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04/12/2014

WhyAreSomeCulturesMoreIndividualisticThanOthers?NYTimes.com

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The Opinion Pages

CONTRIBUTING OPED WRITER

Wheat People vs. Rice People


Why Are Some Cultures More Individualistic Than Others?

DEC. 3, 2014

T. M. Luhrmann

AMERICANSandEuropeansstandoutfromtherestoftheworldforour
senseofourselvesasindividuals.Weliketothinkofourselvesasunique,
autonomous,selfmotivated,selfmade.AstheanthropologistClifford
Geertzobserved,thisisapeculiaridea.
Peopleintherestoftheworldaremorelikelytounderstand
themselvesasinterwovenwithotherpeopleasinterdependent,not
independent.Insuchsocialworlds,yourgoalistofitinandadjustyourself
toothers,nottostandout.Peopleimaginethemselvesaspartofalarger
wholethreadsinaweb,notlonehorsemenonthefrontier.InAmerica,
wesaythatthesqueakywheelgetsthegrease.InJapan,peoplesaythatthe
nailthatstandsupgetshammereddown.
Thesearebroadbrushstrokes,buttheresearchdemonstratingthe
differencesisremarkablyrobustanditshowsthattheyhavefarreaching
consequences.ThesocialpsychologistRichardE.Nisbettandhiscolleagues
foundthatthesedifferentorientationstowardindependenceand
interdependenceaffectedcognitiveprocessing.Forexample,Americansare
morelikelytoignorethecontext,andAsianstoattendtoit.Showanimage
ofalargefishswimmingamongotherfishandseaweedfronds,andthe
Americanswillrememberthesinglecentralfishfirst.Thatswhatsticksin
theirminds.Japaneseviewerswillbegintheirrecallwiththebackground.
Theyllalsoremembermoreabouttheseaweedandotherobjectsinthe
scene.

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04/12/2014

WhyAreSomeCulturesMoreIndividualisticThanOthers?NYTimes.com

Anothersocialpsychologist,HazelRoseMarkus,askedpeoplearriving
atSanFranciscoInternationalAirporttofilloutasurveyandofferedthem
ahandfulofpenstouse,forexamplefourorangeandonegreenthoseof
Europeandescentmoreoftenchosetheonepenthatstoodout,whilethe
Asianschosetheonemoreliketheothers.
Dr.Markusandhercolleaguesfoundthatthesedifferencescouldaffect
health.Negativeaffectfeelingbadaboutyourselfhasbig,persistent
consequencesforyourbodyifyouareaWesterner.Thoseeffectsareless
powerfulifyouareJapanese,possiblybecausetheJapanesearemorelikely
toattributethefeelingstotheirlargersituationandnottoblame
themselves.
Theressometruthtothemodernizationhypothesisthatassocial
worldsbecomewealthier,theyalsobecomemoreindividualisticbutit
doesnotexplainthepersistentinterdependentstyleofJapan,SouthKorea
andHongKong.
InMay,thejournalSciencepublishedastudy,ledbyayoung
UniversityofVirginiapsychologist,ThomasTalhelm,thatascribedthese
differentorientationstothesocialworldscreatedbywheatfarmingandrice
farming.Riceisafinickycrop.Becausericepaddiesneedstandingwater,
theyrequirecomplexirrigationsystemsthathavetobebuiltanddrained
eachyear.Onefarmerswateruseaffectshisneighborsyield.Acommunity
ofricefarmersneedstoworktogetherintightlyintegratedways.
Notwheatfarmers.Wheatneedsonlyrainfall,notirrigation.Toplant
andharvestittakeshalfasmuchworkasricedoes,andsubstantiallyless
coordinationandcooperation.Andhistorically,Europeanshavebeenwheat
farmersandAsianshavegrownrice.
TheauthorsofthestudyinSciencearguethatoverthousandsofyears,
riceandwheatgrowingsocietiesdevelopeddistinctivecultures:Youdo
notneedtofarmriceyourselftoinheritriceculture.
TheirtestcasewasChina,wheretheYangtzeRiverdividesnorthern
wheatgrowersfromsouthernricegrowers.TheresearchersgaveHan
Chinesefromthesedifferentregionsaseriesoftasks.Theyasked,for
example,whichtwoofthesethreebelongedtogether:abus,atrainand
traintracks?Moreanalytical,contextinsensitivethinkers(thewheat

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04/12/2014

WhyAreSomeCulturesMoreIndividualisticThanOthers?NYTimes.com

growers)pairedthebusandtrain,becausetheybelongtothesameabstract
category.Moreholistic,contextsensitivethinkers(thericegrowers)paired
thetrainandtraintracks,becausetheyworktogether.
Askedtodrawtheirsocialnetworks,wheatregionsubjectsdrew
themselveslargerthantheydrewtheirfriendssubjectsfromricegrowing
regionsdrewtheirfriendslargerthanthemselves.Askedtodescribehow
theydbehaveifafriendcausedthemtolosemoneyinabusiness,subjects
fromthericeregionpunishedtheirfriendslessthansubjectsfromthe
wheatregiondid.Thoseinthewheatprovincesheldmorepatentsthosein
thericeprovinceshadalowerrateofdivorce.
IwritethisfromSiliconValley,wherethereislittlerice.Thelocal
wisdomisthatallyouneedisagarage,agoodideaandenergy,andyoucan
foundacompanythatwillchangetheworld.Theboldvisionspresentedby
entrepreneursarebreathtakingintheiroptimism,buttheyholdlittlespace
forelders,forlongstandinginstitutions,andforthedeeprootsof
communityandinterconnection.
NoristheremuchricewithintheTeaParty.SenatorTedCruz,
RepublicanofTexas,declaredrecentlythatallamanneededwasahorse,a
gunandtheopenland,andhecouldconquertheworld.
Wheatdoesntgroweverywhere.Startupswontsolveallour
problems.AlonecowboyisntmuchgoodintheaftermathofaHurricane
Katrina.Asweenteraseasoninwhichthevaluesofdoityourself
individualismarelikelytodominateourCongress,itisworthremembering
thatthiswayofthinkingmightjustbetheproductofthewayour
forefathersgrewtheirfoodandnotafundamentaltruthaboutthewaythat
allhumansflourish.
T.M.LuhrmannisaprofessorofanthropologyatStanfordandacontributing
opinionwriter.
A version of this oped appears in print on December 4, 2014, on page A31 of the New York
edition with the headline: Wheat People vs. Rice People.

2014 The New York Times Company

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