The Rice Theory: Manspreading and What Happened When China Randomly Assigned People to Farm Rice and Wheat

Monday, Oct. 16, 2023 (3:30 PM – 5:00 PM)

Thomas Talhelm

University of Chicago

The rice theory is the idea traditional rice farming’s labor and irrigation demands made rice-farming cultures more interdependent cultures. Thomas Talhelm will present data showing that northern and southern China have cultural differences that fall along the historical borders of rice and wheat. And since most of East Asia was built on rice farming, rice could help explain larger East-West cultural differences. In this talk, he’ll show new data on manspreading around the world. He and his team coded how much space 7,000 people were taking up in Starbucks in nine countries. He will also build from the cartoonish kindergarten version of the rice theory (rice = collectivism!) to a slightly more realistic undergrad version. The undergrad version of the theory can explain puzzles like why China’s wheat-farming north is still so different from wheat-farming Western Europe and why China’s most fertile farming regions were the last to start farming.

Thomas Talhelm is an Associate Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He researches the agricultural roots of cultural differences and how people (researchers!) get collectivism wrong. Thomas has lived in China for seven years as a Princeton in Asia Fellow, a freelance journalist, and a Fulbright scholar. When he should have been writing his dissertation, he founded a social enterprise called Smart Air, which makes low-cost, open-data-backed air purifiers to help people in China and India protect themselves from air pollution. 

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