Nothing is more unsettling intellectually than finding serious researchers in other disciplines take for granted presumptions that you find questionable.

And unsettled is how the article “Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture” in this week’s Science leaves me. It’s a gated article so although I have access through my university affiliation, I’m afraid many readers won’t have access to it.  But here’s the ungated abstract (and the bibliographic details at the end of the post).  And thanks to Petr Kosina for the link.

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.

via Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture.

Now first let me say I have no objection to big global hypotheses.  How could I when I’ve just written a book on global food history?

And, indeed, I’ve long dreamed of doing a study of the three big staples, wheat, rice, and maize, comparing the labor involved in growing them (huge for rice, medium for wheat, and relatively easy for maize) with the labor of processing them (huge for nixtamalized maize, medium for wheat, relatively easy for rice).  It’s always struck me that this would shed a lot of light on how labor is organized, on the lifestyles of men and women, and on the general economic development of the societies.

So why is this study unsettling?

Well, the starting point of the research is that “over the past twenty years, psychologists have catalogued a long list of differences between East and West.” These boil down to individualism and analytic thinking in the West and interdependence, collectivism and holism in the East. The authors define analytic thinking as the use abstract thinking and shunning of contradictions. By contrast they define holistic thought as more intuitive and capable of embracing contradictions.

Hmm. It seems that psychologists have been going in a direction directly opposite to historians, philosophers, and scholars of religion.

At least as I understand it from colleagues in these areas, they have been fighting against what you might call the “East is East and West is West” or “ancient oriental wisdom” beliefs common in the nineteenth century.  These are not quite the same as the distinction above but they share the idea that there is a profound psychological divide.

Now Asian Studies scholars tend to see more similarities than differences between thinking in East and West.  I don’t know who is right though my sympathies lie with Asian Studies.  But it is unsettling to see this taken as an unproblematic starting point.

In the same vein, West and East seem incredibly problematic categories.  The authors tend to use the West as a synonym for Europe (and, I presume, European settlement colonies such as the US, Canada, and Australasia, though whether the former Iberian empires would count as western is not addressed). Japan and Korea, both with modern economies, remain according to the psychologists more holistic than might be expected.

India, with a similar wheat/rice split is mentioned as a possible test case.

And the Middle East, a wheat area, is left unmentioned.

Also fascinating are the test for the two psychological extremes.  The first asks people to put, say, a carrot, a rabbit, and a dog into two groups. Westerners link rabbits and dogs as both animals (analytic), Easterners link carrots and rabbits because rabbits eat carrots (holistic). The second talks about attitudes to help and harm from friends and strangers, the third about divorce and patents (more likely among Westerners).

Well, the authors collect 1000 Han Chinese from wheat growing areas in northern (where independent farming purportedly leads to more Western characteristics) and rice growing areas in southern China (paddy rice cultivation demands cooperation and thus more Eastern characteristics). These characteristics are asserted to persist long after people leave farming and move to the cities.

The authors conclude their hypothesis explains at least part of the asserted East West differences.

Their commentator, in a separate article in the same issue concludes “wheat farming may contribute to explaining the origins . . . of the industrial revolution.”

Hmm again.  I have dozens more reservations.  What about millets and maize in China? Not to mention root crops? What about the fact that China was on a par with the West until the late eighteenth century?  What about the fact that its most economically dynamic area was the lower Yangtze Valley in rice country. What about the industrialization of Japan that was more or less simultaneous with the West?  And when Japan was still relying heavily on root crops in farming? What about the other Western staple crops (mentioned in passing as being barley similar to wheat).  What about maize in the industrializing United States? What about Asian Americans?

I could go on but it’s a Friday afternoon and a nice Scotch and water to celebrate the end of the week calls (as does a possible thunderstorm).

So to conclude. The authors may be on to something. I however find their starting assumptions so dubious as to make me extremely skeptical.






Science 9 May 2014:

Vol. 344 no. 6184 pp. 603-608

DOI: 10.1126/science.1246850


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

T. Talhelm1,*, X. Zhang2,3, S. Oishi1, C. Shimin4, D. Duan2, X. Lan5, S. Kitayama5

+ Author Affiliations

1Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904, USA.

2Department of Psychology, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China.

3State Key Lab of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China.

4Department of Psychology, South China Normal University, Guangzhou, China.

5Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA.

↵*Corresponding author. E-mail:


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