Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

The study below discusses a psychological/cognitive/personality gradient between N and S China, possibly driven by a history of wheat vs rice cultivation.

Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture (Science)

Cross-cultural psychologists have mostly contrasted East Asia with the West. However, this study shows that there are major psychological differences within China. We propose that a history of farming rice makes cultures more interdependent, whereas farming wheat makes cultures more independent, and these agricultural legacies continue to affect people in the modern world. We tested 1162 Han Chinese participants in six sites and found that rice-growing southern China is more interdependent and holistic-thinking than the wheat-growing north. To control for confounds like climate, we tested people from neighboring counties along the rice-wheat border and found differences that were just as large. We also find that modernization and pathogen prevalence theories do not fit the data.

Editor Summary: On a diverse and large set of cognitive tests, subjects in East Asian countries are more inclined to display collectivist choices, whereas subjects in the United States are more inclined to score as individualists. Talhelm et al. (p. 603; see the Perspective by Henrich) suggest that one historical source of influence was societal patterns of farming rice versus wheat, based on three cognitive measures of individualism and collectivism in 1000 subjects from rice- and wheat-growing regions in China.

The first author of the paper is interviewed below; his comments are quite illuminating. None of the discussants entertain the notion that any of these group differences could be partially genetic in causation.

Sinica: Rice, Wheat and Air Filters

This week on Sinica, we’re delighted to be joined by Thomas Talhelm, Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Virginia and author of a recent paper proposing a fascinating connection between rice and wheat-growing communities, and persistent differences in psychological orientations of people from different parts of China. So join us as we talk about divorce, collectivism and violence, and get the dirt on all the various tests psychologists are using to measure it all here in the Middle Kingdom.

And even if psychology isn’t your thing, we suspect that breathing is — which is another reason to listen. In addition to his growing reputation in academic circles, Thomas is also known in China for his production and proselytization of do-it-yourself air filtration kits, which he sells through his company Smart Air Filters. If you are interested in getting a filter without spending a fortune, be sure to check them out.

I corresponded briefly with Talhelm, pointing out that his results are already a part of Chinese folk sociology, and even remarked upon by European visitors to China in the 18th century.

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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