Put your village into it, people.
Rice farming takes long-term team work (Image: Michael S. Yamashita/Corbis)
popular image of Americans and Europeans as individualist and innovative, versus
Asians as collectivist and conforming, is partly true.
People from the West and Far East can and do think in both ways, but these
peoples' cognitive styles divide broadly along those lines.
Researchers have proposed many possible explanations for these cultural habits,
including differences in prosperity and rates of infectious
Thomas Talhelm of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville wondered if a
region's long-term way of life is what matters: specifically, whether its people
grow rice or wheat. "The rice-growing regions of East Asia are less
individualistic than the Western world or northern China, even with their wealth
and modernisation," says Talhelm.
Talhelm spotted a natural experiment in China. Its heartland south of the
Yangtze river depends on rice farming, while the colder, drier country north of
the Yangtze has always relied on wheat.
Growing rice is hard work. Many people must work together to maintain communal
irrigation canals, and transplanting and harvesting are also labour-intensive.
By contrast, while rain-fed wheat produces less food per hectare, it needs less
labour. A family can support itself growing wheat, while paddy rice literally
takes a village.
has long been suggested that China's reliance on rice fostered collectivist
attitudes, and the Confucian emphasis on group allegiance and conformity. Such
attitudes are even cited as explaining why Europe, rather than China, was the
home of the industrial revolution: the revolution was based on scientific
thinking, which is held to rely on individualism and openness to innovation. But
the idea that growing rice promotes a group mentality
Talhelm and his colleagues in China decided to test it. They gave standard tests
for cognitive style, individualism, and in-group loyalty to 1162 students in six
cities across China, in wheat or rice-growing areas. All were Han Chinese,
China's dominant ethnic group, so other differences were hopefully minimal.
Nevertheless, they found many differences in cognitive style. For instance,
students from all-wheat areas were 56 per cent more likely to think analytically
than students from all-rice areas. For example, when asked to match the two
closest of sheep, dog and grass, they grouped sheep and dog, which appear most
similar. Students from rice-growing areas grouped sheep and grass, as these have
the closest relationship to each other in real life, and to them this
relationship mattered more than physical resemblance.
difference held for students from adjoining wheat and rice-growing counties in
the same province along the wheat-rice divide, who were
otherwise very similar. "Rice provides economic incentives to cooperate, and
over many generations, those cultures become more interdependent," says Talhelm.
He found that when students were asked to draw a diagram of their relationship
to others, those from rice-growing communities minimised self but those from
wheat-growing communities did not.
Rice-growing areas also have fewer patents, and fewer divorces, than wheat
regions, which may reflect lower innovation and higher conformity.
of the variables tested for tied in with historical rates of infectious disease
or differences in prosperity, suggesting those factors were not responsible for
differences in thought styles.
findings may help explain why an incipient industrial revolution in 11th-century
China fizzled out, says Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia in
Vancouver, Canada. Invasions by northern horsemen drove the centre of Chinese
government south, moving it from wheat to rice culture. Meanwhile, wheat farming
was the mainstay of Europe.
Journal reference: Science,
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