Farming Shaped Thinking Modes: In China, Cultural Differences Arose from Growing Rice or Wheat

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, June 14, 2014 | Go to article overview

Farming Shaped Thinking Modes: In China, Cultural Differences Arose from Growing Rice or Wheat


Bower, Bruce, Science News


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, one study suggests.

Rice farming cultivates a holistic focus on discerning relationships among people and objects, and valuing others as much as or more than oneself, 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 using studies of college students from regions with different agricultural practices. Students from southern and central China's rice-growing provinces think holistically, even though they have probably never farmed rice, 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 is less labor-intensive to grow than rice, so farmers can plant and harvest crops without much help from neighbors.

Analytical, individualistic thinking is not more common among students from richer provinces, contrary to the argument that this outlook springs from modernization and capitalism.

Talhelm's "rice theory" posits that people have absorbed and held onto the outlook of their farming ancestors even in modernized societies. "Rice theory might explain why East Asia is so much less individualistic than expected based on its wealth," 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. …

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