A Question for our “Selfies”: Is Rice Nice or Wheat the Treat?

India Rice Field

Asian Rice Field 1986

Google “rice versus wheat culture” and you’ll get over 2 million hits. Although some of the hits get into food as food, the prime Google revelations are sourced in a 2014 study published by T. Talhelm of the University of Virginia and his colleagues in Science Magazine, “Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture.” The study delves into the psychology of cultural differences. The researchers’ thesis is that how the society in which our ancestors were raised produces its primary food supplies has a lot to do with the values we inherit and how we think — in particular, whether we are cooperative or individualistic and whether we tend to think analytically or holistically. Furthermore, these values and thought processes, honed over centuries into our DNA and cultural dogma, become deeply engrained in us, even if we’ve never been farmers.

Over the years, scientists have identified a series of differences between Eastern and Western cultures. When it comes to thinking styles, our Western culture seems to produce more people who are individualistic and analytical thinkers. People raised in Asiatic Eastern cultures tend to be more interdependent and holistic in their thinking processes. Westerners steeped in logic would conclude that if A is true, then “not-A” is false. Easterners are better able to accept contradiction so, for them, both A and “not-A” could be true. Talhelm and his fellow researchers sought to figure out why these differences exist, for the current hypothesis — as people become more educated and wealthier, they also become more individualistic and analytical — doesn’t hold up in Eastern cultures that actually have more per capita GDP and educated people than Europe, like Hong Kong, Korea and Japan.

The researchers appear to have found the explanation in their study of how people produce their prime food crops — in particular, rice (prevalent in the East) and wheat (prevalent in the West). Rice requires a lot of cooperation and sharing resources to produce healthy crops, whereas wheat does not. Rice paddies require a significant amount of standing water and irrigation. How one rice family handles their water has a dramatic effect on their neighbors, so people either learn to cooperate or experience aggressive disasters.

Wheat depends on rain and not standing water or irrigation and, therefore, growing wheat doesn’t require the cooperation and sharing that growing rice does. Furthermore, growing rice requires a lot more labor than growing wheat. In ancient times, a husband and wife team may have been able to plant and grow enough wheat to feed themselves, but the same wasn’t true about rice. The researchers conclude, when it came to taking care of rice fields, “Strict self-reliance might have meant starvation.” Rice fields require cooperative allocation and use of water, and cooperation in caring for the rice fields so neighbors can help each other plant, maintain and harvest each other’s fields, planted at different times.

After centuries of cooperative efforts in the rice fields, as the researchers say it, “Simply put, you do not need to farm rice yourself to inherit rice culture. … In short, the results consistently showed that participants from rice provinces [of China, where the study was done] are more holistic-thinking, interdependent, and loyal/nepotistic than participants from [China’s] wheat provinces.”

The desire of rice cultures to preserve relationships and avoid conflicts among their in-groups also results in fewer divorces. The rice-growing areas also produce less innovation and patents that the wheat-growing areas.

Of course, in the complexity of today’s life in general and human relationships in particular, the rice-wheat differences don’t provide the entire explanation of the differences between cultures, but they are particularly illuminating in how we think and how those who don’t think like us can logically think different than us. And since each of us tend to self-righteously believe our way of thinking is not only the correct way but the only way, the study should give us pause for reflection and perhaps additional understanding and tolerance — not simply in the geopolitics between the East and the West, but within our own cultures. I write “cultures” on purpose, since the United States is not simply one culture, it’s a mix of many.

Acceptance of differences and growth in tolerance and understanding are never swift. The researchers point out that Scottish and Irish herders are known for their violence from years of fighting over grazing rights even though most stopped herding years ago (we can reflect on the recent government and cattlemen conflict over grazing rights in our Western states).

The Rice-Wheat theory is just that. It’s a theory in the truest sense and more research is contemplated. But, perhaps we can hone our thoughts about Nice Rice and a Wheat Treat by skimming the titles of a handful of the many articles about the study and then sampling the articles:

The Economist: “You are what you eat – Or rather, what you grow to eat.”
Live Science: “Why East and West Don’t See Eye-to-Eye.”
South China Morning Post: “Why China’s wheat-growing north produces individualists and its rice-growing south is clannish.
The New York Times: “Why Are Some Cultures More Individualistic Than Others?
Science 2.0: “Rice Versus Wheat – Psychologists Say That Explains Why Communism is Popular in China.”
Forbes: “Sure, Rice People and Wheat People are Different, That Doesn’t Mean That Politics Need to Change.”
Scientific American: “Does Rice Farming Lead to Collectivist Thinking?”
Wall Street Journal: “Rice, Wheat and the Values They Sow.”

Each of these articles reflects a particular point of view based on a belief system that frames the facts revealed in the study, as does this blog. We can’t shake ourselves from our ingrained belief systems, but we can step outside of them to carefully explore and openly consider alternative points of view which could provide us with surprising insight and guidance. Too frequently we make our decisions as if we’re looking through the lens of a “selfie” camera. That happens when we don’t allow ourselves to venture outside the mental shackles that frame the interiors of our minds.

Our actions and our beliefs are shaped by the many factors provided to us by our genes and our experiences. When we conclude that others whose lives have been shaped by different factors are wrong we should remember that they are being as logical as we are in considering us wrong. Perhaps the concluding remarks from the Wall Street Journal can provide the right trigger for us:

“Aliens from outer space looking at the Earth in the year 1000 would never have bet that barbarian Northern Europe would become industrialized before civilized Asia. And they would surely never have guessed that eating sandwiches instead of stir-fry might make the difference.”

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Wonderlust Update: Our book Wonderlust is now complete with its 100 photos and 26 chapters of lessons learned trekking the seven continents over many years. To keep photo reproduction costs in line, our publisher, Glenbridge Publishing Ltd, is using a Korean printer and we expect the books to be in our hands late in the first quarter 2015. In the meantime, I was pleased to discuss the book and our photos on “ArtsPlus”, a program of WEDU PBS, which will be released nationally this week.

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Click on the penguin in the WEDU photo. It’s the link to the show – about 8 minutes.

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Well said, Dick.

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