We are what we eat

Rice or wheat? The choice may be more than a matter of taste. It can even determine our personality. According to some studies, people from rice-growing areas are more interdependent, social and have holistic cognitive styles, whereas people from wheat-growing areas are more independent and analytical.

People from northern and southern China, regions divided by the Yangtze river, show psychological differences. Southern China has grown rice for thousands of years whereas north has grown wheat, and research suggests this agricultural divide could have fostered interdependent and holistic culture in south.

When it comes to the East and the West, rice is the staple for the former and wheat for the latter. The psychological differences the people from the East and the West so are because of what Thomas Talhelm, a prominent researcher, calls “Rice Theory”. It mirrors the differences between East Asian countries and the West. It suggests that the long lost farmers are still continuing to affect the people of modern world. One doesn’t need to farm rice to inherit rice culture.

Before modern technology was developed, farming rice needed much cooperation among people than farming wheat. Rice farming is labour intensive. Rice is grown in irrigated land, requiring the sharing of water and building dikes and canals that constantly require maintenance. Rice farmers must work together to develop and maintain such infrastructure. This could have led to interdependence cooperation among villagers. Wheat farming, by contrast, takes about half the amount of work as that of rice farming and depends on rainfall rather than irrigation. So, western farmers focused on their own crop which helps in leading to more “individualistic” mindset.

One may argue that the West is more developed than East Asia and people from developed societies are inherently individualistic. While this is true to some extent, the rice theory still holds true as people from developed wealthy economies in Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Of course, rice and wheat farming may not explain everything. But the rice theory does provide some insight into why rice growing regions of East Asia are more collectivist and social than the West, even with their wealth and modernisation. Nonetheless, we can say “we are what we eat” or, rather, “what we grow to eat”.