My Conversation with Joe Henrich

by on December 14, 2016 at 8:18 am in Economics, History, Philosophy, Political Science, Religion, Science, Travel, Uncategorized | Permalink

Here you will find the transcript, podcast, and video of the chat, Joe of course was in top form.  In addition to a wide-ranging conversation on cultural and social evolution, we touched on topics such as Star Trek, Hayek’s atavism theory, what he learned from the Mapuche, the pleasures of cooking in coconut milk, why WEIRD matters, whether Neanderthals were smarter than humans, and whether Joe is a conservative after all.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: The Flynn effect in the short run puzzles me more than in the long run. If I compare today to the 18th century, I can see where the difference might be. But in many countries, it seems the Flynn effect hasn’t stopped. Nutritional gains probably are over.

The environment — smartphones are newer than the Flynn effect, but it doesn’t seem to be changing now compared to a generation ago. They both seem quite complex. We’ve had TV for a while. People have books, market society. What exactly is the difference over the last generation in the short run?

HENRICH: It’s a cultural-evolutionary treadmill. One place where you see this is the complexity of television shows. Now, you have an ensemble cast and 20 different plots going on. You’ve got to track all these different plots. That wasn’t the television of the 1950s. It was one plot, one thing after another. Simple. The whole world is getting more complex, at least in terms of your need for analytic thinking.

COWEN: Some of that in your view is the supply-side effect. It’s not that we got smarter and they made TV better, it’s also they made TV better and that made some of us smarter.

HENRICH: Coevolutionary.

COWEN: Coevolutionary. This is going to make you out to be quite an optimist, then, because TV is going to get better and better. We’re just going to keep on getting smarter.

HENRICH: Yeah, of course.


COWEN: You’re an anthropologist. You’ve spent a lot of time with economists — coauthored, worked with Paul Romer, Colin Camerer, others. As an anthropologist, what do you find strange about the tribe known as econ? [laughs]

HENRICH: I had a real opportunity. I was very fortunate in my career to be a professor of psychology and a professor of economics at the same time but to be neither in some deep sense. I would get to go back and forth from seminars in economics and psychology.

In economics, there’s this really competitive culture. The way I like to describe it: If you’re giving a seminar in economics, the crowd — everybody’s trying to show who’s the smartest guy in the room. Just on your first slide, someone will raise their hand. (I’m like, I haven’t said anything yet!) Then they’ll try to ask the killer question which undercuts your whole talk so that they can get you right at the beginning.


HENRICH: Whereas psychologists, they’ll sit quietly. They watch your talk. You go through your whole PowerPoint. You probably touched a lot of different research projects.

Then there’ll be question time; at first no hands will go up. Then someone will be like, “I got a question.” Then they say, “I just have one small question. I mean, it was a great talk and this is just a very minor thing.”

Then it could be a killer question at that point when they’ve done the preface. It’s a very strong cultural difference between the econ tribe and the psychology tribe.

I’ve always wanted to write an ethnography: My Life among Two Strange Tribes: The Psychologists and the Economists.

Do read, hear, or watch the whole thing.

Here you can order Joe’s book The Secret of our Success: How Culture is Driving Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making us Smarter.

1 AlanG December 14, 2016 at 8:35 am

Just a big thank you for these Conversations. I have found all of them provocative and uniformly interesting, so keep up the good work!!!

2 Area Man December 14, 2016 at 1:56 pm

I agree, they’re consistently excellent. Thank you Tyler!

3 shrikanthk December 15, 2016 at 3:54 am

There is a liberal bias though.

Jeff Sacks, Cass Sunstein, Dani Rodrik, Ezra Klein, Jonathan Haidt, Nate Silver……Even Paglia is only a quasi-conservative.

We need more interviews with reactionaries, nationalists, religious figures, war hawks, neo-imperialists, HBD advocates…among others.

4 shrikanthk December 15, 2016 at 4:04 am

Some interviews I’d like to hear –

Thomas Sowell, Steve Sailer, Jeff Epstein, George Gilder, Daniel Hannan, David Friedman, Raghuram Rajan, David Brooks

5 D December 22, 2016 at 6:22 pm

Replace Brooks with Yuval Levin and that’s a decent list.

6 Scoop December 14, 2016 at 8:59 am

Why does the Flynn Effect come up so frequently on this blog when it’s so obviously nonsense?

It’s way, way too big to be plausible: almost 3 points per decade or two full standard deviations a century. Look at newspapers and popular literature and government debate and scientific papers from 100 years ago. It could not be created for or supported by a population with an average IQ of 70, which is considered borderline retarded.

Dickens could not be the most popular author in Victorian literature if the Flynn effect were real. (Also, SAT scores would not be flat for the past 60 years if we were gaining 3 IQ points a decade.)

I’m not saying changing measurements don’t mean something but the surely don’t mean the real increase in intelligence implied by Flynn.

7 improbable December 14, 2016 at 9:13 am

Sure, the Victorians being IQ 70 in the sense that the kids in special ed are IQ 70 is wildly implausible.

Isn’t that exactly why the effect is interesting? We think they would have scored that way on today’s tests. Which must reduce your confidence in anything else you learn from the tests…

Re-adjusting the tests according to the calendar year seems like a hopelessly crude way to correct the problem. It’s not like it’s caused by cosmic rays that we’re all precisely equally exposed to.

8 Troll me December 14, 2016 at 9:31 am

I wonder what score I’d get on Victorian standardized tests, to the extent there was anything remotely like that.

Anyone’s Greek and Latin up to chops these days?

You’re all a bunch of bloody retards. Off to the mental ward for you all!

9 Troll me December 14, 2016 at 9:38 am

Victorians weren’t that dumb, of course. Alongside being able to see that nature provides degrees of differences among individuals, one of which may be “smarter” than the other (without then wanting to create a government bureau to manage the genetic future of the species or any such idiocy), they were not shy to admit the possibility that in the course of 10 or 15 years of education, it is possible that some positive amount of knowledge can be imparted in that time. And, moreover, that somehow this strange phenomenon of education not being a complete waste of time might have something to do with how people score on tests.

Then again, who needs the mental ward when you just straight up throw people in the drunk tank, for nothing more than being drunk.

I dare say, the Victorian approach might have been a little better in that regard. No BS mind games trying to tell you you’re “mentally ill” or something. Just pinpointing the “undesirable” characteristic and making a very clear cost.

In those days, mental wards were not used for those with strange social characteristics of a proclivity to pointing out failures on the part of the state ( If the line was crossed, a king just straight up threw people in prison, and the reason was generally not kept secret – it’s a little easier to respond in kind that way … not that I think either is cool.

10 Cliff December 14, 2016 at 10:23 am

Well of course they have studied the Flynn effect, and have found it not to be g-loaded. So it’s not intelligence, it’s something else like a skill for abstraction. I don’t know why Tyler insists on talking about people getting smarter. He says it continues in many countries but it has plateaued in countries like the U.S. so it seems we may have some maximum capacity for abstraction and further practice does not show further improvements in this skill.

11 Troll me December 14, 2016 at 10:31 am

Let’s evaluate all capacity to engage in abstract thought on the basis of the ability to think in 3D or recognize patterns that … honestly just don’t interest me.

12 Cliff December 14, 2016 at 10:40 am

Obviously we don’t, so I’m not sure what your point it. If your point is that nobody has studied g-loading, that is wrong.

13 Troll me December 14, 2016 at 12:00 pm

I’m thinking of part 4 (and final) of an IQ test, which measures “abstract reasoning” as a function of the ability to do mathematical rotations in your head and find odd visual patterns.

14 improbable December 14, 2016 at 1:14 pm

Cliff — OK that would be very satisfying, if Flynn is all about something orthogonal to g which our tests are picking up.

How solid is the data, and can you recommend any good things to read about this?

5 minutes googling led me to Jan te Nijenhuis, 2011:
“the literature on the Flynn effect and g loadings up to now showed conflicting
findings. However, all three additional studies in the present study
taken together show a small negative correlation between g loadings
and secular gains”

15 Urso December 15, 2016 at 4:48 pm

You could take the smartest Victorian in a room and he wouldn’t even be able to work a VCR. Therefore they were idiots, QED. This is the same logic used to explain why a modern-day unemployed Section 8 recipient has it better than King George I.

16 John December 14, 2016 at 9:22 am

Survivorship bias. You’re not looking at the average from 125 years ago, you’re looking at the very best that survived.

17 Axa December 14, 2016 at 10:28 am

What about literacy rates in Dicken’s time? He was the most popular……among those who could read 😉 The Flynn effect is about the population IQ average. There was brilliant people in Victorian times, but 40-50% of the total population couldn’t read at all.

18 N.K Anton December 14, 2016 at 9:13 am

Great podcast and Henrich has been an academic crush of mine for years ever since I came across the cultural evolution crowd.

Also, I find it interesting that so many libertarians reading Henrich jumped to the implicit conservativsm of the author. Henrich would probably see governments, states and norms about fairness and justice as much a part of the cultural evolution and collective learning as much as markets are.


19 chuck martel December 14, 2016 at 9:21 am

Measuring a complex thing like human cognition with a simple test for military conscripts and using that information to establish a national IQ is preposterous on its face. Ultimately, of course, the phenomenon that the Flynn effect attempts to measure is meaningless because humans, regardless of where they live, are individuals. One can’t predict the intelligence of any given Dutch conscript or American sixth-grader on the basis of national test scores.

20 Troll me December 14, 2016 at 9:54 am

Even if you’re basically right that societal averages are extremely low grade information about individuals within those cultural and structural settings, it is not hard to contrive a statistical comparison where the predictive power is higher in one setting than the other, and then to claim that you’re wrong.

For example, I can predict that a bunch of children with no education and poor nutrition will get much lower scores than a bunch of children with lots of education and good nutrition.

With those two pieces of information, the statistical method then provides predictive power of the results, which enable me to guess the results of each individual and on average be less wrong in one case than the other.

So … if you’re talking to people who can accept evidence of the quality of “we accounted for two things already, and by definition all other effects are bunched into “genetics” without so much as discussing the matter of genes in any specific sense … I don’t have high hopes for your reasoning being accepted among crowds where it might be most useful.

21 Cliff December 14, 2016 at 10:38 am

Why is it preposterous on its face? You certainly can predict the intelligence of a given conscript based on the national test scores, it’s just not going to be very accurate because you don’t have very much information and the variation is fairly large.

22 chuck martel December 14, 2016 at 10:54 am

You’re correct in that a prediction can be made. Of course a prediction can also be made with no test scores at all. In both cases the accuracy of the prediction will rest on chance. Basing it on a pseudo-scientific use of statistics produces nothing of value. The information can’t be effectively used for anything.

23 albatross December 14, 2016 at 8:02 pm

Would it be equally nonsensical to predict someone’s height based on their age and sex?

Alice and Bob are both trying to guess the height of people they have never seen. Alice knows only that the people are all American high school kids. Bob knows their age and sex. Would you expect Bob to do better, worse, or the same as Alice in guessing heights?

24 chuck martel December 15, 2016 at 12:15 pm

What would be the point?

25 Larry December 14, 2016 at 9:48 am

Henrich is giving us little more than urban legends, not facts.

TV growing more complex? What is the evidence for that. Shows are substantially shorter. Prime time shows were 53 minutes in the late 1960s (e.g., length of Star Trek episodes). Now they’re roughly 45 minutes. They don’t seem faster paced — so there is *less* room for complex plots.

The multiple plots he refers to are not evidence of complexity, and might be the opposite. There are two or three simple — even cartoon-like — plot lines instead of one more complex one.

Is there evidence that daily life has become more complex? Tech alone does not create complexity. McDonald’s cashiers using the equivalent of 1960’s supercomputers, but with buttons for the products so they don’t need to remember their costs.

26 Cliff December 14, 2016 at 10:26 am

Much of the good TV is on pay TV like HBO or Netflix where there are not commercials and shows are a full hour.

27 Larry December 14, 2016 at 11:20 am


Henrich is saying that TV shows have increased in complexity, citing a *specific* point: the shift to multiple plots in each show. My point is that this does *not* show increased complexity — and probably shows the opposite.

You raise a different point — about new distribution channels. That technology was not available in the 1960s, so we don’t know how popular those services would have been. We have no like to like comparisons.

More generally, I doubt it is possible to make intertemporal comparisons of complexity in entertainment. Too many changes over time (e;g;, shift from films to 3 channel TV to the multiverse of broadcasts & games). On that ground too, Henrich’s theory looks weak (or bogus).

28 Axa December 14, 2016 at 10:50 am

Episode length is irrelevant. Old TV is written in an “adventure of the week” format, every episode is almost a standalone story. When people discuss 1960s Star Trek they talk about episodes, not seasons. I don’t like that much modern TV, watching series has become a job. It’s not possible to miss episodes and keep track of what is happening. Perhaps TV is not more entertaining for yours and mine point of view, but it is more complex.

29 N.K Anton December 14, 2016 at 11:21 am

Even “banal” shows like How I Met Your Mother, Office (US version), Modern Family and hell, even the Big Bang Theory are probably far more complex, plot-driven and have mulitple and competing story arcs at the same time, compared to their counterparts in the 80s, 70s and 60s.

30 Bruce Cleaver December 14, 2016 at 11:29 am

Can confirm. Have you ever gone back to watch an episode of ‘Green Acres’ or ‘My Three Sons’ or other erstwhile sitcom? They make a Three Stooges reel seem positively profound.

31 JWatts December 14, 2016 at 3:39 pm

Perhaps TV has grown more complex, but movies seem to have become less complex.

Just compare the James Bond movies. One continuous arc of movies spanning 50 years.The Bond movies from the 1960’s seemed to be more subtle and deep, than the relentless action scenes of the later decades.

32 Paul J December 14, 2016 at 12:05 pm

Alex wrote about the Flynn effect and increasing complex TV here:

33 William Benzon December 14, 2016 at 10:51 am

HENRICH: “The Mapuche — I saw clearly that if someone else in the community did well, that meant that everybody else in the community had to do worse, because there is a limited good in the world.”

I had a grandfather who was worried about over population back in the middle of the previous century, and probably before. Why? Because he believed there was a finite amount of brain matter in the world. Hence, the more people there are, the dumber each of us is. Apparently someone actually wrote a book about that, though I forget who or what the book was called.

34 Roger Sweeny December 14, 2016 at 2:34 pm

The book you may be thinking of is Edward Banfield’s The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958). Banfield studied a southern Italian village after World War Two and asserted that the villagers idea of a “limited good” made them unable to trust and to work together and kept them economically backward. I read it years ago and thought it was excellent.

35 William Benzon December 14, 2016 at 3:21 pm

Seems unlikely to me. The book my grandfather would have read was probably published before WWII and seriously argued that the amount of brain matter was finite. My grandfather was a well-educated Dane who spoke and read several languages and worked as an engineer (at one point he was in charge of the physical plant of the main NYC post office building). So this was a crank book that appealed to well educated, well, cranks.

36 Roger Sweeny December 15, 2016 at 9:35 am

Yeah, that’s definitely different.

37 GoneWithTheWind December 14, 2016 at 11:00 am

“TV is getting better”

TV is a vast wasteland. There a re a few TV shows that are interesting but most of TV is reruns, stupid stuff and biased science shows. Reality shows for example: Anyone out there believe there is any resemblance to “reality”??? it is all staged some of it so poorly it is embarrassing and painful to watch. Even HGTV has become staged problems and “drama” soaked to hype the storyline. There is nothing on from Friday night until Monday night worth watching and very little on the rest of the time worth watching. About the only thing I record is old movies that I can play to cut the boredom of what is on live TV. Some of the shows that should be good based on their storyline and the promise of action are thin covers for left wing politics where they propagandize and lecture. A vast wasteland.

38 William Benzon December 14, 2016 at 11:00 am

On a positive-sum vs. a zero-sum view of the world. How’s that in play in the current election? Two thoughts (both just shooting from the hip): 1. A lot of Trump voters are people who tipped to a zero-sum view of the world and voted for the candidate who promised to give them theirs. 2. Trump’s win has pushed a lot of Hillary supports into the zero-sum zone thus all the Chicken Little action: “the sky is falling”.

39 bjstubbs December 14, 2016 at 11:33 am

Let them eat positive externalities, sort of like stronger together.

40 Troll me December 14, 2016 at 12:04 pm

I’d rather learn to throw mud better so I can perform better in zero sum games.

It will add up to something powerful.

41 rayward December 14, 2016 at 12:13 pm

Why are economists so argumentative? Because economics is more about ideology and politics than science.

42 carlospln December 14, 2016 at 10:35 pm

‘Mathiness’ is the cover-up

43 albatross December 16, 2016 at 12:59 am

Compared to psychologists?

44 Axa December 14, 2016 at 1:31 pm

Very interesting interview. There were two topics that captured my attention. The first one is the village-gods Vs higher gods. Older gods could be pleased by sacrifices or bought with gifts. Higher gods demand a virtuous life and charitable actions, a material gift to the god is meaningless. The funny thing is that around the world people still have some corruptible gods and those societies are more prone to corruption or “business as usual” as Mr. Henrich explained.

The other topic was a question from the audience about low status males in societies with high rates of polyginy. Those low status males take great risks in order to gain status…..after reading this gang members and drug traffickers come to mind. A redistribution of sex (Tyler) or sexual egalitarianism (Henrich) would cool things off in violent cities/neighborhoods. Of course, this is no government job. It would be good if religious leaders took this as an clear objective, an utilitarian objective.

45 Edgar December 14, 2016 at 3:01 pm

Ditto the thanks for this excellent series. Just fantastic all the way around.

Re: the Mapuche: They did manage to retain sovereignty until the 1860’s (see: ). I think it would be a yuuge mistake to write them off as backwards due to this zero-sum game notion. I’ve not read Heinrich’s work on them but imagine he has a much more nuanced appreciation of their culture. I have greatly enjoyed reading the work of other scholars about them, in particular, John Caviglia’s riveting novel Araruco (

46 Turkey Vulture December 14, 2016 at 3:08 pm

I don’t see why multiple story lines would necessarily require greater analytic thinking than a single story line. It seems to depend entirely on how involved those story lines are. If both the single and the multiple story lines would play out over the same length show, presumably the single story line could go into much greater detail and rely on more nuance than the multiple story lines.

Also, if we have been and will continue to get smarter, why is this necessarily an optimistic view? It seems plausible that there are (different) society-wide and individual intelligence levels (as well as distributions) after which any measure of utility you might want to use would suggest people are worse off.

47 Turkey Vulture December 14, 2016 at 3:12 pm

On the Mapuche, they seem to be on the right track. There is limited status in the world.

48 Anon. December 14, 2016 at 3:51 pm

Your best convo yet, fascinating stuff.

49 Barton December 14, 2016 at 7:18 pm

A desire for an ethnography of psychologists and economists? Not quite, but here is an excellent second choice, Life Among the Finan, by Joe Walker, in the The Journal of Portfolio Management, Summer 1989, Vol. 15, No. 4: pp. 5-9. Worth looking up!

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