Culture and psychology: You are what you eat; Or, rather, what you grow to eat

Culture and psychology: You are what you eat; Or, rather, what you grow to eat

May 10th 2014 | From the print edition

THAT orientals and occidentals think in different ways is not mere prejudice. Many psychological studies conducted over the past two decades suggest Westerners have a more individualistic, analytic and abstract mental life than do East Asians. Several hypotheses have been put forward to explain this.

One, that modernisation promotes individualism, falls at the first hurdle: Japan, an ultra-modern country whose people have retained a collective outlook. A second, that a higher prevalence of infectious disease in a place makes contact with strangers more dangerous, and causes groups to turn inward, is hardly better. Europe has had its share of plagues; probably more that either Japan or Korea. And though southern China is notoriously a source of infection (influenza pandemics often start there), this is not true of other parts of that enormous country.

That led Thomas Talhelm of the University of Virginia and his colleagues to look into a third suggestion: that the crucial difference is agricultural. The West’s staple is wheat; the East’s, rice (see article). Before the mechanisation of agriculture a farmer who grew rice had to expend twice as many hours doing so as one who grew wheat. To deploy labour efficiently, especially at times of planting and harvesting, rice-growing societies as far apart as India, Malaysia and Japan all developed co-operative labour exchanges which let neighbours stagger their farms’ schedules in order to assist each other during these crucial periods. Since, until recently, almost everyone alive was a farmer, it is a reasonable hypothesis that such a collective outlook would dominate a society’s culture and behaviour, and might prove so deep-rooted that even now, when most people earn their living in other ways, it helps to define their lives.

Mr Talhelm realised that this idea is testable. Large swathes of China, particularly in the north, depend not on rice, but on wheat. That, as he explains in a paper in Science, let him and his team put some flesh on this theory’s bones.

The team gathered almost 1,200 volunteers from all over China and asked them questions to assess their individualism or collectivism. The answers bore little relation to the wealth of a volunteer’s place of origin, which Mr Talhelm saw as a proxy for how modern it was, or to its level of public health. There was a striking correlation, though, with whether it was a rice-growing or a wheat-growing area. This difference was marked even between people from neighbouring counties with different agricultural traditions. His hypothesis that the different psychologies of East and West are, at least in part, a consequence of their agriculture thus looks worth further exploration. And such exploration is possible—for India, too, has rice-growing and wheat-growing regions.

How resilient Asia’s collectivist cultures will be as they lose their rural roots remains to be seen. But the message from Japan, and also from more recently modernised places such as Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, seems to be “quite resilient”. For some, Asian values—with their tenets of solidarity and collective action—are cause for celebration. For others, they are stifling and a barrier to social progress. But whichever side you take, if Mr Talhelm is correct they are only “Asian” because, back in the neolithic, farmers in many parts of that continent found Oryza a more congenial crop to grow than Triticum.



About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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