… So I’d better quickly explain what I mean by calling you WEIRD.
Joseph Henrich, Steven J Heine and Ara Norenzayan issued a research paper a few years ago showing that most behavioural science theory is built upon research that examines an intensely narrow sample of human variation – disproportionately biased towards US university undergraduates and that this has skewed the findings of a great deal of research when you try to make it fit a culturally diverse world. Their definition of the sample base was that they were quite simply WEIRD
I think that all of this seems very likely to be true but I think that you can take the hypothesis way beyond the fields of behavioural science into the world of politics and it also seems incredibly true in the world of commerce.
I spend my days working with (mainly) western companies who are international in nature and who struggle with the complexities of interacting across the boundaries of global culture, time zones and geography. We help them understand how significantly and deeply cultural differences can impact on the effectiveness and efficiencies of their global operations. The longer I work in this field the more I come to realise that this WEIRD issue is at the heart of a lot of the dilemmas our clients face.
I have come to realise that (either consciously or subconsciously) people who are WEIRD in North America and Europe look around the world and think that the rest of the world is also WEIRD or, if they are not, would really like to become WEIRD at some stage in their ‘evolution’. The problem is that probably 80% of the world (by population) actually are not WEIRD and have no desire to become so. In fact the 80% of the world’s population who are not WEIRD look back at North America and Europe and think ‘those guys are seriously WEIRD’.
Where are most global compliance policies driven from? Europe and North America on the whole. We are moving around the world trying to apply WEIRD policies, processes and ethics into an un-WEIRD world and people simply just ‘don’t get’ what we are talking about. Our core values and beliefs are simply an irrelevance to people in many parts of the world.
A very good, very topical example of this would be the reaction of the majority of Russians to Vladimir Putin’s close association with the recent Panama leaks which highlight tax evasion amongst the rich and powerful. A BBC reporter, when interviewing ‘the man in the street’ in Russia was greeted with this reaction. “People high up have always had accounts like these and they always will. Putin can’t keep an eye on everyone.” In other words – it doesn’t matter and I don’t care. Contrast that with the reactions to the news that the Icelandic Prime Minister, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, was associated with the scandal or that David Cameron’s father had been named.
I’m not saying that I disagree with the ethical and commercial standpoints espoused by the WEIRD – I’m WEIRD myself – it’s more about getting people in the WEIRD countries to recognise that the ‘universal’ truths that they see as ‘self-evident’ are only ‘self-evident’ to a very small minority of the people on the planet. The starting point should be that ‘there may very possibly be a fundamental disagreement on this issue’ rather than am assumption that everybody, everywhere will ‘get it’.
It will be interesting to see, as China and India evolve as global super-powers, whether these WEIRD ideas will prevail globally or be eclipsed by other philosophies and approaches. Any thoughts from my WEIRD (and non-WEIRD) contacts?
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There has been a lot of noise being made recently about the constitutional changes in China which have allowed Xi Jinping to extend his grip on power beyond 2022 as well as the new emphasis on Xi Jinping Thought which to many sounds like a disturbing echo of Mao’s Little Red Book. Many commentators are concerned about what they see as the twin threats of a looming new repressive order within China coupled with aggressive expansionist policies internationally (both economic and military.)
What is seldom discussed in the media is what lies behind the simple phrase ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ and whether this might be a force for good or ill. History will, I suppose be the judge, but it is worth taking a moment to look at some of the key principles of this approach:
Xi Jinping’s policies are unashamedly interventionist. The Communist Party sees it’s role as that of shaping the future and controlling the impacts of market forces. This contrasts markedly with the approach of the current White House in the States which aligns itself to a much freer market approach where the influence of the State is increasingly being rolled back.
A new global cultural battle is being played out where the egalitarian, individualism of the West produces an ideological allegiance to the free market and the hierarchical, group-orientated nature of the Confucian East pushes policies towards a centrist, people-oriented future.
We do indeed live in interesting times.
I recently met a taxi driver from Africa whilst taking a ride from the airport to my hotel in Hamburg. It turned out that the guy was originally from Ghana and we started to have a wide-ranging conversation about the state of Africa, where Africa is going, Anglophone vs Francophone Africa and other fairly typical stuff.
He then said something that surprised me – he said that what his country needed was a leader like Vladimir Putin. In fact, he said all countries needed a leader like Vladimir Putin and that Britain would never be Great again until we found such a leader.
Now that made me feel really WEIRD and by that, I mean western, educated, industrialised, rational and democratic. Indeed, I am WEIRD. I was born and raised in the UK, believe in democracy as the least bad form of government and think the rule of law will prevail in the end. Like the rest of the WEIRD world I also think that everybody else around the globe must surely share my view of what’s best for the world and that those people who don’t live in WEIRD countries are just hoping and praying that our way of doing, being and thinking will soon arrive in their neighbourhood.
The problem is that most of the world’s population are not WEIRD and have no intentions of becoming WEIRD anytime soon. Lots of people in the non-WEIRD world think people like Putin are just fine. As my taxi driver said. ‘Putin puts his people and his country first and doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks. That’s the type of leader I can follow.’
I work in the field of the impact that culturally different approaches can have on global organisations. I discuss these issues on a daily basis with business leaders from lots of different sectors – so I’m supposed to ‘get’ this stuff. However, my conversation with the taxi driver from Ghana really made me stop and think.
We are facing one of the biggest cultural clashes the world has ever seen as the WEIRD world tries to educate the non-WEIRD world with its view of what is ‘right’ and the non-WEIRD world starts to more confidently push back and say ‘Your right isn’t right for us. We have our own view of what is ‘right’. And that might include backing people like Vladimir Putin!
This clash of cultures is currently being played out in a mini way as western companies push their compliance programmes into their global subsidiaries. They have to do that – it’s the law – but so many of the compliance issues we are globalising are based on WEIRD concepts and people simply don’t like what they hear. I’ve heard the words ‘modern-day colonialism’ used to describe some compliance ideas and people really don’t like to be colonised!