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.

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