People in the West are psychologically unlike the rest of the world. Global studies find that Western Europeans and their descendents tend to be more individualistic, less conformist, and more trusting of strangers.
But why? New research posits that the medieval Catholic Church, and its emphasis on monogamous marriage and the small family unit as the foundation of society, is responsible.
According to a study published today (Nov. 7) in the journal Science, countries and regions with a longer exposure to the Western Catholic Church are more likely to show the individualist, nonconformist psychology common to Western nations. The church may have inadvertently molded this psychology with medieval-era policies that ended cousin marriages and other tribe-like bonds, and created nuclear, monogamous households.
“Many decades of research has shown that the psychology of Westerners is different from the rest of the world in that it’s more individualistic, analytic, and less conforming. However, until now, we didn’t have a good explanation for how people in the West ended up having a psychology that was so unique,” said Steven Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia who was not involved in the current work. “This paper convincingly demonstrates that people’s kinship networks are central to their psychology, and that the medieval Catholic Church instituted some policies regarding family structure that had far-reaching impact that continue to affect how people in the West think today, even if they aren’t religious themselves.”The story of the new findings began in 2010, when anthropologist Joe Henrich of Harvard University, along with Heine and another colleague, published a study in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences pointing out that the vast majority of psychological research has been conducted on what they called “WEIRD” societies: Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. Comparative research between WEIRD societies and non-WEIRD societies suggested that WEIRD research subjects were indeed weird — less conformist, more individualistic and more trusting of strangers than most of the rest of the world, to name a few differences.
There are few enterprises in the world more futile and self-defeating than a Westerner trying to extirpate the Catholic tradition. Most of the philosophical underpinnings of such endeavors are themselves derived from the Catholic tradition.
By the way, in addition to the specialized acronym WEIRD, the Church also cherishes just the ordinary sort of weirdo too. It is the natural home of the oddball, the factory reject, the strange, and the eccentric. It’s one of the things I love best about her.