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Proven: Culture is ingrained

- Study finds differences between eaters of rice and wheat

New Delhi, May 8: Scientists have discovered psychological differences between people in rice-growing and wheat-growing regions of China that they say could also explain certain cultural differences between similar populations in India.

The study by American and Chinese scientists suggests that people in rice-growing provinces in southern China show higher levels of holistic thinking and loyalty to friends or relatives and appear less prone to conflict than people in the northern wheat provinces.

The psychological differences between the populations in the two regions provide the first evidence for the theory that growing rice or wheat leads to different cultures that could persist for generations even among individuals who are not farmers.

“Rice is an important source of human culture,” Thomas Talhelm, a psychologist and research scholar at the University of Virginia in the US and first author of the study, told The Telegraph. The study’s findings will appear in the US journal Science tomorrow.

Talhelm and his colleagues used China to test the theory that differences in the way rice and wheat have to be planted and harvested will be reflected in cultures. Farmers who cultivate rice need to cooperate with neighbours to coordinate flooding and dredging of paddy fields. Cultivating wheat takes only about half as much effort as rice — and the lighter burden of wheat allows farmers to look after their own plots without relying on neighbours.

“Rice agriculture provides a disincentive for conflict,” said Talhelm. This, the scientists believe, makes people in rice cultures avoid conflict, while people in wheat cultures can afford to be individualistic and less resistant to conflict.

The Chinese-US research team offered a set of psychological tests to 1,162 Chinese college students from the wheat-growing north and the rice-growing south who volunteered for the study aimed at measuring and comparing psychological traits in the two populations.

They found that the participants from the south were more interdependent and holistic in their thinking and displayed higher levels of loyalty than those from the north. Such psychological traits, Talhelm said, may be interpreted as positive or negative depending on the contexts.

“People who score high on interdependence are more likely to help relatives in financial difficulty — this would be a positive outcome. But we also know that priming people with collectivism increases their willingness to offer bribes — a negative outcome,” Talhelm said.

Social scientists have for decades tried to explain cultural differences through factors such as modernisation. Western cultures have been labelled as more individualistic and analytical and eastern cultures as more inter-dependent and holistic.

But the new study suggests that the rice culture can explain the psychological differences better than modernisation. The wheat-growing north in China appeared more like the West with greater levels of analytical thinking and individualism.

The scientists also found differences in divorce rates — the rice-growing south had lower divorce rates over the past decade than the wheat-growing north. “The conflict-avoidance in the rice cultures may be showing up as lower divorce rates,” Talhelm said.

The researchers said their findings could also apply to similar populations elsewhere — such as rice-growing Bengali, Bihari and Odia cultures in India’s east and the wheat-growing Punjabi cultures in the northwest.

“These findings don’t surprise me,” Vinay Srivastava, professor of social anthropology and head of the department of anthropology at the University of Delhi who was not associated with the study, said.

“The way people live and feed themselves can influence their social organisation and their cultural characteristics,” Srivastava said.

And sections of social anthropologists have argued that culture can in some ways influence psychological traits.


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