That is the result of a study published Thursday in Science comparing people from different parts of China. Researchers led by Thomas Talhelm of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, found that people from rice-growing regions think in more interdependent and holistic ways than do those from wheat-growing areas.
Talhelm thinks these differences arose because it takes much more cooperation and overall effort to grow rice than wheat. To successfully plant and harvest rice, farmers must work together to build complex irrigation systems and set up labor exchanges. Over time, this need for teamwork fosters an interdependent and collectivist psychology. Wheat, however, can be grown independently, so wheat farmers become more individualistic.
Talhelm found that even people from adjacent counties on either side of the Yangtze River think differently if they grow different crops. "I don't see any other theory that explains why you find these differences between people in neighboring counties," he says.
Although the team focused on China, their results may explain broader differences between countries too. East Asian nations like Japan and South Korea have a long history of rice-growing, and their populations are more interdependent and less individualistic than those of other countries with comparable wealth.
The results also show that East Asian psychology is more diverse than usually portrayed, the study says. The region is often stereotyped as a hub of interdependence, but the wheat-growing north of China showed the individualistic and analytic thought that is typically associated with the West.
"As a field, cultural psychology has only existed for around 20 years, and a lot of it has focused on contrasting East and West. People are getting tired of that," says Talhelm. "People compare Americans to ... Hong Kong? Japan? It's like a random choice. There's little consideration for the diversity that exists in East Asia, and I'm hoping this study can push [recognition of] that diversity forward."
Other scientists have drawn distinctions between the psychological effects of collaborative farming versus more individualistic pursuits like herding or fishing. In showing that different styles of farming can also influence our psychology, "this work carries that line of thought one important step further," says Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Read the full article What You Farm Affects Your Thinking, Study Says at National Geographic Magazine.