Beyond WEIRD Morality

by Mohammad Atari


A decade ago, Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan published a landmark paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled, “The weirdest people in the world?”. The cardinal argument of Henrich and colleagues was that there is an over-reliance on Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) samples in psychological research. The term “WEIRD” rhetorically highlights the peculiarity of this population that largely dominates psychology samples. Henrich and colleagues suggested that much of what psychologists thought they knew about fundamentals of human cognition and behavior was probably only true of one small slice of human diversity on the planet. In fact, WEIRD people make up only about 12% of the world’s population and yet over 90% of the research participants in psychology. But while this celebrated paper (cited about every 12 hours since published!) provided an apt diagnosis of a pressing problem, there is a question of whether much has been done to address the problem, and where psychology has positioned itself to diversify its studied populations. A recent analysis published a decade after the WEIRD paper came out, investigated research samples in high-impact American Psychological Association (APA) journals (which often function to some extent as “gatekeepers” to their subfields), finding that 89% of the world’s population continues to be neglected.


The scientific community’s response to a lack of diversity in research samples cannot be limited to encouraging scholars from WEIRD societies to pack their bags and go study other cultures. Rather, a diverse and mature science must include a diverse group of scientists, who are both motivated and able to “ask non-WEIRD questions”. Diverse researcher perspectives and viewpoints are often associated with the generation of novel and higher-quality discoveries. Indeed, minority scholars have expanded psychological science in important ways. Fundamentally, studying diverse populations as the “other” populations (as opposed to studying diverse populations by diverse scholars) leads to what Douglas Median and colleagues called the “home-field disadvantage”.


The home-field disadvantage refers to the disadvantage inherent in research that takes a particular cultural group as the starting point or “standard for research”. Medin and colleagues argue that the home field is a serious handicap that pushes researchers toward thinking that the cultural group that differs from “us” has failed, where “failed” means not performing in accordance with “our” expectations. These authors suggest strategies to avoid the home-field disadvantage, including doing one’s best to study the phenomenon of interest on the terms of the culture being studied. For example, if one were studying cultural differences in emotions, it would be an erroneous practice to start with English emotion terms and attempt to look for their counterparts in another culture, as this presumes part of the very phenomenon one wishes to study.


Moral psychology, drawing on both the empirical resources of the social sciences and the conceptual resources of philosophical ethics, continues to suffer from both the “home-field disadvantage” (i.e., researcher diversity problem) and the “WEIRD person” problem (i.e., sample diversity problem). The current WEIRD state of moral psychology is in fact peculiar and unfortunate, given that cultural psychologists explicitly advocated for cross-cultural work in developing moral psychological theories. Most notably, Jonathon Haidt, working at the time with anthropologist Richard Shweder, called for culturally informed theories of moral cognition in the 1990s. Haidt and Shweder argued that moral appraisals differ substantially across individuals, cultures, and historical periods. For example, Shweder showed that in India, among Brahmans, it is “immoral” for a son to eat meat or cut his hair during the 10 days that follow the death of his father. Carol Gilligan’s now-classic critique of Kohlbergian moral psychology (which reduced morality to justice) asserted that people have two moral “voices,” or ways of talking and thinking about moral issues. It is now evident that Gilligan has won the argument for moral pluralism. Following up on a pluralistic notion of morality, Haidt and colleagues proposed the Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) which was developed in order to fill the need of a systematic theory of morality, explaining its evolutionary origins, developmental progressions, and cultural variations. Haidt and colleagues surveyed evolutionary psychology and anthropology, looking for moral concerns that were common across cultures. Five candidates were suggested for being the basic, evolutionarily-prepared psychological “foundations” upon which cultures construct their moral systems. Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity are theorized to have solved adaptive problems over humans’ evolutionary history.


In the recent Evolution and Human Behavior’s Special Issue to mark a decade since the publication of “The weirdest people in the world,” Jesse Graham, Morteza Dehghani, and I examined moral foundations in Iranian culture. Privileged with a home-field advantage (being Iranian myself) and having access to Iranian samples, we expanded upon MFT’s theoretical line of reasoning. To be sure, simply calling Iran non-WEIRD is overly simplistic; a psychological analysis of a non-WEIRD culture must include a nuanced, descriptive probing of the studied population. Iran is geographically close to countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Azerbaijan, or Armenia, but is overall more developed than these countries. Using Muthukrishna et al.’s WEIRD cultural distances, Iran’s distance from the U.S. is comparable to Turkey and Armenia, while slightly greater than Japan’s distance from the U.S.


To better contextualize our claim that Iran is an extremely understudied culture in psychology, I searched the contents of Psychological Science, Associations for Psychological Science’s (APS) flagship journal. In the last three decades, zero articles have been co-authored by Iran-affiliated researchers. And, of course, in some papers, Iran is randomly mentioned to exemplify “political aggression” or “a country emphasizing gender inequality”. Hence, it is plain to see that the scientific community, at least in psychology, does not really know much about Iran’s psychology, that is, how Iranians think, what their values are, how they describe each other, or how they view other cultures.


In six studies (N=1945), we evaluated MFT using the Moral Foundations Questionnaire and followed up by building a bottom-up model of moral values. Our results suggested that the Persian Moral Foundations Questionnaire is not a highly valid measure for assessment of moral concerns in Iran. Our cross-cultural comparison suggested that Iranians’ scores on moral foundations cannot be reliably compared with their American counterparts as the two cultures differ in the pattern of responding to questionnaire items (regardless of their average endorsement of different foundations). Consequently, we turned to qualitative research to build a bottom-up model of moral concerns. Qualitative interviews revealed that in addition to moral concerns found in Western contexts, one construct is central in moral concerns in Iran. This construct, “Qeirat”, does not have a straight English translation, but is semantically close to “honor” and consists of guarding and protectiveness of female kin, romantic partners, broader family, and country. We found Qeirat to be highly correlated with Loyalty, Authority, Purity, Islamic religiosity, and mate retention behaviors. These results are consistent with prior works my collaborators and I did in mating psychology, showing that Qeirat is an important characteristic in mate selection preferences among young Iranian participants and mate retention behaviors in romantic relationships.


Qeirat was shown to predict important outcomes above and beyond the five moral foundations, religiosity, and even honor. So, we proposed Qeirat as an additional moral foundation. MFT theorists have explicitly welcomed new foundations to be added to their framework as methods and theory co-evolve in moral psychology. Specifically, with regard to addition of new foundations, Graham and colleagues rhetorically posited that they “do not know how many moral foundations there really are. There may be 74, or perhaps 122, or 27, or maybe only 5, but certainly more than one.”


“Qeirat values maintain intensive kinship networks which can function to keep resources in the group.”


We speculate that Qeirat values are particularly adaptive in Iran’s socio-ecology due to historically moderate-to-high prevalence of pathogens, slightly male-biased sex ratio, relative scarcity of environmental resources, especially in some southern regions, and perceived socio-political threats from some Western countries considering some historical events. Qeirat values maintain intensive kinship networks which can function to keep resources in the group. Ecological conditions that facilitate Qeirat values give rise to higher intrasexual rivalry for access to mates, sensitivity to sexual norm violation, and vigilance to guard current sexual partners, especially female partners. Evolution of Qeirat values both supports and enables tight kinship networks and group coalitions in which the risk of contact with pathogens is minimized, mate poaching is heavily penalized, resources are retained within the group, and societal norms are maintained.


We believe this research opens up new, interesting avenues for research in Iran and other countries. For example, socioecological predictors, geo-spatial distribution, cultural antecedents, emotional correlates, and interpersonal consequences of Qeirat are yet to be explored. Unveiling Qeirat as a central feature of moral cognition in Iranian culture and the development and validation of the 24-item Qeirat Values Scale have already stimulated discussions in popular media in Iran. We hope and expect to see more empirical research on Qeirat values as a new moral psychological construct across various cultural contexts. We believe that this work can be considered an effort in moral psychology (as well as cultural and evolutionary psychology) to tackle both the “home-field disadvantage” and “WEIRD person problem” at the same time.



Read the paper: Foundations of morality in Iran