You grow gehu (wheat), I grow arisi (rice). Distilled, that is the essence of India’s great north-south divide. It is because of this, a US psychologist tells me, that the northerner is a volatile individualist, prone to direct thought and action, at least in comparison to the southerner, who is likely to be more given to reflection and cooperation and think more holistically. Although there are numerous exceptions that disprove the stereotype—and migration and modern ways of living have dispelled some traditions—there appears to be truth to the typecasting.

Thomas Talhelm, a social psychologist and PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, says unpublished data he gathered over 2012-13 in India mirrors his findings in China—published last week in the journal Science—of significant cultural differences between wheat- and rice-growing cultures.

“People in the wheat parts of India were more likely to think analytically and punish their friends for bad behaviour," Talhem told me in an email interview. “People in the rice parts of India were more likely to think holistically and not punish their friends for bad behaviour."

Tolhelm’s tests in India used what is called the triad task, using three measures to compare people’s thoughts and their loyalty towards friends. He found more differences among northerners and southerners in India than he did in China, one likely cause being India’s greater diversity.

In the Science study, Tolhelm concludes that rice and wheat agriculture has given China distinct cultures and cultural psychologies; the northern wheat-growers think more like Westerners, and southern rice-growers more like East Asians, also rice cultures.

Agricultural practices for each crop dictate these differences. Rice farming requires double the effort than wheat—or corn, millets or soybean—more labour and more cooperation to bring water from dykes and canals to inter-linked fields. Wheat relies on rain, the fields stand alone and allow farmers more independence.

So, is there truth in stereotypes? “My answer is yes," says Tolhem. “Now, stereotypes can be harmful if they cause us to dislike people or if we assume that all people in an area are the same." There is, he adds, plenty of variation between individuals.

The idea that Easterners and Westerners perceive, interpret, act and remember has frequently been researched. Some cultures stress independence, others interdependence.

In his 2003 book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why, University of Michigan psychology professor Richard Nisbett writes that an ancient gulf survives between the children of Aristotle and the children of Confucius.

In 1996, a computer mathematics test of Asian and Euro-American fifth-grade students by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, professors at Columbia and Stanford, showed how this worked. In the test, one group of students was offered half-dozen trivial choices, such as choosing icons. Another group was given no choice but provided with the same icons. The choices were irrelevant, but when allowed such choices, Euro-American children attempted challenging problems, were more engaged and said they liked mathematics.

People from cultures stressing independence tend to be more influenced by their own behaviour, while cultures stressing interdependence tend to be influenced by the behaviour of their peers, write Iyengar and Columbia business school colleague Joel Brockner in the chapter of a 2001 book The Practice of Social Influence in Multiple Cultures. If Easterners talk of fate and duty, as Confucius did, the westerner talks of freedom and liberty, as Patrick Henry did.

Nisbett disputed the notion that every human being uses the same tools for perception, memory and reasoning, regardless of nationality, skin colour or religion. His research—conducted by displaying images—showed that while Westerners tend to concentrate on the main point, Easterners (from East Asia) absorbed the whole picture, which returns to Talhem’s point about thinking holistically.

Extrapolate the lessons of cultural studies focused on cognition and behaviour and many eastern-western divides are explained. The social context of these differences is individualism and collectivism, which is perhaps why Easterners tend to be more family oriented.

The caveat—always—that there is never a universal truth, especially not in a world where cultures tend to mix. So, while it appears there is truth to some stereotypes, modern life and the choices it allows could eventually change everything.

“The making of significant life choices by default has been changing…nowadays anything is possible, everything is up for grabs," writes psychologist Barry Schwarztz in a 1987 book called The Battle for Human Nature: Science, Morality and Modern Life. The book’s subject, Schwartz says, is rational economic man, a concept whose construction began about three centuries ago in the West. In the great spread of time and culture, it is a new invention, a modern path, substantially divorced from old ways of cultural belonging. As the research of Talhelm and others before him indicates, this path is still unformed, especially in the emerging world. For now, it is a good idea to look closely at stereotypes.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology.

Comments are welcome at frontiermail@livemint.com. To read Samar Halarnkar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/frontiermail

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