Book Review

Book review: Beyond WEIRD: Psychology and traditional cultures

Judith Gibbons and Katelyn Poelker review “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”

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Beyond WEIRD: Psychology and Traditional Cultures

A review of "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?" by Jared Diamond. New York, NY: Viking, 2012. 499 pp. ISBN 978-0-670-02481-0. $36.00

Reviewed by Judith L. Gibbons and Katelyn E. Poelker

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared DiamondIt has become de rigueur to point out that most psychological research is conducted with a narrow range of participants and that those participants are "WEIRD" (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic). Coined by Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan (2010), the term exposes the thin slice of humanity and human behavior that forms the basis for most psychological knowledge and theories.

In a lively and engaging book, Jared Diamond acquaints us with the other 90 percent of humanity, particularly those who live in traditional, nonindustrialized societies. Diamond’s book is organized into five parts with 11 chapters along with a prologue and epilogue. The book covers a wide range of issues, including conflict resolution, warfare, child rearing, treatment of the aging, avoiding danger, religion, language and eating habits. Its apparent purpose is to educate Westerners about the merits of many traditional practices. The author, a geographer who has spent a great deal of time in New Guinea, achieves that purpose.

In a poignant and compelling account, he describes a tragic accident (in New Guinea) in which a child was killed by a car. Although the car’s driver was clearly not at fault, traditional practices dictate that he make amends. Through intermediaries, the driver arranged for a “compensation ceremony” in which he said he is sorry, transferred material goods and expressed respect for the grieving family. Formal legal procedures were pursued in parallel by state authorities, but those required two and one half years, five separate court dates and a final hearing in which the charges were dismissed because the police did not appear.

Thus, the traditional process that resulted in a peaceful and harmonious resolution contrasts sharply with the prolonged and acrimonious state intervention that failed to give closure to the aggrieved family. This example provides a snapshot of Diamond’s primary message — that modern Western industrialized cultures could learn a great deal from their traditional nonindustrialized counterparts.

As developmental psychologists, we chose to look more closely at developmental issues, especially the chapter “Bringing Up Children.” Do current anthropological (e.g., Lancy, 2008) and psychological studies support the author’s claims? Would adoption of traditional practices be adaptive and feasible in contemporary industrialized societies? Long-term on-demand nursing of infants may be Diamond’s golden argument. Not only is breast-feeding widespread in traditional societies, but in the modern Western world it confers small, but significant, advantages for children’s cognitive development (Kramer, et al., 2008; Petryk, Harris, & Jongbloed, 2007).

A second valuable recommendation made by Diamond is that children be raised bilingual or multilingual to whatever extent possible. The evidence in favor of bilingualism is strong; it is consistently associated with enhanced cognitive functioning, with the largest effect sizes demonstrated for abstract thinking, attention and problem solving (Adesope, Lavin, Thompson, & Ungerleider, 2010). The advantages derived from close physical contact between mothers and babies, achieved, for example, through carrying infants upright and facing outward (rather than in a stroller or facing the mother’s body), are less well established but may be correlated with advanced motor development (Adolph, Karasik, & Tamis-Lemonda, 2010).

Another common assertion in today’s world is that “it takes a village.” Diamond presents examples of traditional hunter–gatherer societies in which children are cared for during much of the day by someone other than the mother. In a more academic book, Hrdy (2009) claimed that humans are by nature cooperative breeders; she argued that the presence of “allo-mothers,” often grandmothers or older sisters, promotes the well-being and even the survival of children. Modern societies do boast some allo-mothers, including nannies, schoolteachers, babysitters, godparents and grandparents, but those child caregivers often play a less extensive role than their counterparts in traditional societies.

According to Diamond, multiple caregivers may foster the development of children’s social and cognitive skills. In part, because attachment theory in developmental psychology has focused on the importance of a single sensitive caregiver, the impact of multiple caregivers in early childhood development is not well understood. Research on multiple caregivers in contemporary Western nations is still in its infancy, and evidence for the effects on children’s social and cognitive skills is still being developed (Howes & Spieker, 2008).

Other child-rearing customs that are culturally variable include allowing children freedom to explore even when they may face physical risks and encouraging children to fashion their own toys rather than play with manufactured toys. Although these practices may foster autonomy, creativity, ingenuity and imagination, many parents would see the costs and risks as outweighing the gains.

Some of Diamond’s child-rearing recommendations have the advantage that they can be implemented by individual parents. Those include raising children bilingually and carrying babies close to the body. Others would require wholesale changes in society and are less feasible. Breast-feeding on demand is challenging in a world in which most women work outside the home, many in settings where infants would not be welcome. Allo-parenting is difficult to implement where grandmothers live far away and older sisters are busy attending school.

Diamond acknowledges that not all traditional practices are beneficial. Infanticide, murder or neglect of the aging, and chronic warfare are widespread among hunter–gatherers. Along a continuum of cruel to loving treatment of the elderly, Diamond would place the contemporary Western world closer to the cruelty pole. But a quote from Hill (cited in Hrdy, 2009, p. 270) suggests that we are not all that close to the cruel end of the continuum: A traditional Ache man, in describing how he would dispatch older women, said, “I would step on them. . . . I didn't wait until they were completely dead to bury them. When they were still moving I would [break their back and necks].”

"The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?" should be required reading for all psychologists, especially for those not conversant with the cross-cultural and anthropological literature on the range of human behavior. Most readers will want to seek out the original reports on which it is based. This outstanding contribution by Jared Diamond is certain to spark lively debate about which traditional practices are worthy of consideration for contemporary Western societies.

References

Adesope, O. O., Lavin, T., Thompson, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2010). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism. Review of Educational Research, 80, 207–245. doi:10.3102/0034654310368803

Adolph, K. E., Karasik, L. B., & Tamis-Lemonda, C. S. (2010). Motor skill. In M. H. Bornstein (Ed.), Handbook of cultural developmental science (pp. 61–88). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61–83. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999152X

Howes, C., & Spieker, S. (2008). Attachment relationships in the context of multiple caregivers. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (pp. 317–332). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kramer, M. S., Aboud, F., Mironova, E., Vanilovich, I., Platt, R. W., Matush, L., . . . Shapiro, S. (2008). Breastfeeding and child cognitive development: New evidence from a large randomized trial. Archives of General Psychiatry, 65, 578–584. doi:10.1001/ archpsyc.65.5.578

Lancy, D. F. (2008). The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, changelings. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Petryk, A., Harris, S. R., & Jongbloed, L. (2007). Breastfeeding and neurodevelopment: A literature review. Infants & Young Children, 20, 120–134. doi:10.1097/01.IYC.0000264480.27947.16