Why collectivists grow rice and individualists grow wheat

Why collectivists grow rice and individualists grow wheat January 24, 2017

One of my favorite books is Richard Nisbitt’s Geography of Thought, where he surveys many social and psychological studies tracing the difference between Eastern and Western thinking. He also considers the historical origins of each perspective.

Accordingly, I was glad to see a recent BBC article touching on similar themes. It’s call “How East and West think in profoundly different ways.” David Robson looks at research by psychologists are uncovering the surprising influence of geography on our reasoning, behaviour, and sense of self.

Here is my favorite excerpt:

“Growing rice requires far greater cooperation: it is labour-intensive and requires complex irrigation systems spanning many different farms. Wheat farming, by contrast, takes about half the workforce and depends on rainfall rather than irrigation, meaning that farmers don’t need to collaborate with their neighbours and can focus on tending their own crops.

Could these differences translate to a more collectivist or individualistic mindset? Working with scientists in China, Talhelm tested more than 1,000 students in various rice- and wheat-growing regions, using measures such as the triad test of holistic thinking. They also asked people to draw a diagram demonstrating their relationships to their friends and associates: people in individualistic societies tend to draw themselves as bigger than their friends, whereas collectivists tend to make everyone the same size. “Americans tend to draw themselves very large,” Talhelm says.

Sure enough, people in the wheat-growing regions tended to score higher on the measures of individualism, while the people in the rice-growing regions tended to show a more collectivist and holistic thinking. This was true even at the borders between different regions. “Here are people in nearby counties, but one farms rice one farms wheat – and we still found cultural differences.”

He has since tested his hypothesis in India, which also shows a clear divide in wheat and rice growing regions, with similar results. Most all the people he questioned are not directly involved in farming, of course – but the historical traditions of their regions are still shaping their thinking. “There’s some inertia in the culture.”

For the entire article, click here.

Browse Our Archives