Wheat and WEIRD

Photograph of wheat field under a blue sky

Challenging scientific tasks frequently require large teams comprising diverse skills, a topic often discussed in this blog. Teams such as those for the Manhattan project commandeered talented brainboxes from a large variety of scientific backgrounds and cultures. Building and managing effective teams remains a challenge as depicted in the cartoon DILBERT. A commentary and an article in Science provide insights into the different ways individuals interact and think and how that may be influenced by the culture and environment in which they grew up.

College students, all of Chinese Han background, were separated into groups based on whether they came from a wheat- or rice- growing region of China, and they were given standard psychological tests measuring analytical thinking and interpersonal relationships. Those from rice-growing regions used holistic relational answers when classifying objects, while those from wheat-growing regions gave more analytical answers. Those from rice-growing regions drew their self-representations smaller than did those from wheat-growing regions. Wheat-growing western cultures are often considered to be WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and their members tend to be highly individualized and analytical. Yes, a team needs people like that, but a successful team needs both those concerned and skilled with collective relationships and those with the skills and abilities necessary to deal with people outside of their kinship groups.

What to do with this information? When looking for new team members, ask them about their favorite breakfast cereal and what kind of farm their close or distant ancestors had. Certainly unusual interview questions. Diversity of strengths is an important goal for teams, and this provocative article is useful for both team builders and members.



Henrich, J   et al Science 344:May 9, 2014,593-4

Talhelm, T et al Science 344:May 9, 603-8.