Associate Professor Thomas Talhelm recently published a new article in PNAS, "Historically Rice-Farming Societies Have Tighter Social Norms in China and Worldwide." Talhelm, whose research explores how culture influences behavior, found the high degree of cooperation required to cultivate rice may contribute to persistent differences between social norms in Eastern and Western cultures. 

Read the full article or check out the author's summary below. 

Main Finding

We find that historically rice-farming provinces in China have tighter social norms than wheat-farming provinces.

A scatter plot showing rice-farming provinces in China tend to have tighter social norms

Why rice? Rice farming required intense cooperation to plant the crop and irrigate the fields. Rice required far more labor and coordination than other major staple crops like wheat and corn. To deal with these outsized demands, traditional rice villages developed strong social norms to make sure everyone contributed. 

This could also explain why East Asia in general--from Japan to Singapore--has tighter norms than the wheat-farming West. We replicate the findings in a global dataset. Nations that farmed rice historically have tighter norms than wheat nations and herding, "cowboy" countries.

A scatter plot showing historical subsistence style predicts tighter social norms in modern day

Implications for Society

Strong norms help societies navigate dangers (like coronavirus!), but they also hamper individual freedom and creativity. We find that rice provinces of China score lower on a measure of "innovative thinking style" and have fewer patents. But regions with tight norms have lower rates of drug abuse, less crime, and more stable marriages. 

Read the full article.