In China, traits related to traditional rice or wheat farming affect modern behavior


Credit: Carla Schaffer / AAAS

After observing the behaviors of customers in cafes in several modern Chinese cities, researchers report that people from rice-growing regions – many of whom aren't involved in farming at all – showed interdependent behaviors, like sitting in groups or squeezing themselves through narrowly placed chairs, whereas people from wheat-growing regions (again, many of whom didn't farm) more often displayed individualistic behaviors, sitting alone or actively moving chairs that blocked their way. These behavioral differences among customers provide the first evidence that historical rice versus wheat cultural differences extend into modern life, the authors say, and they challenge the modernization theory of culture, which suggests that as countries become wealthy, modernized, and urbanized, people in those cultures become more individualistic and more Western. Here, say the authors, people's farming legacies seemed more important than factors like wealth, in explaining their everyday behavior.

For thousands of years, people in northern China grew wheat, while people in southern China farmed paddy rice. Rice farmers often shared labor and coordinated irrigation, which likely resulted in an interdependent culture – something not common in wheat-growing regions, where farmers were more individualistic. To evaluate whether behaviors indicative of rice versus wheat cultures persist in culture today, Thomas Talhelm and colleagues observed customers in Starbucks in six modern Chinese cities, including Hong Kong. They first counted the number of people sitting alone in each café, and found that out of the 8,964 people observed across 256 cafes, most customers in rice-growing regions were less likely to sit alone. Additionally, the authors placed chairs in aisles to observe how people responded: moving the self to squeeze around the chair, showing a willingness to adjust to their environment, or moving the chair out of the way, in an attempt to control the environment. A total of 678 people in five cities walked through this "chair experiment" and people in rice-growing regions were less likely to move the chair. Among other findings, customers in the wealthier cities – more Westernized and thus thought more in-line with wheat-growing cultures – were in fact less individualistic. According to Talhelm and colleagues, their study shows evidence of historical cultures as being at the root of meaningful regional differences in people's current behavior in everyday life.


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Thomas Talhelm
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