What does culture have to do with creativity? The answer could be “a lot.” For decades psychologists trying to understand the roots of creative imaginations have looked at the way two kinds of cultures affect artistic and inventive efforts. Individualistic (sometimes called “cowboy”) cultures encourage people to prioritize their own interests, even if doing so costs the group overall. Collectivistic cultures are based on relationships and duties to other people, often sacrificing individual wants for the needs of others.

Individualism has long been thought to have a creative edge. Individualists resist social convention, the logic goes, and that pushback supports innovation. For instance, around the world individualistic cultures have more invention patents than collectivistic cultures do. That advantage remains even when we compare only countries with similar wealth. But a recent study suggests that these ideas about culture and creativity could be off base. People in collectivistic cultures actually do better with a particular type of creative thinking, which could be linked to what their ancestors farmed.

The new work comes from comparing communities in different parts of China. Although China scores high, as a nation, on measures of cultural collectivism, its 1.4 billion people are more than just a single culture. As my own work has explored, there are distinct individualistic and collectivistic communities within China. For example, people from areas north of the Yangtze River tend to be more individualistic, whereas people along the river and farther south are often more interdependent.

In the new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers investigated innovation with these two groups in mind. Although creativity is notoriously hard to measure, they used a drawing test created by psychologists. The team gave kids a sheet of paper with just a few basic elements printed on it: some dots here, squiggles there and a rectangle that suggested a drawing frame. The children got 15 minutes to draw what they wanted.

The kids could get “adaptive creativity” points for doodling in ways that connected the squiggles and lines into an original but unified image. Those that included an outside-the-box detail could get points for “boundary-breaking creativity.” Researchers in China gave the test to 683 middle school students from north and south of the Yangtze River. There were no differences in the children's overall creativity. In other words, youngsters from individualistic communities did not have an edge in this task. In fact, when broken down into components, students from collectivistic regions scored higher in adaptive creativity. The middle schoolers from individualistic areas scored higher in boundary-breaking creativity.

Research with adults suggests that boundary-breaking creativity supports innovations that revolutionize a field. In line with that idea, the kids who scored high in boundary-breaking lived in parts of northern, more individualistic China, which has more patents for inventions. In contrast, adaptive creativity comes into play when people improve existing technologies and approaches, developing next-generation solutions that build on what has been done to date. This difference might explain why much of China's manufacturing sector, which has grown through incremental improvements, has sprung up in the southern, collectivist areas.

This new study also suggests that a culture's history matters. Along the Yangtze River and farther south, people have farmed paddy rice for generations. To the north, they have farmed wheat. Rice farming is a lot more work. Anthropologists observing traditional agriculture in China, Malaysia and West Africa have found that rice farmers spent about twice as many hours working their fields as wheat farmers. That difference led rice farmers to create collective labor-exchange systems: “You help me this week; I'll help you next week.” In addition, whereas wheat farmers could rely on rainfall, paddy rice farmers needed shared irrigation systems.

The upshot is that rice and wheat farming put southern and northern China on different cultural paths with enduring consequences. It's safe to say that few (if any) of the middle school students in the creativity study have farmed rice or wheat themselves. Yet what many of them drew on paper connects to their ancestors' agricultural legacy.

The findings also warn against cultural chauvinism. Stereotypical ideas about the “collectivistic East and individualistic West” interfere with a true understanding of innovation.