Agri-Cultural Psychology: Does rice explain the difference between East and West?

By Nathan Smith

Humans cultivate plants. From the first steps of domesticating wheat, through the Green Revolution, to Genetic Modification, people have selected for plants to suit their needs. Indeed, even wild plants have inadvertently been selected for by man and many of the characteristics we associate with weeds have only arisen through humanity’s persistent attempts to remove them. In reverse, humanity can be seen as master of their domain and largely immune to environmental pressures. Rather than being shaped by it rather we shape it to meet our needs.

Does rice bring out community spirit? (Credit the International Rice Research Institute)

Does rice bring out community spirit? (Credit the International Rice Research Institute)

But this was not always the case. A recent paper in Science argues that our cultural psychology, far from being an artificial construct, is instead firmly rooted in our agricultural past.  Specifically, the paper aims to explain the differences between Eastern and Western cultures. Over the past couple of decades, the difference between these broad groups has been explored and characteristics described (the West is more individualistic and analytic whereas the East more communistic and holistic). Whilst several explanations have been proposed, they all display flaws and are deemed unsatisfactory or only partially responsible. The theory proposed in the paper is that the differing general characteristics can be explained through the historic communities’ preference for growing wheat or rice.

The reasoning behind this is that rice, in comparison to wheat, is a more labour intensive crop, requiring approximately twice as many working hours for the same yield. Indeed it was noted that a husband and wife team would be unable to farm a plot large enough to meet the needs of their family, thus implying the necessity of interdependence.  Rice also requires irrigation, which needs coordinated water use and shared labour to produce the irrigation network.

Wheat-- supporting individualism? (Credit Rob Young)

Wheat– supporting individualism? (Credit Rob Young)

To assess this cultural theory, researches conducted a study comparing the psychological traits of individuals from wheat and rice growing regions. The study took place in China, which can traditionally be divided between the wheat growing north and rice growing south, and focused only on the Han Chinese, thus removing any confounding variables of nationality or ethnicity. Account was also taken for the wealth and rate of infectious diseases in the county, both of which have been proposed as explanations for the differences seen in cultural psychology. Both were inaccurate predictors of individualistic or communistic cultural psychology. However, the region’s dominant crop was found to be an accurate predictor, thus supporting the hypothesis suggested by the theory. Research into other countries with a rice-wheat split, such as India and Indonesia, are expected to show similar differences in cultural psychology.

How this psychology is passed down generations and if the method of rice growing has an effect on the psychology developed are questions still to be answered but it appears that whilst humanity has shaped plants, plants have also shaped humanity.

To read more, take a look at the paper here.

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