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A photo of a rice farmer in China.

A rice farmer works in terraced paddies in Yunnan Province, China.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Ed Yong

for National Geographic

Published May 8, 2014

This story is part of National Geographic's special eight-month Future of Food series.

Rice and wheat do more than feed the world. They have also affected the way we think—in dramatically different ways.

That is the result of a study published Thursday in Science comparing people from different parts of China. Researchers led by Thomas Talhelm of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, found that people from rice-growing regions think in more interdependent and holistic ways than do those from wheat-growing areas.

Talhelm thinks these differences arose because it takes much more cooperation and overall effort to grow rice than wheat. To successfully plant and harvest rice, farmers must work together to build complex irrigation systems and set up labor exchanges. Over time, this need for teamwork fosters an interdependent and collectivist psychology. Wheat, however, can be grown independently, so wheat farmers become more individualistic.

Talhelm found that even people from adjacent counties on either side of the Yangtze River think differently if they grow different crops. "I don't see any other theory that explains why you find these differences between people in neighboring counties," he says.

Map of rice-growing and wheat-growing regions in China.
NG STAFF. SOURCE: TALHELM, T., ET AL. SCIENCE

Although the team focused on China, their results may explain broader differences between countries too. East Asian nations like Japan and South Korea have a long history of rice-growing, and their populations are more interdependent and less individualistic than those of other countries with comparable wealth.

The results also show that East Asian psychology is more diverse than usually portrayed, the study says. The region is often stereotyped as a hub of interdependence, but the wheat-growing north of China showed the individualistic and analytic thought that is typically associated with the West.

"As a field, cultural psychology has only existed for around 20 years, and a lot of it has focused on contrasting East and West. People are getting tired of that," says Talhelm. "People compare Americans to ... Hong Kong? Japan? It's like a random choice. There's little consideration for the diversity that exists in East Asia, and I'm hoping this study can push [recognition of] that diversity forward."

A photo of a farmer harvesting millet in China.
A farmer examines a crop of millet in Shaanxi Province, China.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Testing Psychological Traits

Other scientists have drawn distinctions between the psychological effects of collaborative farming versus more individualistic pursuits like herding or fishing. In showing that different styles of farming can also influence our psychology, "this work carries that line of thought one important step further," says Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Talhelm came up with his "rice theory" after spending a few years as a teacher in China and noticing cultural differences between the north and south. "People in the north seemed more direct, while people in the south were more concerned about harmony and avoiding conflict," he says.

He then learned that the Yangtze River divides the country into a wheat-growing north and a rice-growing south, and both halves have stuck to their respective crops for generations.

To see if these agricultural differences led to contrasting psychological traits, Talhelm's team recruited 1,162 Han Chinese students from around the country and showed them sets of three objects, such as a train, a bus, and tracks. When asked to pair two of them together, volunteers from rice-growing regions were more likely to choose holistic pairings based on relationships (train and tracks), while those from wheat-growing areas chose analytic pairings based on abstract similarities (train and bus).

The team found these differences in adjacent areas on either side of the Yangtze, which seemed to rule out other factors like climate or language to explain the stark differences in perspective.

Other tasks were also used to measure differences, and showed similar results. When asked to draw circles to represent members of their social networks, people from rice provinces drew themselves slightly smaller than their friends, while people from wheat provinces drew themselves 1.5 millimeters bigger. And in a hypothetical scenario, people from rice provinces were more likely to reward an honest friend and less likely to punish a dishonest one—a sign of the in-group favoritism that pervades collectivist groups.

A photo of a farmer winnowing grain in China.
Grain is winnowed in the wind in Shaanxi Province, China.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM RICHARDSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Million-Dollar Question

By contrast, the team found no support for two other theories in cultural psychology, which tries to explain how differences in the way we think are influenced by our culture or environment. One theory suggests that as societies become wealthier and more educated, their citizens become more self-reliant and shift toward analytical, independent thought. The other posits that transmissible diseases make for more collectivist and insular populations, since interacting with strangers carries a risk of infection.

Neither trend appears true in China, where the choice of crop was the only factor that correlated with the psychological variation in the country, according to the study. Still, Talhelm doesn't want to overstate his findings: "Culture is complex and one variable isn't going to explain everything," he says.

"The results are really intriguing," says Francesca Bray, an anthropologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland who studies Chinese agriculture. But she added, "I'm suspicious about the psychological tests, which seem strangely simple, even ambiguous, given the heavy interpretive role they are expected to bear."

She also notes that the team studied college students in the different agricultural areas rather than actual farmers. The researchers say that cultural predispositions caused by rice-growing could persist for generations and affect people who have never farmed rice for themselves, but Bray thinks that is a sweeping statement. "I would have appreciated some suggestions about why this might be," she says.

"That's the million-dollar question," says Talhelm. He suspects that parenting styles, schools, and other institutions could all have contributed to the spread of cultural tropes from one generation to another. "Culture has a lot of inertia to it," he says.

18 comments
mostafa mohammadjani
mostafa mohammadjani

you should be a rice farmer to know dramatic effects of this occupation in your life.

Cristian Jaque Gebrie
Cristian Jaque Gebrie

Definitivamente la AgriCultura está muy asociada a la cultura de los pueblos.

Oy Sun
Oy Sun

How about potato-cultivating culture?

Daniel Hood
Daniel Hood

Given food/water is the single most vital energy source to us as a species, everything else about the way we live and culture defined comes secondary. We're animals and we need constant food/water.

Those questioning the validity of these findings need to be reminded quite clearly that civilization and anarchy are only 7 meals apart. Everything else comes AFTER the need for food security and I would argue these are nothing more than elaborate survival strategies to maximise your ability to gather food/water. Religion, beliefs, politics, power, money, shelter etc. 

Mankind has evolved different strategies over thousands of years to cope with the quest to secure food/water in a sustained way.

You want to test this or be reminded?

Give up religion for 1 week - you may survive 

Give up politics for 1 week - you may survive

Give up shelter for 1 week - you may survive

Give up security for 1 week - you may survive

Give up your job for 1 week - you may survive

Give up food/water for 1 week.....Good luck you will be dead within 7 days 


Tony Pearson
Tony Pearson

I have been to China many times. Love the people and country. But I believe Culture is the spice of life. I am interested in all cultures around the world. Each severs it people.

raj gro
raj gro

original research was done by someone else in india

Carl Campbell
Carl Campbell

Human Culture is a rather complex subject, even if we refer to personal culture. So, 1 or 2 factors can not be relied on for making sound assertions in a general way. What is farmed may possibly have some influence on social disposition(s), whether that be of an individual or of a group of farmers or a farming community; but more investigations are necessary before we can begin to weigh conclusions on such matters. Besides, cultural psychology is not yet a mature field.

Xue Wenwen
Xue Wenwen

As a Chinese who have stayed in both the north and the south, I found the opinion being prevalent in China that people from the north are straightforward and honest while people from the south are more astute is quite true.  So in the author's opinion,  being interdependent and holistic will make people become smart and being individualistic is equivalent to being honest?

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

The author is apparently unaware that wheat has phytic acid and lectins in it, what are called anti-nutrients.  Rice does not, to the best of my knowledge.

Victor Hsu
Victor Hsu

I suspect that the map makes no sense to show the agriculture diversity of China.

Wheat was widely cultivated in south China during Ming and Qing period as a spring corp, while the autumn corp can be rice, cotton, or others, depending on the condition of soils, irrigation as well as market system.

The most important thing is wheat and rice can be cultivated within one field, one in winter and the other in summer, in historical China, instead of one season monoculture.

Jemisa Claire Vasquez
Jemisa Claire Vasquez

For me, as long as you exhibit such farming activities, you would be able to cultivate in yourself that cooperative character since every kind of farming requires, well, cooperation. It's not like you just place the seed on the soil and it grows on its own. You still prepare the land anyway, monitor your planting time, etc. 

Nancy zhu
Nancy zhu

It's not convincing . My parents grow wheat  in Rizhao, an eastnorth  city of China,  but they live quite a  interdependent and cooperative life with their neighbors. I mean, they will exchange labor a lot  and give a hand whenever there is a need. 

cheng pingyang
cheng pingyang

sounds new and intresting.wheher positive effect or corelative factors ,thanks to the professors for hardworking in exploring the  agriculture of China.

lily zhu
lily zhu

each place nurtures its own inhabitants

Meredith Riley
Meredith Riley

This is a really interesting concept. I feel like one can apply this concept to the individual thinking of every region too!! I wonder how we assist our travelers at My7Lives in opening their minds to new ideas from the cultures they encounter. Anyone have any ideas?

Carol Manka
Carol Manka

This rings true. I spent several years in the Philippines, which has a rice-growing and fishing populations, and outside of the urbanized areas, the rice growers are a cooperative group. However, focusing on just one factor-- to the exclusion of  other factors such as, religion and belief systems, and raising pigs and water buffalo (Carabao) often along with growing rice-- might possibly be a misleading bias.

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