Taking Cross Cultural Psychology Seriously

Image Source. 
Note that this image is not from the pre-print. I just found it through googling.

 In that way, an explanation would be forthcoming for the future of certain nations which appear to be drawn by an unknown force towards a goal which they are unaware.

–Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

Cross-cultural psychology boasts a large and well replicated literature.[1] An increasingly large number of psychologists have focused their efforts on cross-cultural comparison; even subfields like behavioral economics have produced a significant literature on cross-cultural differences. But let’s be honest: this literature has not had a large impact on social scientists working outside of psychology. This is especially true for social scientists who test their theories with historical data sets and case studies instead of experiments. What Joseph Henrich–an anthropologist who pioneered the use of behavioral experiments by researchers working in small scale societies–said in one 2015 note is just as true today as it was when he published it three years ago:

Findings like these are daunting to many experimental researchers because disciplines like psychology, neuro-science and economics are not well equipped, either theoretically or institutionally, to deal with population-level psychological and neurological differences. Many psychologists, for example, tend to think of cross-cultural research as a nuisance necessary only to confirm the universality of their findings (which are usually based on WEIRD undergraduates. To the contrary, the immense psychological and behavioral variation we observe across the globe should be seen as an intellectual opportunity, one that that inspires new theoretical and methodological approaches. [2]

What Henrich says of neuroscience and economics is true for researchers in the other social sciences. I cannot blame them too harshly. If social scientists tend to view cross-cultural psychology more as a source of trivia than as a source of inspiration, this is partially because the psychologists involved have given political scientists, sociologists, and economists very little to work with. Cross cultural psychologists regularly decry the cultural blindness built into rationalist models of human behavior, but they rarely suggest what a culturally aware model might look like. In many ways the situation reminds me of where behavioral economics stood in the mid 80s and early 90s. Important experiments had shown that homo economicus was more myth than man. Crucial constructs (like “prospect theory”) had been discovered. But these ideas had for the most part not been integrated into working formal models capable of predicting economic behavior in the contexts economists most often studied.
This post is going to outline some of my thoughts on how cross-cultural psychology can be better integrated into social science. I have been stewing over this for some time, but a recent column I wrote for the American Conservative gives me the excuse I need to expand on it here. The column summarizes and synthesizes the work of Jonathan Schulz, an economist currently post-doc’ing with the Joseph Henrich’s Culture and Cognition Lab at Harvard, and the work of Jared Rubin, an associate professor of economics at Chapman University. Shulz’s papers “The Catholic Church, Kin Networks, and Institutional Development” and “The Origins of WIERD Psychology” (which is co-authored with Henrich, Jonthan Beauchamp, and Duman Bahrami-Rad) are the foundation for the first part of my American Conservative piece; the second part is based mostly on the work presented in Rubin’s book Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not. Both of their research programs investigate the origins of modern economic growth and liberal political institutions; both locate these origins in the history of Medieval Europe. As I state in the conclusion of the column:

Though the methods used by Rubin and Schultz differ (in his papers, Rubin employs game theory and calculus to model the calculations of popes and princes; Schultz and his co-authors rely on statistical methods to correlate modern outcomes with Europe’s medieval heritage) when placed together, their work presents a compelling account of the origins of modernity. Capitalism and liberalism are the twin pillars upon which the modern world was built. And both of them were built, unconsciously, by the priests and popes of the medieval Catholic Church. [3]

If you are not familiar with Schulz’s or Rubin’s work, I encourage you to read the full piece. In that column I emphasized conscilience. I had good reasons for doing so: these two lines of research are not nearly as well known as they should be; moreover, I think they can be easily meshed together to tell a compelling story about the rise of modern institutions in Early Modern Europe. That was my approach. My hope is that my piece inspired more people to read the original research I cited. However, when you look at Rubin and Schulz’s work at a more granular level there are key differences in the assumptions each makes about the nature of human interaction. These differences are hard to square. Rubin views human history through the lens of incentives and bargaining. He reduces shifts in culture to shifting incentive structures. Schulz takes a psychologist’s view of cultural change: for him, culture is conceived as an unmalleable set of preferences and behavioral ticks. In his papers the line of causality works in reverse of that championed by Rubin: culture determines incentives. Institutions are reduced to psychometrics.

I do not think either approach is correct.

Bargaining models of conflict and institutional change that do not incorporate the data produced by thirty years of cross-cultural psychology will always be open to devastating critique from behavioral scientists who are aware of this research. Yet behavioral scientists who equate psychological diversity with specific institutions and political outcomes have side-stepped the most important questions any theory of institution building must face. Neither approach will get to the truth until it takes seriously the methods of the other.

Let’s start with Rubin. In Rulers, Religion, and Riches one of Rubin’s central tasks is to explain why Islamic countries, after an explosion of legal and financial innovations in the first centuries of Arab rule, adopted a conservative, traditional, and rigid approach to religious and economic change.Rubin’s views on how to think about such changes are worth quoting at length:

Economists like to think in terms of incentives. This book is no different. At every historical turn, it asks the question: Why did the relevant parties act in the manner they did? The answer given in this book always boils down to: “They were incentivized to act in that manner.” Incentives come from a host of societal attributes: politics, religion, social norms, laws, and culture are just a few. The inquiry cannot stop there: simply noting the incentives that individuals face is the last step. It is critical to take a step back and ask: Why were those incentives there in the first place? Why do the incen- tives people face differ in different places and at different times, and why do they change over time? Why do they sometimes not change over time?

A simple economic example illustrates the problem with arguments relying on “inherent conservatism.” Consider the fact that elderly individuals are less likely to use computing technologies than teenagers are. On the surface, it may seem like older people are inherently more conservative – they prefer sticking with writing letters over sending e- mails. This, however, is a too simplistic argument. Older people are less likely to use advanced computing, not because they prefer the old ways more than teenagers do, but because the costs and benefits of learning a new technology are different. It may in fact be less costly in terms. Instead, the incentive structure is such that the elderly have less incentive to learn new technologies. This book applies a similar logic to economic history.

 Chapter 2 provides a framework based on the incentives the relevant players face in the bargain over laws and policies. It shows the conditions that incentivize these players to choose laws and policies that respond to changing economic environments. “Conservative” outcomes result when these conditions are not present, in that laws and policies do not change in spite of a changing world. But these are outcomes, not preferences. This book does not rely on some ad hoc theory of a “conservative nature” of certain groups of people; instead, it shows why certain people act conservatively. In the context of the Middle East–Western Europe divergence, an implication of this way of thinking is that conservatism is an outcome to be explained – it is not itself a cause of stagnation. While there is indeed evidence suggesting that Islamic political and religious thought became more conservative starting sometime around the turn of the first millennium, this does not mean that we should take the false path connecting a conservative outlook to economic stagnation. Instead, the correct questions to ask are why some cultures are more conservative than others and were there incentives in the Middle East which eventual y led to conservative outcomes. A deeper answer requires that we look beyond cultural differences and analyze the key drivers of incentives, be they economic, religious, social, or political.[4]

So that is Rubin’s theory–conservatism is mostly a matter of the incentives faced by political actors. If the incentives change, so would their traditional attitudes.

This view has a problem. It contradicts what we know about the nature of political ideology and political preferences. Sixty years of research conducted by social and political psychologists is clear on this point: political attitudes are to a significant extent the product of dispositions. These dispositions are not plastic. Behavioral scientists have successfully linked political dispositions to personality types (e.g. the Big 5), preferences only tangentially related to the political realm (e.g. disgust sensitivity), and behavioral or perceptual quirks unrelated to ideology (e.g. the messiness of one’s room or the speed of threat perception). FMRI studies have linked many of these differences in political behavior to differences in brain structure. Twin studies suggest that somewhere between 40-60% of the variation in a given population’s political preferences can be attributed to genetics; other studies show that most political attitudes are locked in early in life, unduly influenced by the political and economic events that occur during subjects’ teenage years.[5]

Schulz et. al’s study contains an interesting example of the ‘stickiness’ of these dispositions: their data does not just correlate WEIRD psychological traits with kin practices of a given society, but also the psychological traits of 2nd-generation immigrants whose parents who grew up in countries whose kin institutions differ from those they’ve experienced their entire life. [6] Incentives cannot account for their attitudes. If economic and political attitudes were truly a matter of local economic incentives, we would expect these children to have attitudes that mirrored that of the society they grew up in, not that of their parents. This is not what is happening.

Table 4 in Schultz et. al, “The Origins of WIERD Psychology,” p. 21.

The literature on political dispositions is not without its own flaws. (In particular, personality and biological theories of political preferences, most of which are based purely on cross-sectional data, have a difficult time accounting for shifts in preferences over the long term. Cohort based theories do a bit better here). But the central point stands: the “traditionalism” or “conservatism” of a given political actor is only partially the result of explicit calculation on their part. Incentives are inflected through dispositions. These dispositions are “sticky,” changing far less and far slower than any rationalist, incentives-based account can justify.

Schulz’s work comes from a research tradition that take variation in psychological traits very seriously. He works now as a post-doc with Joseph Henrich, one of the first experimenters to test whether individuals from non-market economies acted the same way as neoclassical economics predicted they would. The now commonly used acronym “WEIRD” (“Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Developed”) was invented in a co-paper Henrich authored. [6] There probably is no research center north of Michelle Gelfend’s SDOS Culture Lab that studies the economic consequences of cross-cultural variation more vigorously than his.

Experimental data is the empirical foundation of this literature. Schulz’s work here is no different. His claims reduce to an extremely fine-grained set of correlations between observed variation of psychological traits in modern populations and the geography of medieval Catholicism.

Yet when it comes to the study of political and economic institutions, experimental data can only get you so far. The theory that the collapse of cousin-marriage in Medieval Western Europe is responsible for modern Western European’s neighborly, pro-social conception of civic life is not new. Versions of it have been floating around the Internet for some years now. (The earliest version I can find is a 2003 article in the American Conservative by Stever Sailer; none are cited by Schulz or his co-authors in his papers). The advantage Schulz’s work has over these earlier Internet debates is data: Schulz tests his theory with a remarkable set of different data streams, finding significant correlations between cousin marriage and WEIRD psychology at the global level, within Europe, within individual countries, and in immigrant groups that have moved away from their country of origin.

But his argument has a problem. It is all correlation and no causation. Schulz has identified a plausible mechanism for the origin of Western psychological norms. What he has not identified is a mechanism that connects these norms to the origins of the political and economic institutions that set Western Europe on its unique historical trajectory.[7] The path from WEIRD psychology to WEIRD institutions is treated as an automatic given.

 I suppose this is an oversight made for our age. One way to see Schulz’s work is as a necessary corrective to our recent history. Out of the Cold War’s ashes came a species of triumphalism that assumed democracy and free markets would thrive wherever Western institutions could be imposed. Imposed they were. In the disastrous after-math of premature democratic expansion, Westerners made a sad discovery: Neither sword nor purse-strings can construct a functioning democracy. The letter of the law matters less than the spirit of those who enforce it. Foisting new institutions upon a people is easy; fostering the cultural traits necessary for institutional success is much harder. Schulz’s theory shows why this might be so.

What Schulz’s theory can not show is where these institutions came from in the first place. The WEIRD psychological suite may be a necessary precursor to WEIRD political and economic institutions; it is not, by itself, a sufficient explanation for these institutions’ emergence. The central problem is the WEIRDos of European history were not working with a blank slate. The burghers of Europe did not gather together to design a system of government best suited to their psychological profile. If the form of government they eventually attained offered them unusual power in political affairs, it is because their ancestors seized this power from the kings of Europe. The history of inclusive economic and political institutions is a history of conflict and bargaining.

Inclusive institutions were incremental, ad-hoc creations, developed mostly (though not entirely) as cities, counties, and aristocrats tried to resist the demands of war taxes and levees. This process was apparent to thoughtful British historians two centuries ago, and has been confirmed by the research of contemporary historians, political scientists, and sociologists.[8] Political life in Western Europe was a constant battle between the ruler and the ruled. The former needed cash; the latter did not want to give any. To secure the resources they needed, monarchs often were forced into making concessions to the nobility, the burghers, or on rare occasions, the peasantry. These concessions often involved limiting the powers of the Throne. At other times they meant sharing control of policy or taxation with estates the monarch would have otherwise preferred to ignore. It is through such concessions representative government was born.

One of the central puzzles facing anyone who surveys this history is nailing down a theory for why bargaining lead to inclusive reforms in some places (England, Holland, etc.) but did not lead to these reforms in others (Russia, China, and so forth). The models sociologists, political scientists, and economists have developed to answer this question can be quite sophisticated. Different models have keyed in on different points: for some it is the type of geopolitical threats a society faced, for others the size or nature of the wealth that monarchs hoped to extract, for yet others it is the form of the original political regime or system of landholding that mattered most.[9] But each of these theories follows a pattern. It isolates a variable that might give citizens an advantage when bargaining with the Throne, and then models how this advantage might change the outcomes and incentives each side faced.

There is a role here for the data Schulz and company have amassed. Schulz has demonstrated that cross-cultural psychological variation is real. He also has shown that the trusting, pro-social norms that dominates Western European psychology today were in place by the beginning of the Early Modern Age. In light of what I wrote above, this leads to an interesting question: does WEIRDness give an advantage to subjects bargaining with a monarch? If so, how could that advantage be modeled?

I suspect that one way to approach this is through the lens of collective action. In the footnotes of a paper that presents their favored ruler-vs.-ruled bargaining model, political scientists William Roberts Clark, Matt Golder and Sona Golder admit that the least realistic thing about their model is its failure to account for the difficulty the ruled have coordinating a response to the ruler’s decisions.[10] This is a good starting point. I find it plausible that a population of neighborly, rules-lawyering subjects will have an easier time overcoming the problems of collective action than a population with a different psychological profile might. I am very interested in seeing a formal model that demonstrates how the pay-offs might change as the coordination costs of collective bargaining shift. If these costs can be tied to the psychological variation that Schulz has uncovered, a convincing theory of European institution-building will have been found.

This sketch should give you an idea of my answer to the questions that opened this piece. These musings are still only half thought-out, but they are based on a real conviction: cross cultural psychology has the potential to transform our understanding of human history. Both the pay-offs and the inputs in the models we build can and should be informed by psychological research.

That is the dream. Hopefully we will soon see the day when behavioral scientists take bargaining theories of social conflict seriously, and social scientists are willing to treat the the data gleaned from cross cultural experiments as a central component of their formal models.



[1] For some key summaries, see Richard Nisbett, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why (New York: Free Press, 2003); Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33, no. 2 (2010): 1–75; Michelle Gelfand, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World (New York: Scribner, 2018).

[2] Joseph Henrich, “Culture and Social Behavior.” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 3 (2015), 84

[3] Tanner Greer, “How the Catholic Church Created Our Liberal World,” The American Conservative (17 December 2018).

[4] Jared Rubin, Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), kindle locations 530-573.

[5] For a survey of these studies, see Gian Vittorio Caprara and Michael Vecchione, “Personality Approaches to Political Behavior,” David O. Sears and Christia Brown, “Childhood and Adult Political Development,” Carolyn Funk, “Genetic Foundations of Political Behavior”, and Stanley Feldman, “Political Ideology,” in Leone Huddy, David Sears, and Jack S. Livy, eds., Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 23-96, 237-262, 591-627; Brad Verhulst, Lindon Eaves, and Pete Hatemi, “Correlation not causation: The relationship between personality traits and political ideologies,” American Journal of Political Science 56 (2012), 34–51; Carolyn L. Funk, et. al, “Genetic and Environmental Transmission of Political Orientations,” Political Psychology, 34 (2013): 805-819 ; John T Jost et al., “Political Neuroscience: The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship,” Advances in Political Psychology 35 (2014): 3–42.

[6] Schulz, et. al., “The Origins of WIERD Psychology,” pp. 20-21.

[7] Joseph Henrich, et, al, Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan, “the Weirdest People in the World?”

[8] I suppose this claim depends partly on how you define “institutions.” Contrary to much of the literature coming out of anthropology and economics, I do not find any definition of “institutions” that cannot be distinguished from a more ordinary definition of the word “norms” to be very helpful. If institutions simply are another way to say “norms” then Schulz, Henrich, and company have a much easier task. Discovering how norms of trust might prevail in market transactions is what economist Avner Grief once called “the fundamental problem” of economic history, and the foundation for a research into the origins of this understanding of ‘institutions.’ Schulz can plausibly claim he has taken much of the mystery out of this “fundamental problem.”

See Grief, “The fundamental problem of exchange: A research agenda in Historical Institutional AnalysisEuropean Review of Economic History, 4, 251-284.

Incidentally, Grief’s paper “Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society: A Historical and Theoretical Reflection on Collectivist and Individualist Societies” anticipates much of what is about to follow.

[9] For a light and popular history of Western civilization framed through this idea see John Ferejohn and Frances Rosenbluth, Forged Through Fire: War, Peace, and the Democratic Bargain (Liverlight, 2016). The allusion is to Macaulay. For the modern assessment on English history: John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783 (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1990); Douglass North and Barry Weingast, “Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth Century England”, Journal of Economic History 49 no.4 (1988), 803-832.

 For examples of theories that focus on the nature of the geopolitical threat: Yuhua Wang and Mark Dincecco, “Violent Conflict and Political Development Over the Long Run: China Versus Europe,” Annual Review of Political Science 21 (2018), 341-358. 

For examples of theories that focus on changes in the scale or type of wealth: William Roberts Clark, Matt Golder and Sona N. Golder, “An Exit, Voice and Loyalty Model of Politics,” British Journal of Politics 47, iss 4 (2017), 719-748; Carles Boix, Political Order and Inequality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). 

For examples of theories that focus on pre-existing legal and political regimes: Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States, AD 990-1990, (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990); Thomas Ertman, Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[11] Clark, Golder, and Golder, “An Exit, Voice, and Loyalty Model of Politics,” note 16.

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I think you and Schultz are being over-reductive re: Catholicism and WEIRDism. I'm sure marriage patterns have some influence on economic outcomes today, but looking at the map of individualism vs. collectivism, it looks to me more like a result of recent economic history, or perhaps cultural influence of particular barbarian groups (Germanics and Magyars), than it does early medieval penetration of the Catholic Church. The map definitely doesn't seem to match up with the statement that "to predict how civic-minded, individualist, and trusting a population is today, you need only check whether a Catholic bishopric had been established there by the 7th century AD." In the 7th century, did the church really have less penetration in SW rather than NE France? In eastern rather than western Iberia? Did it really have less influence around Rome than in England? What explains Hungary? Scandinavia and Saxony were pagan in the 7th century, and they're some of most individualist places in Europe.

What I find most interesting is that Sinosphere cultures are just as good at industrial modernity as WEIRDo cultures, despite the completely different cultural background. Of course, the Sinosphere adopted industrial modernity from the West, but I wonder if that isn't just a contingent fact of history rather than proof that the Sinosphere, while being capable of thriving under industrial modernity, would never have been able to invent it. To better explain what makes a culture succeed in the modern world, it'd be better to look at what Europe and the Sinosphere have in common, rather than just looking at features specific to Europe.

Off the top of my head, widespread printing and the weakness of state religion/strength of secular philosophy jump out as likely factors.

I agree that the OP is reductionist concerning the effects of Catholicism, and that maybe we should look at what Europe and the "Sinosphere" have in common.

On the other hand, I think that "widespread printing and the weakness of state religion/strength of secular philosophy" are hardly convincing explanations. Printing now exists everywhere in the world, and in Europe state religion was extremely strong until the 18th century, just as strong as in the Muslim world and India.

Perhaps the most basic explanation is that temperate parts of the world are currently more successful than tropical ones? China, Korea and Japan all count as temperate climates, as does Europe. Also a reductionist explanation, but it seems to work.

@JX- The question isn't printing *now* but printing in 1650 AD. Very clearly leads in protestant countries, less but still there in Catholic ones, and non existent in the Ottoman empire.

Western Europeans spreading their empires all over the globe kind of messes with things.

The hard thing though is that in my original piece I gloss in one paragraph what Rubin spends 60 pages demonstrating. The 60 pages are strong evidence.


There is a difference between what accounts for the origins of a practice and what accounts for its success afterwords. At the psychological level the important things seem to be average IQ and time preference in a given group. GMU economist Garrett Jones has written a very convincing book on the first point (named Hive Mind. This post by Pseudoerasmus also does a very good job at connecting the dots. Especially see the three graphics ripped from the Herrmann, Thöni, & Gächter (2008) study: Western Europeans (e.g. the Danes) stay cooperating even when punishments for anti-social interactions disappear; East Asians and Australians start cooperating quickly when it is clear that rules will protect them for doing so.

The question is how do you get people cooperating when no one else is doing it? Thus Schulz and Henrich.

re: 700 ad– This was from a study (the second paper) specifically looking at in-country differences in Italy and France. The broader pattern holds for the rest of Europe (in the four co-author piece) when you move the target to 1500 AD.

The map I used at the beginning of the study is not from either of the Schulz studies. It was simply the prettiest picture I found on Google search images when I typed in "map of individualism in Europe." Schulz's map is more complicated and less cool looking. You can click on the links I provided to the actual studies and see the real thing inside there.