People of all ideological stripes have one thing in common: Their beliefs feel instinctively right. Of course we're all dependent on one another; that's why we need a social safety net. Or, we're obviously independent beings; the best thing government can do is get off our backs.
Where do these deep-seated beliefs come from? Genetics, family, and even birth order have been cited, but learned cultural norms may play the biggest role of all. And new research from China suggests these can emerge from the farming practices of our ancient ancestors.
In a newly published study, a research team led by Thomas Talhlem of the University of Chicago provides evidence supporting this idea. It finds that, Western stereotypes aside, China is far from monolithic.
The researchers report the culture of southern China—essentially, the area south of the Yangtze River—is based on interdependence and holistic thinking, while that of northern China emphasizes independence and individualism, much like the United States. They argue this reflects a difference in the predominant agricultural crop: wheat in the north, rice in the south.
"Rice paddy farming often requires irrigation systems that multiple families have to coordinate," they write in the journal Science Advances. The labor-intensive nature of such farming created "customs of exchanging labor," they add. "Over time, this may have pushed rice cultures to develop a more interdependent culture."
In 2014, Talhelm and his colleagues conducted laboratory experiments with Chinese students that suggest that this mindset—as well as its opposite, which is embodied by northerners—still lingers today. This new research provides evidence that it impacts adults' everyday behaviors.
In the first of two studies, they surveyed cafés in six cities—two in traditional wheat-growing regions, and four in traditional rice-growing regions—and noted the percentage of people who were there by themselves. "Doing things alone is more common in individualistic cultures," they note.
They observed nearly 9,000 people in 256 establishments, being careful to stay away from tourist-heavy areas. "People in rice regions were less likely to be alone," they report. "On weekdays, roughly 10 percent more people were alone in the wheat region than the rice region."
For the second study, "we pushed chairs together in Starbucks and observed how many people moved the chairs out of their way, and how many moved their body to squeeze through the chairs."
"If people in rice areas are more collectivistic, with less importance placed on the self, they should be less likely to move the chairs," the researchers reasoned.
And, after observing the actions of 678 people, that's just what they found.
"In the rice region, about 6 percent of people moved the chair," they report, "whereas in the wheat region, 16 percent of people moved the chair."
It's particularly interesting that one of the "rice cities" is Hong Kong, which was ruled by Great Britain for many decades, and modernized ahead of the rest of China. The fact the interdependence-oriented culture persists there, in spite of prolonged Western influence, suggests it is deep-rooted indeed.
While it's tempting to apply these ideas to the U.S.—and specifically the "rugged individualism" of the don't-tread-on-me Rocky Mountain West—caution is in order. These norms presumably formed over centuries—perhaps millennia; the U.S. is obviously a much younger society.
Nevertheless, these findings are important in two ways. They shatter some stereotypes about China, a nation we need to understand better as it rises as a rival superpower.
And they remind us that, however self-evident they may appear, our basic assumptions and habits—from which our political ideologies emerge—may have been shaped long before we were born.
If we want to critically examine the roots of our thinking, it might help to consider the roots of our ancestors' farms.