Wheat vs. Rice

What follows is an article about cultural differences between cultures, hypothesizing on a connection between how we think or ourselves and relate to others, and the crops we grow  (Wheat vs. Rice).

M.K.Gleason

Wheat vs. Rice: Teamwork, health and cultural inclusiveness could have to do with the crops we grow                 by Nicole Oran       From MedCity News December 4, 2014

Americans and Europeans have a history of growing wheat, as opposed to countries in Asia which primarily grow rice. But what does that have to do with our health, our self-image and how we think about community?

Americans in particular like to think of themselves as autonomous, independent, and this is actually a unique trait compared to other parts of the world, according to anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

In other areas of the world, people consider themselves to be interdependent, interwoven with others, not lone wolves out on the frontier determined to be unique and self-sufficient. There is a better understanding in places like Japan that we must rely on each other, not to be above and beyond the masses.

The social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett and his colleagues found that these different orientations toward independence and interdependence affected cognitive processing. For example, Americans are more likely to ignore the context, and Asians to attend to it. Show an image of a large fish swimming among other fish and seaweed fronds, and the Americans will remember the single central fish first. That’s what sticks in their minds. Japanese viewers will begin their recall with the background. They’ll also remember more about the seaweed and other objects in the scene.

Another social psychologist, Hazel Rose Markus, asked people arriving at San Francisco International Airport to fill out a survey and offered them a handful of pens to use, for example four orange and one green; those of European descent more often chose the one pen that stood out, while the Asians chose the one more like the others.

So how does this affect our health? Well it seems that when we create such a strong desire for independence, we end up blaming our selves for things and feeling bad about ourselves more frequently, which has a negative impact on our health – and this is more typical in Westerners.

The idea of the culture behind growing wheat or rice has something to do with the phenomenon, it seems.

In May, the journal Science published a study, led by a young University of Virginia psychologist, Thomas Talhelm, that ascribed these different orientations to the social worlds created by wheat farming and rice farming. Rice is a finicky crop. Because rice paddies need standing water, they require complex irrigation systems that have to be built and drained each year. One farmer’s water use affects his neighbor’s yield. A community of rice farmers needs to work together in tightly integrated ways.

Not wheat farmers. Wheat needs only rainfall, not irrigation. To plant and harvest it takes half as much work as rice does, and substantially less coordination and cooperation. And historically, Europeans have been wheat farmers and Asians have grown rice.

This idea of the work, effort and teamwork behind either crop translates over into how we observe each other and how we think about our individual place within a community and a culture.

Their test case was China, where the Yangtze River divides northern wheat growers from southern rice growers. The researchers gave Han Chinese from these different regions a series of tasks. They asked, for example, which two of these three belonged together: a bus, a train and train tracks? More analytical, context-insensitive thinkers (the wheat growers) paired the bus and train, because they belong to the same abstract category. More holistic, context-sensitive thinkers (the rice growers) paired the train and train tracks, because they work together.

Asked to draw their social networks, wheat-region subjects drew themselves larger than they drew their friends; subjects from rice-growing regions drew their friends larger than themselves. Asked to describe how they’d behave if a friend caused them to lose money in a business, subjects from the rice region punished their friends less than subjects from the wheat region did. Those in the wheat provinces held more patents; those in the rice provinces had a lower rate of divorce.

Clearly in Western society these attributes seem to be pretty rooted, and we certainly aren’t going to swap out our wheat crops for rice anytime soon, but it does seem to be important to have some introspection into how we all play into these mentalities, how we fall victim to social understandings that could actually be doing us harm. Observation of our own tendencies are a step in the right direction, at least.

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Posted on December 8, 2014, in Publications of Interest. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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