The WEIRD spectrum

I learnt a new acronym recently. WEIRD. It stand for Western – Educated – Industrialised – Rich – Democratic. It refers to much of the western world today. Maybe we are a bit weird.

It got me thinking. If the western world is weird, what is the opposite? The opposite would be low education, rural, poor and autocratic. We could say the third world countries fit this model but we are missing something. Weird refers to a cultural scenario as much as a development scenario.

The western world has values, or more correctly aspirations that we mostly fall short of achieving. Things like equality, freedom, progress and the betterment of our condition. Maybe the opposite is a culture that is based around clan/tribal/ethnic values.

It occurred to me that this is not just a thought exercise. It is important. Maybe there is a spectrum between the two, and it is enlightening to know where we are on the spectrum and how we are moving.

It also relates to values, and how we see the world. Take one example. In a weird world, we see fairness and equality in how we treat people as something to strive towards. Much of the angst in modern society is because of inequality. That might be related to opportunity, wealth, racial or sexual bias amongst other things. It results in people becoming angry about everything from lack of access to medical support, housing, jobs and a thousand other things.

On the other hand, in a clan/tribal/ethnic society (which I will abbreviate to CTE) value is put on nepotism, favouritism, sharing within the group but not outside the group, loyalty to the group at the expense of outside loyalties. In fact a CTE society has a totally different view on what is right than a weird group.

So where does CTE come from? Basically, that is how societies evolved. As family grouped together to survive, they becomes a clan or extended family. That enables them to improve their chances of survival. They become part of a tribe or group of clans. From this, they develop an ethnicity. The basic tenant of the grouping is that we stick together and anyone outside is seen as a competitor if not an enemy. Outsiders are not to be trusted.

To bind the group together they often have a mythology or religion. Even if another group has the same religion, it is not a complete basis for trust. Does a Saudi Sunni trust a Turkish Sunni as much as they trust another Saudi Sunni? Probably not. You could substitute the Turkish Sunni with a Saudi Shite and the answer would be the same.

The first thing to understand from this exercise is that there are billions of people out there who are not weird. They exist in a CTE world and don’t have the same values or aspirations as we do. To them, nepotism is a good thing and something to be encouraged. They think we are crazy to say equal opportunity for all. That is an alien concept.

I like to think in diagrams. If there is a spectrum, what does it look like? What makes up the spectrum. I will explore a few, but certainly not all, of the factors.


Let’s start with loyalty. Who do the population see their loyalty to?

In the western world, we increasingly see ourselves as part of a country, and in some cases part of the world. Climate change is something that has forced us to see countries as just cogs in the wheel. On the other hand, in a CTE environment, loyalty is to the family, then the clan, then the tribe.

So where do we sit? If you scale left to right one to ten, we in Australia are probably a 7 or 8. Which way are we moving? It depends. We increasingly see ourselves as moving off the scale past country in some situations such as climate change, but on the other hand, we are loosing loyalty and trust in out government. The two forces will probably keep us in one place for the foreseeable future.


Dependence is the way in which we see ourselves fitting into the world around us.

A CTE culture is based on outside groups being a threat. Their goal is always to have as little to do with those outside as possible. This can apply to something as small as a tribe in Afghanistan to something as large as North Korea. The western world has a foundation belief that we must deal with those around us in a harmonious if not compromising way. Global trade is a big example of this. The rise of the multinational is another example. Corporations that span countries and rely on countries interdependence for their existence.

Australia is probably around an 8. We rely on treaties and trade for our interdependence. It is a fact of life however that there are always groups trying to drag us to the left side of the bar. I don’t mean these are people who are politically left, in fact many are extremely right politically. They are people who believe we should not rely on others. We should be self sufficient in everything from culture to manufacturing. The reality is that we have grown into a country reliant on selling rocks and unless that changes we are interdependent and subject to forces outside our control.

In other countries, there is a move to the left side of the scale. Make America Great Again is about becoming more self contained. The US government no longer sees itself as someone enmeshed in international activities. They have removed themselves from WHO, Paris Climate Accord and numerous other international organisations.

China is starting to move in the same direction. They want to close their doors to a certain extent, and focus on building and promoting internal self sufficiency. On the other hand, some might think they are also focused on moving right on the scale to spread their international presence. Think Belt and Road. In reality, it is about creating subservience to China within other countries. China is more focused on infiltration than integration.


By duty, I mean how strongly people feel an obligation to serve at whatever level.

In Australia, we feel some sense of duty. That is expressed in things such as paying our taxes, or volunteering in a charity. We see ourselves as part of a society and that comes with obligations to contribute to that society. I would say it is not an area where we are strong. Perhaps we rate a 6 or 7 at best.

If you want to know what a country that rates 10 looks like, think countries like China and Russia. They are more focused on their duty to the nation or ethnic group. Very often it comes from feeling attacked by those around them which is almost going back to the CTE end of the scale. Perhaps this is not a linear scale, but a circular scale.

We weird people see being too far right on the scale as being a bad thing. It is how wars are undertaken by filling the ranks with duty-bound citizens. On the other hand too far left means social disruption. The duty to ethnicity can lead to interratial battles. It is probably best to sit somewhere in the middle.


What do we believe in, or more accurately who do we believe? Do we believe only what those in our CTE tell us, or do we believe in society?

Australians have become more sceptical over the past few decades, and in my lifetime moved from somewhere around an 8 or 9 to around a 4 or 5. The big drivers of this have been the media. Initially it was newspapers and TV uncovering the falsehoods our leaders told us. We then moved onto social media which drove a few more nails in the coffin. Most people have become wary of anything outside their CTE group.

If you were to ask if this is a good thing, it is a “yes and no” answer. To challenge and explore what we believe in is a good thing. To take the default position that it is probably fake news is not so good. Remember that driving people back to the CTE culture is bound to cause social disruption. If most people believe that much of what a government, or any other institution is telling us cannot be believed, there are consequences. It is the start of a breakdown in government and society which can take us in unexpected directions. Just look at Trump’s USA.


The values above are not all of the values that can be covered. You can probably think of a few yourself. There are big chunks of the world who inhabit different parts of the spectrum and as you can see, view the world through a different set of glasses. Is marriage with outsiders bad? If you are weird it isn’t. If you are part of a CTE culture it is verboten.

I am not sure there is a conclusion to this analysis other than to recognise there is a spectrum and where society fits onto the spectrum will mean that society will display certain characteristics.

The key one for me is that the CTE end is very insular and can never live comfortably with those outside their group. Be it the Taliban, Amish or the more Orthodox Jews there is little interest in trusting anyone else, so living together with outsiders is going to be a challenge.

At the other end of the spectrum, the weird culture taken to it’s extremes is equally dangerous. It leads to Nazi Germany and Cambodia’s Pol Pot. Loss of identity with some clan, tribe or ethnicity is another description for blind nationalism.

The trick is to stay away from the ends. To seek a balance between the two. To recognise when we, as a culture, are drifting one way or another before it is too late.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments Registration * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.