BY KATIE - MYGREENPOD, 9th May '14

YOUR ANCESTORS’ FARMING PRACTICES COULD AFFECT THE WAY YOU THINK TODAY

Research published in Science explains that Americans and Europeans focus on the individual while East Asians favour a more collective vision. No major surprises there, then. But the study suggests that the psychological differences we see and recognise today may in fact be down to the agricultural practices of our ancestors.

Talhelm et al. propose that a history of farming rice makes cultures more interdependent while wheat farming encourages independence – and that the legacies we inherited from our agricultural forefathers continue to affect us today.

The north-south divide

The team began research after Talhelm, a social psychologist who taught in China for a few years, noticed behavioural differences in people from the north and south. ‘People in the north seemed more direct, while people in the south were more concerned about harmony and avoiding conflict’, he said.

To investigate why this might be the case, Talhelm’s team tested 1162 Han Chinese volunteers in six sites around the country. They were shown sets of three objects that shared a common link, such as a bus, a train and a set of tracks, as part of the research.

Those from the rice-growing southern regions of China were found to be more interdependent and holistic-thinking than participants from the wheat-growing north. While those from the rice-growing regions paired the objects according to their relationship (such as a train and tracks), volunteers from areas with a history of growing wheat made pairs based on abstract similarities (such as a train and a bus).

The Yangtze River draws a dividing line between the rice-growing south and a wheat-growing north. To control for confounds like climate, the researchers tested people from neighbouring counties along the rice-wheat border, and found differences that were just as large.

How we grow

Talhelm thinks these cognitive differences are down to the fact that farming rice requires much more cooperation and effort than wheat farming. Farmers need to work as a team to build complex irrigation systems for successful rice crops, while wheat, which can be grown independently, can be a solitary pursuit for the farmer.

Talhelm said, ‘I don’t see any other theory that explains why you find these differences between people in neighbouring counties.’

The weird thing is that the volunteers exhibiting these cultural predispositions were college students – no actual farmers took part in the tests. The researchers say that the cognitive differences could persist for generations – whether you’re a farmer or not.

Read the full research article, Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture (Talhelm et al.) on sciencemag.org.