Is There A Link Between Grains And Cultural Differences?
According to the "rice theory," Asian societies evolved to be more cooperative, and Western societies more individualistic, because of the type of work needed to farm rice and wheat respectively. A recent study seems to lend credence to this theory.
A new study published in Science posits that values now often ascribed to Western and Eastern cultures — for example, individualism versus cooperation — were first formed because of the kind of work needed to grow and cultivate a particular type of grain…in this case, wheat versus rice. Study lead and University of Virginia graduate student Thomas Talhelm explains that farming rice paddies is a collective effort: “Families have to flood and drain their field at the same time. So there are punishments for being too individualistic.” However, one family can farm a wheat field without much outside help.
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday
What’s the Big Idea?
The research team tested the “rice theory” on China, which has a long history of farming both wheat and rice. In psychological tests given to college students, those from the northern, wheat-growing regions tended to demonstrate more individualistic thinking, while those from the southern, rice-growing areas aligned with more collective thinking. Other theories suggest that the differences between West and East may be a result of modernization, but that doesn’t explain why some of the world’s most modern cultures — Japan and South Korea, just to name two — are also among the most cooperative.