Farming practices have shaped thinking styles

In China, growing rice versus wheat has sown long-lasting cultural differences

AS YE SOW  Chinese people from wheat-growing provinces are more individualistic and analytical than those from rice-cultivating provinces, raising the profile of farming practices as influences on thinking styles, a new study suggests. 

Roy Cheung/FLICKR (left), Charlie fong/Wikimedia Commons (right)

Differing thinking styles between Chinese people and Westerners, as well between northern and southern Chinese people, can trace their roots to rice paddies and wheat fields, a new study suggests.

Rice farming cultivates a holistic focus on discerning relationships among people and objects, valuing others as much or more than oneself and showing favoritism toward friends even if they’ve been untrustworthy, say psychologist Thomas Talhelm of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and his colleagues. Holistic thinking among many modern Chinese people partly reflects regional histories of building communal irrigation systems and cooperatively planting and harvesting rice paddy fields over thousands of years, the scientists propose in the May 9 Science.

They draw that conclusion based on college students’ varying performance on lab tasks. Students from southern and central China’s rice-growing provinces think holistically, even though it’s unlikely that any of them have ever farmed rice themselves, Talhelm’s group reports.

In contrast, students from northern and central Chinese provinces that have specialized in wheat growing think more like Western students, exhibiting a preference for abstract analysis and self over others, the scientists find. Wheat and related crops, such as barley, are less labor-intensive to grow than rice. Wheat farmers rely on rainfall and can plant and harvest crops without much help from neighbors.

Talhelm’s group did not compare Chinese and Western students because the groups differ in many ways that can affect thinking styles, including religion, government and language. Instead, the researchers focused on Chinese students from the Han ethnic group who grew up either in rice- or wheat-farming areas.

Analytical, individualistic thinking was not unusually common among students from richer provinces, contrary to the argument that this outlook springs from modernization and capitalism. Neither did provinces with high rates of infectious disease produce especially holistic thinkers, challenging the idea that communicable illnesses make communities insular and suspicious of strangers.

Talhelm’s “rice theory” posits that people have absorbed and held onto the outlook of their farming ancestors even in the face of rapid modernization. “Rice theory might explain why East Asia is so much less individualistic than expected based on its wealth, as well as clarifying cultural differences within China,” Talhelm says.

The study shows for the first time that thinking styles differ between people from rice- and wheat-farming regions, says psychologist Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “I wish I had thought of [researching] that,” adds Nisbett, who has studied holistic and analytic thinking across cultures (SN: 1/22/00, p. 56).

Talhelm’s team tested 1,162 Chinese students attending schools in one of six parts of China.

Participants first viewed lists of three items, such as a rabbit, a dog and a carrot. For each trio, students chose two items that belonged together. Earlier research found that analytical thinkers often group items according to categories, so rabbits and dogs go together. Holistic thinkers tend to look for relationships, such as rabbits eating carrots.

Students from provinces with more rice paddies made substantially more holistic matches than their peers. Those from wheat-dominated provinces made the most analytical matches. That pattern held for students from adjacent rice and wheat provinces, suggesting that contrasting climates in southern and northern China didn’t produce distinctive thinking styles.

Volunteers also drew diagrams with circles representing themselves and each of their friends. The size of the “me” circle relative to the average size of friends’ circles denoted a person’s level of individualism. Participants from rice provinces drew their circles about the same size as their friends’. Those from wheat provinces drew themselves slightly larger, although not as large as U.S. and European students portray themselves.

Finally, given hypothetical scenarios, students from rice provinces were most likely to reward friends for helpful acts and to overlook friends’ misbehavior.

Talhelm’s team also analyzed national statistics in China from 1996, 2000 and 2010 and found a higher divorce rate and a greater number of successful patents for new inventions in wheat-growing provinces than in rice-growing provinces. That trend is consistent with the idea that analytical thinking fosters both individualism and creativity.

Talhelm’s results suggest that a wheat-based culture encouraged technological innovations that underlay the rise of Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic societies, writes psychologist Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, in a comment in the same issue of Science.

Contacts with people in individualistic herding cultures, such as Mongolians, and proximity to rivers that served as trade routes may also have shaped China’s regional thinking styles, Talhelm says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Psychology