Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America ( IF 9.412 ) Pub Date : 2020-07-30 , DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1909909117 Thomas Talhelm, Alexander S. English
Data recently published in PNAS mapped out regional differences in the tightness of social norms across China [R. Y. J. Chua, K. G. Huang, M. Jin, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 116, 6720–6725 (2019)]. Norms were tighter in developed, urbanized areas and weaker in rural areas. We tested whether historical paddy rice farming has left a legacy on social norms in modern China. Premodern rice farming could plausibly create strong social norms because paddy rice relied on irrigation networks. Rice farmers coordinated their water use and kept track of each person’s labor contributions. Rice villages also established strong norms of reciprocity to cope with labor demands that were twice as high as dryland crops like wheat. In line with this theory, China’s historically rice-farming areas had tighter social norms than wheat-farming areas, even beyond differences in development and urbanization. Rice–wheat differences were just as large among people in 10 neighboring provinces (n = 3,835) along the rice–wheat border. These neighboring provinces differ sharply in rice and wheat, but little in latitude, temperature, and other potential confounding variables. Outside of China, rice farming predicted norm tightness in 32 countries around the world. Finally, people in rice-farming areas scored lower on innovative thinking, which tends to be lower in societies with tight norms. This natural test case within China might explain why East Asia—historically reliant on rice farming—has tighter social norms than the wheat-farming West.