Does Rice Farming Lead to Collectivist Thinking?

Psychologists find that the agricultural region in China where people grew up predicted whether they have an individualistic or communal outlook

RICE CULTURE: Ancient farming practices, like the collective rice paddy work in the Anhui Province of China pictured here, may still influence modern culture, according to new research.
© Michael Battaglia

Rice farming still shapes the personalities of people in southern China, according to new research from a group of psychologists. The cooperation required to plant, tend and harvest rice grown paddy-style makes those born in southern China think more communally than those born in northern China, where the primary crop is easier-to-farm wheat. The study purports to help explain why some Asian cultures remain more communal despite growing as rich as their European and more individualistic peers.
"Rice farmers form cooperative labor exchanges, and the irrigation systems create commons dilemmas that villagers have to solve—things like dredging the common canals and coordinating common flooding times," explains cultural psychologist in training Thomas Talhelm, who led the study and is currently completing his PhD at the University of Virginia. "I set out to test people from all over China and see whether cultural differences I had seen on the ground fell into the historic outlines of rice and wheat farming in China."
The study sprang from Talhelm's time spent teaching in the southern city of Guangzhou. There he found that people avoided conflict. "When I was in the narrow aisles of my local supermarket, and people inevitably bumped into me, I noticed that they would tense up, look at the floor and shuffle away quietly," he recalls.
But Talhelm had a very different experience once he moved north to Beijing, including being praised for his skill at speaking Mandarin Chinese by a museum curator at the direct expense of his roommate who was also attempting to communicate. "I still don't think I've talked to him [the roommate] about that," Talhelm says. "It seemed that people in the north were more brash, more direct."
As part of his psychology studies back in the U.S., Talhelm decided to explore whether the differing agricultural needs of ancient China were reflected in cultural differences between north and south today. To do that, he and a team of Asian colleagues surveyed nearly 1,200 Chinese college students from the major ethnic group in China: the Han. The Han students were drawn from six provinces ranging from north to south: Liaoning, Beijing, Sichuan, Yunnan, Fujian and Guangdong. In short, the researchers found that, as the paper publishing the findings in Science on May 9 puts it: "people from provinces with a higher percentage of farmland devoted to rice paddies thought more holistically."
Stop for a moment and test yourself. Here is a list of three items: Without thinking too much, which two go together? Bus, train, tracks.

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