History, Politics

Norms of Good Governance: Where Do They Come From?

Some countries exhibit good governance while others do not. Even wealthy countries, with strong cultural norms of industriousness and excellence in education, can flounder when it comes to maintaining liberal democracy. For personality psychologists, such as myself, this presents an intriguing question: what is it about humans that makes democratic norms stick? What are the traits that facilitate honesty and transparency in administration at the highest levels? Whatever the answer turns out to be, new insights from personality psychology can help shed some light on how good governance can be both developed and maintained.

Those of us who live in the Anglosphere (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK) might be forgiven for thinking that our societal norms such as individualism, freedom of expression and public service are standard issue for humanity. They aren’t, they are WEIRD. That acronym stands for Western Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic. And the name fits – WEIRD countries are rare, comprising only about 12% of the global population.

This observation is usually viewed in the scientific literature as a reason to be cautious about extrapolating results from psychological studies because approximately 80% of them are conducted in WEIRD populations whereas less than an eighth of the global human population is WEIRD. But the rareness of WEIRD nations also indicates something more important: it’s difficult to be WEIRD. This seems to be especially true for the democratic aspect of WEIRDness, given that mainland Europe — the cradle of the renaissance, the home of all the coolest coffee machine designs and, ironically, the birthplace of democracy — still has trouble making democracy stick.

This problem is highlighted by Germany’s history over the last century. In 1914 Berlin was one of the most advanced cities on earth, with a thriving academic community (including a pre-Nobel Albert Einstein) and substantially modern infrastructure, such as electric power, an integrated transport system and an extensive telecommunications network. Germany’s industrial excellence meant that she only had to sit tight for a few more decades and market forces would have given her economic domination of Europe, leaving the crusty old British empire in her wake and providing a European counterpart to the mighty USA. But Germany couldn’t manage it because at that point she was Western Educated Industrialised and Rich but not Democratic.

Wilhelm II, German Emperor

This omission allowed Kaiser Wilhelm II to use the industrial might of Germany and its intelligent, hard-working and loyal population as his personal plaything in his grudge against his royal cousins in the UK — a grudge that mutated into WW1. Four years and millions of deaths later Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated and swanned off into a comfortable exile in the Netherlands where he spent his time studying archaeology, chopping down trees and writing memoirs about how he definitely, absolutely, categorically did not cause WW1. The post WW1 chaos in Germany led to WW2, which managed to make the horrors of WW1 seem tame.

With the USA and UK acting as midwife, post WW2 Germany managed to conduct a miraculous rebuild, but after a few decades of not doing anything stupid, she once again pressed the self-harm button. This occurred in 2015 when Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to change Germany forever by allowing the admission of approximately 890,000 ‘refugees’ from nations such as Syria, Albania, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq – a cohort that contained mysteriously few women or old people but lots of fighting age males (e.g., four out of five 16 to 18 year-olds were male, as were three out of four 18 to 25 year-olds. You might think that such a drastic change to Germany’s demography would require a referendum or, at the very least, inclusion in a general election manifesto. But that’s not Merkel’s style so she forced through her open-door policy without testing it at the ballot box. And it’s not hard to see why Merkel didn’t want the people to have a say, as Germany’s newest residents have rewarded her generosity with an epidemic of sex crime, giving the welfare state a pounding. (83% of Merkel’s migrants are jobless and the cost of paying their welfare benefits is estimated at 93.6 billion Euros by 2020.)

If Germany’s ongoing problems with democracy are anything to go by, it shows that for a nation to achieve long-term stability, it is insufficient to have almost the full set of WEIRD ingredients – it needs the full set. This asymmetry in the probability of success and failure in complex systems has become known as the Anna Karenina Principle, after the opening line of Tolstoy’s novel which states: “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And as we have seen in the case of Germany, the Anna Karenina Principle doesn’t just apply to families: it occurs in any situation in which multiple ingredients must be present to produce a positive outcome but only one ingredient needs to be missing to produce a negative outcome.

However, the truism that a nation needs the full set of WEIRD ingredients to avoid fragility replaces one mystery with another, namely where does WEIRDness come from? One possibility is that the personality attributes of admired individuals are instantiated into societal norms. The standard model of personality is known as the Big Five Model (or OCEAN model) because it comprises the dimensions of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Of these five dimensions, conscientiousness and agreeableness are most likely to be expressed as societal norms. But in the context of nation building it is implausible that conscientiousness and agreeableness differentiate between WEIRD and non-WEIRD nations because German society is famous for its strong social norms connected to reliability, hard work and loyalty, yet twice in twenty years its democratic failures triggered world wars and even today Germany has a leader who rides roughshod over democratically agreed laws on asylum when it suits her.

My hunch is that the crucial personality contribution to WEIRDness lies beyond the Big Five model and is instead captured by the HEXACO model of personality, which stands for Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, eXtraversion, Agreeableness,Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience. It was created by Kibeom Lee of University of Calgary in collaboration with Michael Ashton of Brock University and its chief difference from the Big Five model is that its Honesty-Humility dimension captures individual differences in power-related attitudes: high scorers on Honesty-Humility are less likely than low scorers to coerce others, flout rules or otherwise exploit their position in a self-serving manner. Attitudes that, on the face of it, would seem to be relevant to building a stable, long-lasting democracy. (If you want to assess your suitability for being an honest and humble ruler you can try the HEXACO personality questionnaire here.)

Even a cursory glance at Germany’s troubles as a nation over the last century suggests they stem from a lack of Honesty-Humility, as evidenced by such actions as…ahem…declaring themselves the master race and invading Russia. From the disastrous end to those endeavours, you might think Angela Merkel would have realised the importance of displaying Honesty-Humility towards other nations. But no – in the aftermath of her disastrous 2015 decision, she has sought to unload Germany’s unwanted migrants on Eastern European nations such as Poland, against the will of their own electorates. “That some countries refuse to accept any refugees is not on, that contradicts the spirit of Europe,” she said. “We’ll overcome that.”Regardless of the legal problems with her unilateral diktat, the optics of a German chancellor threatening Poland are – to put it mildly – disturbing.

If my theory is correct, nations which have made a better fist of WEIRDness should also possess norms characterised by high Honesty-Humility. This leads us to the question of how honesty-humility becomes instantiated into a nation’s norms? My hypothesis is a mechanism that is colloquially termed the shining example, or in egghead jargon, social learning. This phenomenon has been shown to cause rapid changes in behaviour in chimpanzees that indicate it provides “a high speed ‘second inheritance’ system that interacts with genetic inheritance to enrich behavioural evolution”.1

Social learning for Honesty-Humility would be sparked by rulers who consistently behaved honestly and humbly, with the result that their attitude comes to be regarded as something to aspire to. As a British person I should probably cite examples from my own nation, given that it is the mother of parliaments, but when it comes to making a success of democracy, we Brits are left in the shade by the achievements of the USA, which is in many ways our younger, smarter and better-looking cousin.

As articulated a few weeks ago by Kibeom during a paper session I attended at the European Conference on Personality (beautifully hosted by the University of Zadar), a cardinal marker of high scores on Honesty-Humility in a politician is a refusal to exploit a position of power for personal gain. This brings us to perhaps the single greatest example of Honesty-Humility in the context of democratic nation-building, namely George Washington’s resignation as commander-in-chief following his victory over the British in the American Revolutionary War in 1783. As the victorious war leader, with powers that were equivalent to a dictator, Washington could have exploited his position by crowning himself as an emperor or king. Instead, he stepped down, declaring that: “Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence.”Washington’s resignation was an essential element in the US’s transformation into a stable democracy, since it helped establish the principle of civilian rule over the US military. And it didn’t just shape the US national psyche – it even attracted the admiration of his former enemy King George III, who described Washington as “the greatest character of the age”. The precedent for honesty and humility in US public office established by Washington in 1783 was reinforced in 1797 by his refusal to stand for election a third time, thereby establishing the principle, eventually enshrined in the 22ndAmendment, that two terms was the maximum a US president could serve.

Washington’s shining example of honesty and humility has since been followed by public servants across US history, but it was perhaps most famously embodied by his presidential successors Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The former’s Gettysburg Address lasted a mere 272 words, but in it Lincoln set out norms that formed a blueprint for egalitarian democracy, ending it with the defining phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Likewise, in the early years of WW2, Franklin D. Roosevelt could have taken advantage of the UK’s desperate need for war materials by hiking up prices or making punishing territorial demands, but instead he oversaw the instantiation into US law of the Lend-Lease scheme, formally titled “An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States”. He explained its rationale in his characteristically humble manner: “Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now, what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.” What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15—I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. But suppose it gets smashed up—holes in it—during the fire; we don’t have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, “I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can’t use it any more, it’s all smashed up.” He says, “How many feet of it were there?” I tell him, “There were 150 feet of it.” He says, “All right, I will replace it.” Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape.”Lend-Lease was instrumental in saving the UK, providing approximately 21 billion dollars of aid and was described by Winston Churchill as “the most unsordid act in the history of any nation”.

Viewed as whole, these three illuminating examples of honest and humble behaviour by US presidents show it is plausible that an individual ruler’s personality may rub off on a nation, which in turn might help explain how the USA has built a democracy that has proved stable over centuries – something that, as we have seen, even advanced nations like Germany cannot manage. I believe it also explains why the EU is struggling – whereas the USA has over centuries built good governance thanks to the examples of individuals like Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt, the EU hasn’t.

This problem was recently articulated with brilliant clarity by Pete North, a British campaigner for Brexit, in a Twitter thread. Applied to the present context, North’s analysis suggests that if the EU is to be a stable democracy that lasts centuries, in the style of the USA, all its constituent states need to be WEIRD. If one is not, then as per the Anna Karenina Principle, the whole thing falls apart. Moreover, North argues that trying to impose good governance on a nation is impossible – it has to develop naturally from within: “Good governance is not something that happens overnight. It is endemic to the culture. We might not appreciate it but we are indoctrinated with certain expectations and standards we uphold and that accounts for part of our culture. In the far east you can see them building infrastructure at an impressive rate but it’s unsurprising how rapidly it falls into disrepair. They have shown us they can build, but not maintain. Maintaining comes from established civic governance. The same applies to parts of Europe – particularly Greece and Italy where political dysfunction and corruption is the norm, and as well meaning as the EU may be, good governance cannot be grafted on to cultures. It has to evolve at its own pace.”

In my opinion, this process requires exposure over centuries to honest and humble exemplars such as Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt, allowing Honesty-Humility gradually to become a societal norm. If my theory is correct, then the EU is doomed to be democratically fragile because its exemplars are far from the honest and humble Washingtonian ideal, what with their disregard for democracy and their penchant for enormous, tax-free salaries, bloated expense accounts and gold-plated pension pots. In fact, given the spectacular way in which greedy, self-serving behaviour is paying off for the EU’s big wigs, we can’t expect the people of the EU to view Honesty-Humility as anything other than an Anglosphere eccentricity, like afternoon tea, team sports and politeness. Oh yes, and of course democracy.


Adam Perkins is a Lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality at Kings College London and is the author of the book The Welfare Trait: how state benefits affect personality. Follow him on Twitter @AdamPerkinsPhD.

1Whiten, A. (2014). Animal behaviour: Incipient tradition in wild chimpanzees. Nature, 514, 178–179.

Filed under: History, Politics


Adam Perkins is a Lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality at Kings College London.


  1. josh says

    Comparing an executive decision in a democracy that you don’t agree with to Hitler and Wilhelm is a bit much isn’t it? Wouldn’t a more serious take have mentioned, say, Trump’s moves to attack the press, politicize science, establish a cult of personal loyalty and engage in rampant corruption?

    • Daniel says

      Josh, I think one can see the difference between Washington/Lincoln and Trump without help. Perhaps Perkins was more interested in focusing on the distinction between WEIR and WEIRD countries.

      On a side note, do you think the press, behaving the way it currently does, shouldn’t be attacked?

      • josh says

        Daniel, many people evidently can’t, but this isn’t about comparing Trump to Lincoln. (Jesus wept.) If you’re going to talk about the potential decline of liberal society in the modern world, it’s grotesque to ignore Trump in favor of Merkel. It’s also bewildering to describe modern Germany as lacking in democracy when their democratically elected leader adopted a humanitarian policy that some dislike. Again, Merkel sheltering refugees was literally just lumped in with Hitler as some sort of evidence of a flaw in the German national character.

        About the press, there is no “the press”. There are editorial pages, news reports, and endless blogs and magazines doing some combination of both. (Speaking in the American milieu) there is Fox News, which is a propaganda wing of the conservative movement, CNN and the BBC, which are reasonable though sometimes shallow, there is MSNBC, which is liberal-biased but not in the degree Fox isn’t, there’s NPR, which is fine for news and runs liberal in commentary, the Wall Street Journal has conservative editorials but fair financial news, etc. etc. I can point to lots of examples of shoddy journalism, but by and large the press functions as it should, especially when you look at the reporting and not the talking heads. It is certainly not the “enemy of the people”. It’s extremely alarming to hear Trump bashing the press because it is his attempt to substitute his warped reality for an independent view and for objective facts. That is the scariest slide away from American/Western/Enlightenment/Modern ideals I’ve seen in my life.

        • Daniel says

          There’s a lot you said I agree with, but not every discussion needs to involve Donald Trump. One can have a Merkel discussion. The Merkel discussion is especially relevant if one is illustrating a pattern of behavior throughout Germany’s history.

          Regarding the news, I’m not so sure. I don’t recognize any news outlets that are even within sight of the paradigm of objectivity; certainly not any of the ones you mentioned. I don’t accept a news industry that functions as it should only because all the rabid extremes are enabled to yell loudly. It might feature multiple POVs, but by no means is that functional, and it certainly isn’t doing the citizenry any favors.

          Let’s imagine the individuals of the press were held to a standard of objectivity — impossible I know, but necessary, and definitely the goal to which they should be striving — and the press as an industry was therefore a centralizing force in American society. Do you think there is any possible way that Trump would have been elected if that was the case? Trump rode to success on the wave of anger of citizens who were sick of being lied to. How is his presidency anything but a manifestation of the American people’s condemnation of the press? Parenthetically, I think that’s why so many Americans give him a pass with his less-than-rigorously-factual rhetoric (I say that tongue-in-cheek). They see the press as finally getting what they deserve.

          I’ll agree that “enemy” of the people is extreme. But it’s closer to the truth than to say that they are doing their job. The only ones they care about helping are their own egos.

          Even if the impossible happened, and Trump decided to act his age, act presidential, and take the high road by not responding to every criticism, it’s clear that nothing would change with the press. Their non-stop, unthinking, illogical criticisms of previous GOP presidents and candidates drown out any attempts at objectivity they might have had. (Fox had similarly rabid criticisms of Obama, but I’m trying to stick to the subject of Trump.)

          Every major media outlet in the US has sacrificed objectivity at the altar of political activism. If you know of an exception, tell me. I’d be glad to get news from a good place.

          • Until news disassociates itself with the profit motive, it can never be free and honest, and will instead be distorted towards entertainment and the views of its owners.

          • josh says

            Of course one can talk about Merkel, but you can’t do it by making comparisons to Hitler and implying that modern Germany is not a democracy. At least, you can’t do it and then be taken seriously. Merkel is the elected leader of a coalition government. So far as I am aware, she has done nothing that wasn’t within the scope of her powers as such. She has faced backlash because some people are unhappy with her decisions. She has recently kept her position by reaching a compromise between factions that are willing to support her. Whether you like her or not, that’s exactly how a democracy is supposed to work.

            I honestly don’t know where you’re coming from regarding the press. What “lies” do you think they have foisted on us? Take CNN as an example, in what way do they fail to more or less accurately report the news of the day? Again, I’m looking for more than disagreement with some talking head.

            Trump rode to success on a coalition of mostly typical Republican voters who are socially or fiscally conservative, as well as a few disaffected moderates who convinced themselves that he would magically “shake up the system” in a way that benefited them. He is the beneficiary of a massive campaign of lies that the right wing have been steadily feeding on for decades. The “actual” fake news are claims that Obama wasn’t a native citizen, that global warming is a Chinese (hoax, that Hillary is selling Uranium to the Russians, that millions of illegal immigrants voted for democrats, that Russian interference is a myth, that the economy has changed dramatically under Trump, that he had a record crowd for his inauguration, etc. etc. etc. These aren’t falsehoods pushed by the media at large, they are bullshit pushed by Trump and his enablers. So while I agree that many Trump voters are angry, much of it isn’t based on reality. To the extent that they have legitimate grievances, they have no sense of proportion.

          • Peter from Oz says

            Well said, Daniel.
            The fact is that the media has elected itself as the Opposition. It has views of its own. Those views need to be attacked.

  2. Robrt Darby says

    Some interesting points in this discussion, but I don’t think you can reduce the policies of nations to the psychology of individuals, and you would certainly not find many modern historians who agreed that the First World War broke out because Kaiser William bore a grudge against his cousins (George V of England and Czar Nicholas of Russia). What looked like no more than another minor skirmish in the Balkans, as Serbian nationalism and Russian ambitions clashed with those of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, turned into world war as a result of a complex web of alliances and diplomatic agreements, as well as the logistical demands of mobilisation. All the European parties feared that unless they mobilised first and got the troop trains running, their enemy would beat them to it and gain the advantage. Once the parties started mobilising, events took on a logic & dynamic of their own that proved very difficult to control – hence the mutual madness of the Western Front. William was not very bright, but his military advisors had no political sense, and failed to appreciate that Germany’s only hope of survival in a war against both France and Russia was to ensure that Britain did not get involved; yet they made certain that it would intervene by their invasion of Belgium. William had no grudge against his cousins, and was both shocked and hurt when Britain and Russia declared war. The most convincing analysis of how Europe found itself at war in August 1914 is by Christopher Clark, in a book appropriately called The Sleepwalkers (2012).

    As to the difficulties Germany has experienced in developing a stable democracy, you would need to compare its history with that of, say, England. Where the latter had a central administration of a unified realm as early as the 11th Century (following the Norman invasion), and a tradition of power-sharing between monarch and elites from the 13th Century (Magna Carta, regular parliaments with tax powers), Germany was a fragmented patchwork of states that achieved unification as late as 1870, and even then only as a result of a war against France led by authoritarian Prussia. Where England had a tradition of resistance to royal authority, culminating in the defeat of royal absolutism and the triumph of parliament in 1688-89, Germany had a contrasting tradition of deference to authority and strong rulers going back to Luther, who insisted that Christians had a duty to obey their rulers, no matter how badly they ruled, so long as matters of conscience and religious faith were not violated. How far these values explain the acquiescence of most Germans in the disastrous policies of William, Hitler and most recently Merkel is a matter of debate; but I recall the story that even when the Social Democrats were a revolutionary Marxist party, before the First World War, at demonstrations and rallies in Berlin they were always careful to obey the “Keep off the Grass” signs in public parks. The rowdy English socialists, by contrast, went so far as to tear down the railings of Hyde Park, much to the horror of Matthew Arnold.

    • CONNER M STEACY says

      Margaret MacMillan, in her book “The War that Ended Peace” , pointed out that England, at the turn of the century, was more hostile to France than Germany. It was Wilhelm’s diplomatic blunders that may have switched things up.

      I am more inclined to agree with your assessment of the development of English parliament as the difference rather than the WEIRD hypothesis. I am not a psychologist so a deeper understanding of WEIRD is lacking on my part.

      Other factors that contribute might be average I.Q. in some countries https://staffanspersonalityblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/the-iq-breaking-point-how-civilized-society-is-maintained-or-lost/ . But with an average of 99 German society is well above the threshold purportedly needed to maintain democracy. Italy, with all of its political corruption has an average of 102, Japan 105, China 105 and South Korea with 106 have all had trouble with stability.

      Maybe it is a combination of both the WEIRD and the historical aversion to absolute authority…….. and then there is Switzerland.

      • @Steacy

        Read the iq breaking point article and am somewhat disturbed by those findings. It suggests that if a country is to remain civilized it must be extremely diligent about who it admits.

        I also wonder if the Flynn Effect is sufficient counter balance to the injection of low IQ immigrants. This also brings up the question of how the distribution of variation in IQ has a possible impact on outcomes. For instance, racially homogenous countries can be expected to have low variance compared to a diverse country like America.

        In the end, all we can hope is that the likes of those like Richard Spencer are ultimately wrong and civilization is possible even under adverse IQ conditions.

      • cacambo says

        I’m wondering how and if the “Big Five” correlate with IQ.

  3. Gregory Bogosian says

    I think that you are wrong about Germany. Its true that Wilhelm was jealous of Britain’s colonial empire. But the real reason they ended up at war with Britain was the strategic incompetence of the German military hiearchy in formulating the Schliefen plan. They only went to war with Britain as a a by-product of invading Belgium. They only invaded Belgium to make invading France easier. They only invaded France to make invading Russia easier. They would have been happy to not fight the British if it meant beating the Russians and gaining hegemony over the Balkans. http://www.historyhome.co.uk/europe/causeww1.htm. Second, Merkel let the refugees in to comply with the Schengen Agreement. You don’t need to put it to a vote to comply with a treaty that you all ready ratified. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schengen_Agreement. Third, it wasn’t “chaos” that caused the second world war. It was the treaty of Versailles. See “the economic consequences of the peace. By John Maynerd Keynes.” and “History of Warfare” by John Keegan.

    • ga gamba says

      Second, Merkel let the refugees in to comply with the Schengen Agreement.

      You forgot the Dublin Agreement of 1990, which had the EU members agree migrants claiming asylum status are to apply for it at the first EU country of entry. This was to prevent asylum seekers from shopping for the country with the most generous benefits, say Sweden, upon their arrival in Greece. The Dublin Agreement allows for a EU state to deport a migrant back to the first state of arrival. Merkel unilaterally rubbished the agreement by allowing migrants to move to Germany to file their applications there.

      The intent of the Schengen Agreement and later its Convention was to apply for EU citizens, lawful residents, and visa-holding visitors such as tourists. Typically, visa applicants are screened at the embassy or consulate outside the EU region and the application is approved or denied. Those arriving without a visa, such as asylum seekers, have bypassed this vetting procedure, so the Dublin Agreement addressed this issue.

    • Government is only possible with the consent of the governed. Merkel didn’t ask for consent, because she knew it wouldn’t be given. So, she did something to the German people that was non-consensual. She literally fed more fuel to the fire of the far right in Germany than a million copies of Mein Kampf.

      • Andrew_W says

        Merkel and her CDU/CSU/SPD coalition were re-elected last year, if her refugee policies were so undemocratic – so counter to the populations will that wouldn’t have happened.

        Adam Perkins obviously has an ideological agenda and is trying to dress it up as some sort of science based revelation, but there are several holes so his claims around Anglo-sphere superiority fall apart under scrutiny.

        He’s suggesting that the Anglo-sphere countries are head and shoulders above Germany of today and always have been, that the Anglo-sphere countries are somehow exceptional, but the US has had periods in which it’s democracies and principles around freedom have failed far more spectacularly than the contemporary German example he offers.

        Having said that in general Perkins and I probably agree on many general principles: For a country to remain stable and democratic over long periods requires a population with the right mindset and a democratic system that fits with the populations diversity and nature, trying to impose democracy often doesn’t work because (a) It’s being imposed and the elephant reacts badly, from the start – you’ve alienated the population from whatever system you think is best and (b) those imposing democracy usually use their own model which is almost certainly a bad fit for the imposed upon country with it’s unique culture/s and diversity.

  4. Liberty and equal protection under the law are the primary values to western success. These allow for a variety of solutions, perspectives, actions and choices, while ensuring everyone is treated the same under the law. Yes, the law can be twisted, but generally as long as it doesn’t harm liberty, it likely is a fine law that can be implemented, as free and equal people will correct defects over time.

  5. Daniel says

    Josh, thanks for clarifying. I think I understand your perspective now. If CNN seems objective, and the things you listed are taken to be the real falsehoods, I see why Trump’s attack of the press would be so appalling.

    Where we disagree is that some of those falsehoods don’t seem to me to be false. Also, what serious, massive, game-changing scandals has CNN sat on, covered up, and refused to report on? I’m talking some delicious scandal that greedy media companies know will generate tons of views, clicks, (i.e. revenue). The only reason they’d cover it up is because of a corrupt ideological agenda. Keep watching. They’ll do it again.

    • josh says

      “Where we disagree is that some of those falsehoods don’t seem to me to be false.”
      I can’t really answer that unless you tell me what you have in mind. But even if you think one or two are arguable, how would that excuse the rest? I made a short list, but I could go on for pages. And of course, even if Trump was right about something I called a lie, that wouldn’t make the press wrong in their reporting.

      “Also, what serious, massive, game-changing scandals has CNN sat on, covered up, and refused to report on?”

      Umm, none that you have given me any indication of? Do you have something in mind or is this general conspiratorial thinking? It’s not like they refused to report on the Hillary e-mail thing,for example, even though it was a thoroughly lame scandal.

  6. Saturn Black says

    Interesting thought experiment but you failed to consider geography. Western Europe contains a lot of smaller countries packed together in a tight space, with a lot of shared land borders. This will naturally create a lot more tension and affect the way these countries must be governed. The only WEIRD nation to be seriously threatened with invasion was the UK in WWII, and from what I understand, the channel posed a huge and perhaps insurmountable hurdle to Hitler. The only problematic land border of any WEIRD nation is the USA – Mexico border, and there is no threat of a Mexican invasion. WEIRD nations are mostly spacious and isolated island continents, which is a distinct strategic advantage that affords a lot more leeway in how the country is run. I don’t think we can apply the same standards to WEIRD nations as to continental western Europe.

    • Andrew_W says

      You’re confusing the Anglo-sphere and WEIRD nations, easy to interpret the article as meaning the two are the same but the WEIRD nations are the Anglo-sphere plus Western Europe. The author states that the WEIRD nations make up 12% of the world population, about 900 million people, the 5 Anglo-sphere countries have a population of about half that.

  7. I wonder if a too high score on the honesty-humilty scale is in fact responsible for the self-negating tendencies and easy capitulation to demagogues from all sides we’ve seen in the West lately.

  8. neoteny says

    The precedent for honesty and humility in US public office established by Washington in 1783 was reinforced in 1797 by his refusal to stand for election a third time, thereby establishing the principle, eventually enshrined in the 22ndAmendment, that two terms was the maximum a US president could serve.

    Washington’s shining example of honesty and humility has since been followed by public servants across US history, but it was perhaps most famously embodied by his presidential successors Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    FDR ran for president four times: he wasn’t exactly following Washington’s example.

  9. Adam Perkins says

    Thanks for your comment, but I think it is unconvincing to use Roosevelt’s four terms in office as evidence that he lacked honesty and humility. We have already seen the example of Lend-Lease, which was a generous, selfless act of the type we would expect to see in high scorers on Honesty-Humility. But there’s more: Roosevelt was already in poor health before WW2 began due to polio and the stress of leading the USA successfully through the Great Depression. A more selfish individual would have put his health first and gone into comfortable retirement in 1940. But not Roosevelt: he chose to sacrifice his personal wellbeing and ultimately his life to lead the USA successfully through WW2. If that’s not selfless leadership in the spirit of Washington, I don’t know what is.

    • neoteny says

      Thank you for your response, Mr. Perkins. It seems to me that if the facts of opposite behaviours — i.e. Washington’s refusal to stand for election a third time vs. FDR’s running for presidency the third (and fourth) time — can both be interpreted as signs of scoring high on the Honesty-Humility axis, then the theory of what kind of behaviour makes one score high on the Honesty-Humility axis becomes unfalsifiable, i.e. loses scientific objectivity. This is the point I was trying to make.

      • Adam Perkins says

        Thanks – you make excellent points, if we use presidential terms as our only measure of Honesty-Humility. From that perspective, Roosevelt putting himself forward for two extra terms as President does indeed seem rather arrogant and therefore lacking in Honesty-Humility. But then if we consider the bigger picture, Roosevelt’s arrogance starts to become less clear cut, given that that his health was already failing by 1940 and to add to that problem, WW2 had also just started. Taking on those huge challenges in a third term as president in 1940 could still be viewed as arrogant or even foolish behaviour by Roosevelt, but it could also be viewed as a courageously self-sacrificing act – which would place him as a high scorer on Honesty-Humility. Furthermore, we also have to add to our considerations that the UK had historically been a rival of the USA, and WW2 gifted Roosevelt an opportunity to strangle it by withholding aid, but instead he played a major part in saving the UK by implementing the Lend-Lease scheme – could this be another sign of arrogance? Or another marker of high Honesty-Humility? These are big questions that are hard to answer definitively. Finally, we need to consider that Roosevelt’s health worsened further during WW2 and he died in office shortly after beginning his fourth term as president. This turn of events could also be portrayed as a demonstration of Roosevelt’s low Honesty-Humility since it was obvious he was unwell and it would have been reasonable to step aside for a fitter replacement. But then again it is possibly to view Roosevelt’s fourth term as the marker of a selfless man who felt a sense of duty to his nation to guide it safely through to the end of WW2, ending up making the supreme sacrifice for his country. Which would be another marker of high Honesty-Humility. Hence we can see science is a subjective process in which we each weigh up the totality of the evidence and form an opinion. Those opinions sometimes coincide but often don’t as we can see, for example, in the case of Hans Eysenck’s famous disagreements with the proponents of the Big Five.

        • neoteny says

          Hence we can see science is a subjective process in which we each weigh up the totality of the evidence and form an opinion.

          While acknowledging that science — as a human endeavour — always contains some subjectivity (scientists have different personalities, after all), one hopes that the scientific process utilizing the scientific method (including peer review) makes it possible to acquire scientific knowledge, i.e. objectively well-founded opinions. Of course we’re getting here into the philosophy of science which itself is a contentious subject.

          However it is, I thank you for your willingness to engage with a (pseudonymous) layman and I wish you much success in your scientific work.

          • Adam Perkins says

            You’re welcome, as far as I am concerned, there is no qualitative divide between people like me, who are scientists by profession, and people who have other careers. We are all scientists in the sense that we are all trying to make sense of the world by appraising the facts of a matter and trying to draw conclusions from them, whether it is to do with deciding what part of a town to live in, what career to pursue or whether someone is lying. This idea is perhaps best illustrated by Albert Einstein’s famous observation: ‘The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of every day thinking’. Tom Schofield wrote an essay on the philosophy of science that you might find interesting: https://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7448-277a

          • neoteny says

            (For some reason, there’s no reply button under the comment made by Adam Perkins at August 22, 2018 so I have to respond to my own comment, but it is intended as a reply to the response below.)

            We are all scientists in the sense that we are all trying to make sense of the world by appraising the facts of a matter and trying to draw conclusions from them, whether it is to do with deciding what part of a town to live in, what career to pursue or whether someone is lying.

            This theory is based on the assumption that people make their everyday decisions rationally. Yet there’s the concept of rational irrationality as conceived by the economist Bryan Caplan. The following is copied here from the Wikipedia article on rational irrationality so I can refer to it in an attempt to try to make my point about the difference between professional scientists and non-scientists’ modes of thinking:

            Caplan posits that there are two types of rationality:

            – Epistemic rationality, which roughly consists of forming beliefs in truth-conducive ways, making reasonable efforts to avoid fallacious reasoning, and keeping an open mind for new evidence.

            – Instrumental rationality, which involves choosing the most comprehensively effective means to attain one’s actual goals, given one’s actual beliefs.

            Rational irrationality describes a situation in which it is instrumentally rational for an actor to be epistemically irrational.

            Caplan argues that rational irrationality is more likely in situations in which:

            – people have preferences over beliefs, i.e., some kinds of beliefs are more appealing than others and

            – the marginal cost to an individual of holding an erroneous (or irrational) belief is low.

            Assuming the correctness of Caplan’s theory, it is understandable that professional scientists are differing from non-scientists in their way of professional, i.e. scientific thinking. For professional scientists, epistemic rationality is more important than instrumental rationality in their work because holding erroneous (or irrational) beliefs is costly: scientists know that their scientific work/output is going to be judged by their peers (other professional scientists) and such judgement is going to have an effect on their scientific career. A crank can reject all critiques of his theories out of hand; a professional scientist can’t afford to do the same (assuming that she doesn’t have so much political clout that she is able to suppress all scientific opposition — see Trofim Lysenko).

            A professional scientist doesn’t owe a rational explanation to anyone why she chooses a particular part of the town where she lives; her personal preference is a good enough reason for her choice: de gustibus non est disputandum. Yet the same professional scientist has to try to defend her theory from the critiques of her peers; refusing to do so impairs her professional scientific advancement/position.

          • neoteny says

            scientists were rational as per Caplan’s theory

            I’m sorry if my reference to Caplan’s theory of rational irrationality left the impression that Caplan theory is that scientists are inherently more rational in every aspect than the general populace. I was trying to apply Caplan’s theory with its distinction between epistemological rationality vs. instrumental rationality to the scientific work done by scientists according to the scientific method, i.e. the publication of scientific theories and the supporting (experimental) data which are subjected to peer review/critiques — a process which aims to “keep scientists honest”. Of course if one doesn’t believe in the usefulness of the scientific method — like Feyerabend did not — then all bets are off.

            You wrote in your linked essay:

            science is a messy business and there is no absolute truth

            yet you quoted Max Planck who talked about “(a new) scientific truth”. Is it your position that Planck was mistaken in his (implicit) belief of the existence of scientific truths?

          • Adam Perkins says

            In my opinion the key to understanding Planck’s belief is that his famous joke includes the word new in the phrase “a new scientific truth”, which indicates he was aware that new truths come along all the time in science, replacing the old truths, and in turn replaced with new truths. Hence I believe there are no absolute truths in science, which fits with Schofield’s sentiment: “The best scientific theory is not the one that reveals the truth — that is impossible. It is the one that explains what we already know about the world in the simplest way possible, and that makes useful predictions about the future. When I accepted that I would always be wrong, and that my favourite theories are inevitably destined to be replaced by other, better, theories — that is when I really knew that I wanted to be a scientist.”

  10. Asdf says

    Asia shows that the D part of WIERD is complicated.

    Many people criticize places like Singapore, Korea, or Japan as being undemocratic (either because of press laws, sustained one party dominance, or other factors. they do have elections).

    And of course China has very little D but is coming along just fine.

    And of course as everyone points out the D part of the anglosphere is very recent according to many. Women’s and blacks couldn’t effectively vote in some cases till post war.

    When England was conquering the world and building its empire it didn’t have universal sufferage and was full what we would call gerrymandering.

    I’m inclined to think things like the rule of law and non corrupt courts are more important then elections per say.

    In fact I would say “high trust societies” are more about the attitudes and actions of individuals on a daily basis. Do they do the right thing when no one is watching?

    A corrupt government can get in the way of that (see North Korea), but any non totalitarian government stays out of the way enough that if the underlying people are high trust society flourishes.

    If the underlying people are not high trust it fails. You can WIERD up a low trust people all you want and it won’t work.

    High trust (high IQ) preferably homogenous people with any kind of non totalitarian government is basically what you need. Keep that and your gold, even if you lose a world war. Lose it and be lost forever.

  11. donald j. tingle says

    Are you sure Germany was not as democratic as France or GB? Are you sure that it was not in fact more advanced along the road to modernity with all its ills? Wasn’t it a democratic decision to end the war, a decision that neither GB nor France could bring itself to make?

    Then I got to the part about Lincoln and Roosevelt being honest and humble. What a weird fantasy world you live in.

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