Tag Archives: cultural distance

Are Collectivist Cultures More Prone to Rapid Transformation? at the Collectivism, Social Change and Collective Problems Symposium, Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) Annual Convention 2022

I presented my paper on “Are Collectivist Cultures More Prone to Rapid Transformation?” at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) Annual Convention 2022, San Francisco, CA. It was part of a symposium on “Collectivism, Social Change, and Collective Problems” organized by Suyi Leong and Heejung Kim.

Cultural Evolution and Human Cooperation: Keynote speaker at Cooperative AI Workshop, NeurIPS 2021

I was a keynote speaker at the Cooperative AI workshop at the 2021 Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS). I spoke about “Cultural Evolution and Human Cooperation” and its relevance for understanding problems in cooperative AI. Some of the topics covered included, an introduction to dual inheritance theory and cultural evolution, how and why humans cooperate, and why human cooperation varies in scale, intensity, and domain across societies.

My speech and slides are available here.

Cultural similarity among coreligionists within and between countries

This is a summary from a Twitter thread about a new article on “Cultural similarity among coreligionists within and between countries” with Cindel White and Ara Norezayan in PNAS. Paper available at muth.io/coreligionist.

Some quick background: Religions bind people into communities with moral norms about what is right, good, & true. Ever notice that major world religions seem to have some broad stroke similarities like big families and being nice to neighbors? Why is that? 

One hypothesis is that having those helped those religions grow in the competition with other religions. Not all religions in history share these features. The Shakers, for example, an offshoot of the Quakers, practiced celibacy not just for a priestly class, but for all. 

The Shakers are no longer with us.

But religions also have plenty of differences, not only in explicitly religious beliefs, but in broader cultural values that affect national culture. Jesuits and Mainline Protestants, for example, historically increased levels of education. And Protestant values may help explain America’s traditionalism, individualism, and moralization of work. Religions are also shaped by national culture, taking on regional forms. Here’s a buff, Korean Jesus:

Some have also argued that “religion” is mostly a label or an identity, swamped by national culture – think nominal Christians. Or religion may just predict overtly religious beliefs, rituals, and moral attitudes.

For the cultural-group selection theory to work, major world religions should be “super-ethnic” identities, binding people beyond their ethnicity or national borders. That is, those who share a religion living in different countries should be more similar to those who don’t share the religion.

Using a new method for measuring cultural distance called the Cultural Fixation Index (CFst; read more about it here: https://www.michael.muthukrishna.com/beyond-weird-psychology-measuring-and-mapping-scales-of-cultural-and-psychological-distance/), we looked at cultural distance between major world religions in the World Values Survey. What did we find? 

CFst are large enough to have competition between distinct cultural-groups of cultural traits, even if you remove overtly religious beliefs. The “People of the Book”—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish people—share cultural similarities. Christians are about as culturally similar to both Jewish and Muslim people as Americans are to Canadians or Australians are to Brits. But just as the United States is similarly geographically distant from Uruguay and Ukraine, but Uruguay and Ukraine are not geographically close to each other, Jewish and Muslim people are a similar cultural distance as people in the United States and the Philippines. 

You can take a look at national cultural distance with this app: https://world.culturalytics.com/

As a side note, Buddhists are interesting. They look like Hindus, as fellow Dharmist, but also like Christians, Muslims & Jews. 

But of course, these broad generalizations hide a lot of cultural clustering within countries. Fellow citizens more culturally similar than co-religionists in a different country, but foreigners who share a religion are more similar than those of a different religion. And that similarity is stronger if they’re highly religious.

And this broad generalization was true in our data even for places we didn’t expect. Like Muslims in India and Pakistan.


All of this holds true controlling for religious freedom, geographic, linguistic, & genetic distance. 

We also looked at the interaction between national and religious culture, showing that non-American Christians are most similar to Americans. America is still a very Christian country and Christianity might therefore be considered the WEIRDest religion (using America as a proxy for WEIRD). That’s consistent with Joe Henrich’s hypothesis for the role of Christianity in creating WEIRD psychological and cultural traits: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_WEIRDest_People_in_the_World

And finally, non-Americans with no religious denomination are also similar to Americans without religious traits. That’s consistent with other work showing that the US looks like other secular, developed nations except when it comes to traditional religious values.

Anyway, you can read more in the paper & supplemental: muth.io/coreligionist

Psychology as a Historical Science

Summary from Twitter thread:

New paper on “Psychology as a historical science” in Annual Review of Psychology. Catalyzing the field of “historical psychology” by reviewing work on: origins of psychology and institutions today, psychology of the past (data from dead minds).


Our psychology is shaped by our societies, and our societies are shaped by their histories. We can do better than butterfly collecting–just measuring cross-cultural diffs. For psychology to develop a full theory of human behavior, we need historical psychology.


Psychology is shaped by millions of years of genetic evolution, thousands of years of cultural evolution, & a short lifetime of experience; yet, much of the field has focused on that short lifetime of experience. The WEIRD People Problem is not only about geography but history.

Past societies can be as culturally distant as distant societies. Cohort effects are a sliver of the cross-temporal variation we would expect in a culturally evolving species. History serves as a kind of psychological fossil record, a source of “data from dead minds”.

We (1) review work in historical psychology; (2) introduce methods including causal inference & how to extract data from dead minds; (3) explore the role of theory in mapping history to psychology; and (4) provide some conclusions concerning the future of this field.


E.g.s: Religious evolution & social psych. Some gods gained the ability to see into hearts & control an afterlife contingent on compliance. In many large-scale societies, these gods became omniscient, omnipotent, & omnibenevolent, coevolving with the scale of their societies.

This historical theory makes predictions not only about expected relationships in the historical record but also about expected contemporary cross-cultural diversity in religious beliefs and cognition. In doing so, the theory links historical psychology to cultural psychology.


WEIRD Psychology may have its origins in suppressing kin networks, changing family structures, & related via one particular religion: The Catholic Church


Institutions rest on invisible cultural and psychological pillars. E.g. a constitution’s proclamations are irrelevant without a belief in the rule of law, or norms of punishment for violations of this rule.


We discuss the importance of causal inference techniques in historical psychology: instrumental variables, difference-in-differences, regression discontinuity. Some e.g. use for slavery & trust in strangers; agriculture & sex diff, gender inequality, collectivism; personality.


Historical psychology includes the psychology of the past – data from dead minds, cognitive archeology. Historical databases are emerging. But sometimes the data is qualitative requiring tools like text analysis.


We discuss some examples of the importance of theory. A society has codependent norms, values, beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. If one takes an exploratory approach and looks for correlations in history, there are many to be found. Theory helps clarify causality.

Collaboration between psychologists, historians, and other humanities scholars is important (see religiondatabase.org for an e.g.). We discuss challenges & strategies.


Taking history seriously is a critical part of moving beyond the WEIRD people problem and making psychology a genuinely universal science of human cognition and behavior.

Communication and Competition at the Learning Innovations LaBarge tree “LILA” at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA

 I ran a workshop on communication competition at the Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA), part of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The LILA group include people from industry and the military. We discussed various aspects of the science of cooperation, including how and when it fails.I also introduced some new work on the paradox of diversity and on measuring cultural distance.

One of the participants, Sue Borchardt is now making an animated series based on the talk.

Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance

Summary from Twitter thread:

🚨Now out in Psychological Science! Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance


1/ The world is not WEIRD vs non-WEIRD.

How psychologically and culturally distant is the US from Canada? China from Japan?

2/ CFst is a lens for looking at differences between and within populations. It’s flexible, robust, and theoretically-meaningful.

Issue with existing approaches:
1. Societies are distributions of traits. Mean estimates are misleading. Brazil looks like Turkey on Hofstede:

2. Variance captures some of this (Turkey is culturally tighter than Brazil), but how do you capture nominal traits like political priorities: “give people more to say”, “maintain order in the nation”, “fight rising prices”, or “protect freedom of speech”?3. Genetic distance is a proxy, but can be misleading: Hong Kong is more than an order of magnitude more genetically similar to China than to Britain, but is culturally similar to both due to Britain’s century-long history in Hong Kong.4. Linguistic distance is better, but the resolution is low. Difficult to distinguish the cultures of Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, all of whom speak English.3/ Fst is theoretically meaningful within evolution: measures how genotype frequencies forsubpop differ from expectations if there were random mating over the entire population. i.e. it measures the degree to which the populations can be considered structured and separate.4/ For cultural inheritance, this is directly analogous to between-group differentiation caused by selection, migration, and social learning mechanisms.5/ Cultural FST (CFst) is calculated in the same manner as Genetic FST, but instead of a genome, we use World Values Survey as a “culturome”.
Questions as loci.
Answers as alleles.

CFst can handle continuous, binary, or nominal traits.6/ Because traits tend to cluster within a society, it’s also robust to missing questions or data. You can drop even 50% of data or questions and get very little deviation.

Even if we don’t ask every conceivable question, if you ask a broad range, you’ll get a similar answer.

Note: Traits cluster within, but not necessarily between societies. 7/ We create an American scale (useful as a proxy WEIRD scale) and a Chinese scale as an example.

8/ American scale correlates with cultural dimensions, tightness, values, extraversion and personality variance, and many behavioral measures: blood donations, diplomat parking tickets, corruption perceptions, honesty in the wallet drop study:

Civic honesty around the globeRationalist approaches to economics assume that people value their own interests over the interests of strangers. Cohn et al. wanted to examine the trade-off between material self-interest and more a…https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6448/70


9/ The Chinese scale is less predictive – why? Two possibilities:

1. WEIRD nations are truly psychological outliers in some objective sense. Plug for @JoHenrich ‘s brilliant new book: amazon.com/WEIRDest-Peopl…

2. Psychological measures have been studied because they are remarkable to WEIRD researchers.

If psychology was dominated by Chinese psychologists, we would see a different set of psychological outcomes covered in textbooks. 10/ Resolving which of these explanations is correct will require greater diversity in both researchers and samples.11/ Final caveats:
1. Similar distance from US / China does not mean cultural similarity. Japan & Norway are similarly distant from US, but are not necessarily similar to each other.

Like Colombia and the UK are similarly geo distant from US but nowhere near each other.

Culture is a large n-dimensional space. 2. The US is relatively homogeneous (note, it’s a loose country, but similarly loose in all regions relative to other large populations). Societies are not homogeneous. They have multivariate distributions of many traits along many dimensions with structure within structure.

There are likely to be cultural differences between not only regions within a country but also ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic class, and other groupings. These are all avenues for future research. 3. We need more data from the Middle East and Africa! We have every reason to suspect the American scale will continue to stretch as we map out these psychological terrae incognitae.These regions (and others like South Pacific) are a treasure trove for the next generation of cultural psychologists. Not just about psychological outcomes, but also questions we ask, and way we organize psychology. What we know is the tip of the iceberg of the human psyche. END I lied. There’s also a website: culturaldistance.com

Selected Media Coverage


Marginal Revolution

Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance at Brunel University, London

I was delighted to discuss my recent paper on measuring cultural distance “Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance” at the Center for Culture and Evolution (add link to center) of Brunel University (add link to university). The center is emerging as an exciting and quickly growing hub for cultural evolutionary research.

Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance at University of Economics, Prague, Czechia

I presented some work on measuring cultural distance “Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance” (pre-print) and some in-progress follow ups using the technique at the University of Economics, Prague, Czechia.

I also presented some in progress theoretical and empirical work on “Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism and the evolution of evil eye beliefs”. Part of this work was based on a recent paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, with some context published in Evonomics and ProMarket (pre-print).

Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance at City University, London

I presented some work on measuring cultural distance “Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance” (pre-print) and some in-progress follow ups using the technique at City University in London, UK.

I also presented some in progress theoretical and empirical work on “Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism and the evolution of evil eye beliefs”. Part of this work was based on a recent paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, with some context published in Evonomics and ProMarket (pre-print).

Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism and the evolution of evil eye beliefs at University College London (UCL), London, UK

I presented some in progress theoretical and empirical work on “Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism and the evolution of evil eye beliefs” at the Biological Anthropology seminar series at University College London (UCL) in London, UK.

Part of this work was based on a recent paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, with some context published in Evonomics and ProMarket (pre-print) as well as some work on measuring cultural distance (pre-print).

Cultural Evolution and the Measurement of Culture at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

I gave a general talk on “Cultural Evolution and the Measurement of Culture” at Monash University, Melbourne. I discussed various bits of research including:

Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2019). A Problem in Theory. Nature Human Behaviour. [Download]
Muthukrishna, M., Bell, A. V., Henrich, J., Curtin, C., Gedranovich, A., McInerney, J., & Thue, B. (under review). Beyond WEIRD Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance. [Download]
Chudek, M., Muthukrishna, M. & Henrich, J. (2015) Cultural Evolution. In Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 2nd Edition. Edited by D. M. Buss. [Download]
Muthukrishna, M., Doebeli, M., Chudek, M., & Henrich, J. (2018). The Cultural Brain Hypothesis: How culture drives brain expansion, sociality, and life history. PLOS Computational Biology, 14(11): e1006504. [Download] [Supplementary]
Stimmler, D. & Muthukrishna, M. (In prep). When Cooperation Promotes Corruption and Undermines Democracy.

As well as the Database of Religious History. Many thanks to Nao Tsuchiya for inviting me.

SPSSI-UK Symposium on “The Current Migration Crisis in Europe” in Cardiff, UK

SPSSI-UK organized a symposium on the Migration Crisis. The symposium was attended by an array of social scientists, but also policy makers, impact officers, and community organizers. I presented some work in progress on “The Paradox of Diversity, Migration, and Cultural Evolution in Europe”. My talk briefly introduced the science of cultural evolution (for a quick intro, see Cultural Evolution), the implications of cultural evolutionary theory for managing the migration crisis, and some results from a new tool I’ve been building to better quantify the size and dimensions of cultural differences.

More on this “Cultural Distance” tool soon.

The outcome of the discussions will also be released by SPSSI-UK as a white paper (in prep).