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

If you picked bus and train because they are both vehicles, then according to social psychologists, you favor "abstract" or "analytic" pairings. People from most modern and more individualistic cultures favor this choice, a group that has been dubbed WEIRD (for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) by psychologists.
On the other side, if you picked train and tracks because a train travels on tracks, then you favor "relational" or "holistic" pairings, a thinking style that also embraces contradiction, according to psychologists.
The Chinese college kids did not answer just one such question, but eight (like this alternate set of three: carrot, dog and rabbit) along with 12 random questions designed to keep participants from guessing what the psychologists were testing for specifically. The results were tallied, resulting in a percentage score that reflected more analytic (0 percent) or totally holistic (100 percent), controlling for gender—because women generally are found to think more holistically than men.
Regardless of where the students were currently living (for example, a kid from Fujian currently studying in Beijing), Chinese men and women who grew up in areas that traditionally farm rice thought more holistically.
The rough dividing line in thinking styles and farming techniques is carved by the Yangtze River through the center of modern China. The river also splits China's major language dialects, among other cultural differences. The finding also held at the level of bordering counties. A sample of 224 people from two neighboring counties in Anhui Province—Bozhou, which devotes only 2 percent of its land to rice, and its neighbor Huainan, where 67 percent of its land is used to grow the Chinese staple—found the same effect. The people of Huainan thought more holistically.
Talhelm and his colleagues further verified the finding with other tasks. For example, they had some study participants draw a diagram of a person and his or her set of friends, each person represented as a circle—a task known as a sociogram. People from rice provinces were more likely to draw themselves as smaller than their friends (as do the Japanese, according to prior research) than people from wheat provinces. Wheat provincials drew their personal circles roughly 1.5 millimeters bigger than their peers, which compares with Europeans who draw their circles 3.5 millimeters bigger and Americans who draw their circles an average of six millimeters bigger.
Another test measured the loyalty of 166 Chinese college kids from across the country. Imagine a business deal involving one of the following: an honest friend, a dishonest friend, an honest stranger or a dishonest stranger. Dishonesty causes the deal to go sour whereas honesty leads to prosperity. At the end, participants decide how much money to reward their partner with or how much to fine them, at the cost of a little of their own money. The people from rice provinces were less likely to punish their friends for dishonesty than were people from wheat provinces. "The question of how rice culture is passed down is the real mystery of this study," Talhelm says, noting that rice culture persists even as the majority of people stop directly farming rice. "Is it values? Is it parenting? Is it schooling? Is it institutions? I suspect it's a little of all of it."
This "rice culture" theory purports to explain the differences between the WEIRD and the East or why Japan, South Korea and southern China, among other parts of Asia remain less individualistic than their modern peers in Europe despite similar levels of economic development, Internet penetration or employment by private industry (as opposed to a communist system). Provinces historically devoted to growing rice seem to have lower divorce rates than those historically devoted to growing wheat—more evidence in favor of the idea. And the Han Chinese from wheat provinces also held an edge in number of patents for new inventions through 2000, although statistics from 2010 seemed to show this difference between provinces had disappeared.
If true, rice culture should also be found (and help to explain differences) in people from places like Indonesia or west Africa, which have similar divides. Talhelm says he has also found similar cultural differences in people from rice regions in India. Similarly, the prevalence of wheat farming may explain why European cultures are so WEIRD, as noted by psychologist Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia in a perspective on the study also published in Science on May 9. In other words, the W in WEIRD may not be "Western" but rather "wheat."
But it is not clear if rice culture will persist as more and more Chinese cluster in cities and lose any connection with rice (or wheat) farming. As it stands, Talhelm and his colleagues' study showed that rice culture persisted whether people grew up in the countryside or a big city. In other words, ancient farming practices may shape the thinking of modern descendants living in a sprawling, crowded city. Or, as Talhelm says: "most of my Chinese friends have told me the findings fit with their experiences in China."

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Give a Gift &
Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription
as low as $9.99

Subscribe Now! >


Email this Article