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.

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."