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CANCELED: The Rice Theory of Culture: Subsistence May Affect Personality After All

Thomas Talhelm
Associate Professor of Behavioral Science and William Ladany Faculty Scholar, University of Chicago Booth School of Business
Date and Time: 
Friday, March 6, 2020 - 15:30

Department of Anthropology
Main Quad - Building 50
Room 51A (Colloquium Room)


This event has been canceled.

Rice is very different from wheat. Traditional paddy rice required about twice as many labor hours as wheat, which led rice farmers to set up tight labor-sharing customs. What's more, paddy rice’s irrigation networks required farmers to coordinate their water use and flood their fields at the same time. These elements gave rice villages a dense social world, with tight social ties. Across four studies, I test thousands of people’s behavior and thought style across China. Data shows that people from rice-farming areas are more interdependent and think more holistically than people from wheat-farming areas. Evidence from how people behave in Starbucks around China suggests that these differences are living on in modern China's big cities—even among the new middle class. Is this environmental determinism? I explain how rice does not have to lead to interdependence and why initial environment conditions get shuttled through human institutions.


Thomas Talhelm is an Associate Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Thomas has lived in China for six years as a Princeton in Asia fellow, as a freelance journalist, and a Fulbright scholar. He researches how rice farming made southern China more interdependent than the more freewheeling, wheat-growing north including what that means for whether people move chairs in Starbucks. He speaks Chinese and enough Hindi to ask questions but not understand the answers. While in China, Thomas founded Smart Air, a social enterprise that makes low-cost DIY air purifiers to help people protect themselves from air pollution.