in cultural behaviors, practices, and institutions could have contributed to the world we see around ourselves today. Leaving our biases aside and not needing a narrative to align with the reality we want is hard, but important for us to better understand ourselves and improve our institutions to make our future and culture something we want to live in and be a part of.
Cultural Evolution Changes Humans

Cultural Evolution Changes Humans

I have long thought that biological evolution and cultural evolution were distinctly separate phenomenon. I thought that biological evolution changed the actual individual creatures where cultural evolution only changed behaviors and institutions, largely as a downstream consequence of biological evolution. My view was similar, and possibly influenced by, modern computer technology. We don’t really think about the software and programs we run on computers as changing the hardware. But cultural evolution, it turns out, does make biological changes to the individual.
Joseph Henrich demonstrates this at the start of his book The WEIRDest People In the World. By showing how reading changes brain structures Henrich demonstrates how cultural evolution and biological changes in individuals took place simultaneously. Henrich writes, “learning to read forms specialized brain networks that influence our psychology across several different domains, including memory, visual processing, and facial recognition.”
New technologies enabled reading and reading became a new cultural practice and phenomena. As people began reading more, their brains literally changed. Parts of the brain which had specialized for certain functions throughout human evolution took on new roles and functions. This changed the psychology of many people all at once, changing the culture.
Henrich writes about the ways in which reading becomes automatic and unconscious, showing how cultural evolution, which changes how our brains operate, isn’t always a conscious act. If you see words in English you will automatically read and understand the word, even if you only see the word for the briefest moment. “Although this cognitive ability is culturally constructed, it’s also automatic, unconscious, and irrepressible,” writes Henrich, “this makes it like many other aspects of culture.”
We do not realize how drastic and important culture can be to how our brains function. Our psychology can be shaped by many cultural factors, as a result of changes in brain processes and structures. It is not just biological evolution that can have real changes in humans. Cultural changes can have similar results. This is important for us to think about when we consider how we relate to each other, our ancestors, and to the global species we want to be in the future. I fear more understanding of this type of cultural evolution could be used to discriminate against cultures, but I hope that it is instead used to demonstrate the dangers of oppressing cultures. Instead of a justification of discrimination it can be a bridge and an invitation to help cultures grow and evolve to live on a planet where all humans cooperate and can coordinate for a healthy and sustainable future.