Friday, November 28, 2014

Do Chinese people get bored less easily?

Boy in a café (S. Yao, Wikicommons)


All humans were once hunter-gatherers. Back then, versatility came with the territory. There were only so many game animals, and they differed a lot in size, shape, and color. So you had to enjoy switching back and forth from one target animal to another. And you had to enjoy moving from one place to another. Sooner or later you'd have to.

Beginning 10,000 years ago, farmers made their appearance. Now monotony came with the territory. A plot of land wasn't something you could forget while you took off somewhere else. It needed constant care. The tasks were also more repetitive: ploughing, sowing, harvesting ...

Things worsened as farming became more advanced. You had to focus on one crop and a limited number of key tasks.

Different means of subsistence have selected for different mental traits, and this selection has had genetic consequences. Monotony avoidance has a heritability of 0.53 (Saudino, 1999). This predisposition has usually been a handicap in modern societies, so much so that it often leads to criminality. Males with a history of early criminal behavior tend to score high on monotony avoidance, as well as on sensation seeking and low conformity (Klinteberg et al., 1992).

Today, if you have trouble fitting into your society, you might still survive and reproduce. In the past, you probably wouldn’t. Other people would take your place in the gene pool and, over successive generations, their mental makeup would become the norm.

That’s gene-culture co-evolution. We have reshaped the world we live in, and this human-made world has reshaped us. After describing how our ancestors radically changed their environment, Razib goes on to write: "We were the authors of those changes, but in the process of telling that story, we became protagonists within it" (Khan, 2014).

China: a case study

Advanced farming—intensive land use, task specialization, monoculture—has profoundly shaped East Asian societies, particularly China. This is particularly so for rice farming. Because the paddies need standing water, rice farmers must work collectively to build, dredge, and drain elaborate irrigation networks. Wheat farming, by comparison, requires no irrigation and only half as much work.

Advanced farming seems to have favored a special package of predispositions and inclinations, including greater acceptance of monotony. This has been shown in two recent studies.

The first one was about boredom and how people experience it in their lives. The results from the 775 Chinese participants were then compared with the results from a previous survey of 572 Euro-Canadians. It was found that the Chinese participants were less likely to feel bored in comparable situations. They seemed to value low-arousal (calm, relaxation) versus high arousal (excitement, elation) in the case of Euro-Canadians (Ng et al., 2014). 

The authors attributed their findings to cultural learning. One may wonder, however, why preference for low arousal persists in the face of China’s massive influx of high-arousal Western culture.

Relational thinking, collectivism, and favoritism

The second study had the aim of seeing whether the sociological differences between rice farmers and wheat farmers have led to differences in mental makeup. When 1,162 Han Chinese performed a series of mental tasks, the results differed according to whether the participants came from rice-farming regions or wheat-farming regions (Talhelm et al., 2014).

When shown a list of three items, such as “train”, “bus”, and “tracks”, and told to choose two items that pair together, people from rice-farming regions tended to choose "train and tracks," whereas people from wheat-farming regions tended to choose "train and bus." The former seemed to be more relational in their thinking and the latter more abstract. This pattern held up even in neighboring counties along China's rice-wheat border. People from the rice side of the border thought more relationally than did people from the wheat side.

A second task required drawing pictures of yourself and your friends. In a prior study, Americans drew themselves about 6 mm bigger than they drew their friends, Europeans drew themselves 3.5 mm bigger, and Japanese drew themselves slightly smaller. In the present study, people from rice regions were more likely than people from wheat regions to draw themselves smaller than they drew their friends. On average, people from wheat regions self-inflated 1.5 mm, and people from rice regions self-deflated -0.03 mm.

A third task required imagining yourself doing business with (i) an honest friend, (ii) a dishonest friend, (iii) an honest stranger, and (iv) a dishonest stranger. This person might lie, causing you to lose money. Or this person might be honest, causing you to make money. You could reward or punish this person accordingly. A previous study found that Singaporeans rewarded friends much more than they punished them. Americans were much more likely to punish friends for bad behavior. In this study, people from rice regions were more likely to remain loyal to friends regardless.

Interestingly, these findings came from people with no connection to farming at all. They grew up in a modern urban society, and most were too young to have known the China that existed before the economic reforms of the late 1970s.  It looks like rice regions have favored hardwiring of certain psychological traits: less abstract thinking and more relational thinking, less individualism and more collectivism, and less impartiality toward strangers and more favoritism toward kin and friends.

Why farming sucks, for you but not for me

These findings corroborate the ethnographic literature on the differences in mentality between hunter-gatherers and farmers. Hunter-gatherers typically see farming as a kind of slavery, and they have trouble understanding well-meaning outsiders who want to turn them into land-slaves.

Yes, for the same land area, farming can produce much more food. But it's hard work, not only physically but mentally as well. Humans had to undergo a change in mentality before they could make the transition from hunting and gathering to farming

Those humans ended up transforming not just their physical landscape but also their social and cultural landscape … and ultimately themselves. By creating new values and social relations, they changed the rules for survival and reproduction, thereby changing the sort of mentality that future generations would inherit.

Humans transformed the world through farming, and the world returned the favor.


Khan, R. (2014). Our cats, ourselves, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, November 24

Klinteberg, B., K. Humble, and D. Schalling. (1992). Personality and psychopathy of males with a history of early criminal behaviour, European Journal of Personality, 6(4), 245-266.
Ng, A.H., Y. Liu, J-Z. Chen, and J.D. Eastwood. (2014). Culture and state boredom: A comparison between European Canadians and Chinese, Personality and Individual Differences, 75, 13-18.
Saudino, K.J., J.R. Gagne, J. Grant, A. Ibatoulina, T. Marytuina, I. Ravich-Scherbo, and K. Whitfield. (1999). Genetic and environmental influences on personality in adult Russian twins, International Journal of Behavioral Development, 23, 375-389.
Talhelm, T., X. Zhang, S. Oishi, C. Shimin, D. Duan, X. Lan, and S. Kitayama. (2014). Large-scale psychological differences within China explained by rice versus wheat agriculture, Science, 344, 603-607.


RH said...

Fascinating. I've got a Korean girlfriend, and it's incredible how easily she deals with boredom. I'll leave her alone for half an hour to take a shower, and come back and she's pretty much just staring at the wall when I come back. If I have to wait for someoneI reach for the nearest gadget until they're done..

Anonymous said...

Is there more data on this? Brain scans, adhd epidemiology, etc. There's also a risk of false diagnoses. Attention disorders are very poorly diagnosed and often overdiagnosed.

You're degenerating into a typical HBD-blogger. You're making all sorts of interesting speculations from already existing data. Like J and S who quite often cherry pick incidents to fit their data. The issue of variation in boredom is pretty complicated to approach from a 'simple' hbd perspective. Basically everything can be fitted into the hbd viewpoint according to hbd-ers.

Sean said...

Sociable hunter gathers. Much of what are believed to be physical signs of human 'domestication' seems to have appeared in Europe in the transition from the hulking Cro-magnons to the sveltely reduced Magdelenian people of the last glacial maximum.

As with the hypothesis of guilt at not cooperating stemming from selection among Mesolithic coastal forager communities (along the same coast that later happened to have the world's first modern societies) it seem the cloven hoof of group selection is making an appearance in this post. (A sceptical reviewer says "For the time being, however, individual-level theories seem to outshine group selection when it comes to illuminating human biological adaptations for cooperation.")

Individualists would cooperate out of fear of shame, which maybe is not real group selection at all? Chinese are known to be averse to loosing face, groups would be less flexible for running on shame instead of guilt, and so less able to get a trust economy off the launch pad. The people who did, the Dutch (from that aforementioned north European coast) really transformed China into an economically and demographically booming state in the late 17th century. China was soon importing rice from Vietnam.

The Chinese exam system may have been responsible for some of their characteristics. Would the Vietnamese be an even better example of how rice farming makes for cohesive groups? You can't get a better test of group selection than war, and the Vietnamese have proved throughout history to be formidable soldiers in wars of national resistance.

Anonymous said...

more recently barbarian

Sean said...

The Dopamine D4 Receptor Gene (DRD4) Moderates Cultural Difference in Independent Versus Interdependent Social Orientation " As in earlier work, European Americans were more independent, and Asian-born Asians more interdependent. This cultural difference was significantly more pronounced for carriers of the 7- or 2-repeat alleles than for noncarriers. Indeed, no cultural difference was apparent among the noncarriers.."

As far as I can gather the 7R allele that is implicated in sensation seeking behaviour (including interracial mating) and ADD/ADHD in Europeans is very rare in Chinese. It is the 2-repeat alleles that is commonly found in East Asians with ADD/ADHD. It's weird indeed that they seem have their own allele for being easily bored.

spagetiMeatball said...

So do other wheat-farming groups like iranians, north indians, and central asians show similar characteristics to europeans?

Anonymous said...

Sean, I looked up the M woman and was surprised how beautiful she is. I went to the site of the lady who does the facial reconstructions, and I was surprised how beautiful she is too. Anyway - there is a reconstruction of a woman 30,000ya and she looks European too; I had no idea, with all the talk of skeletons and SNPs, that people looked European so long ago.

Anonymous said...

If independent thinking is genetic, maybe there is a pathway which is triggered by social interaction. So the girl on the bed is in a state of not being triggered whereas the boy with the gadget doesn't need the social trigger.

I find it curious that one of the main preoccupations of Europeans is the detective story. And 'the detective' is mostly a social misfit or loner; a maverick who pursues his/er own moral principles before deference to authority.

Peter Fros_ said...


Yes, this seems to tie in with other research, especially on infants. East Asians tend to be less fidgety and more at home with low-arousal situations.


Yes, we have more data. You might want to read Freedman's research on Chinese-American and European-American newborns, which showed differences in temperament between the two groups even in infancy. The Chinese-American newborns cried less easily and were more easily consoled. They could also adapt to almost any position they were laid in.

See “Ethnic differences in babies” – Daniel G. Freedman

Many of my posts are reviews of recent studies. There are other studies I could have mentioned, like Freedman's research and the work on dopamine receptors (see Sean's comment). That would have been a much longer post, and I assumed (wrongly it seems) that my readers were already familiar with these other studies.


Thanks for the references! The mental makeup that prevails in East Asia is probably a result of many different selection pressures, i.e., rice farming, intensive agriculture, the imperial exam system, etc. There is no common theoretical framework other than gene-culture co-evolution and, more broadly, evolution by natural selection.


Similar probably in the sense of being more egocentric. It's hard to generalize too much because there have been other selection pressures besides the mode of subsistence.


Interesting. I believe John Derbyshire has written about differences in literary genres between China and Europe.

Erwin Schmidt said...

I have no access to the full article, but maybe it is of interest: Oxytocin Receptor and Vasopressin receptor 1a genes are respectively associated with emotional and cognitive empathy
(Hormones and Behavior, Dec 2014)

Panda@War said...

"The people who did, the Dutch (from that aforementioned north European coast) really transformed China into an economically and demographically booming state in the late 17th century. China was soon importing rice from Vietnam."

(Sean siad, November 28, 2014 at 4:58:00 PM GMT-5)

I don't get this joke. Care to explain?


"The Chinese exam system may have been responsible for some of their characteristics. Would the Vietnamese be an even better example of how rice farming makes for cohesive groups? You can't get a better test of group selection than war, and the Vietnamese have proved throughout history to be formidable soldiers in wars of national resistance."
(Sean said, November 28, 2014 at 4:58:00 PM GMT-5)

It seems that you have no much clue about whom are "Vietnamese".

There were no "Vietnamese" previously, which is a modern name.

1. If you mark the start of China's Qin Dynasty as the start of unified China in history, then current Northern Vietnam was part of China since the very start, populated by the Han Chinese. The First Emporer of China had set up countyship there called "Jiao Zhi County"( translate literally "the cross of the toes County". That the souhtern end of China at a time.

As time moved on, most of these Han Chinese in Northern Vietnam have inbreeded with the indigenous people from Southern Vietnam , creating "Vietnamese", and hence "Vietnamese nationalism" and "fighting spirit" maninly thank to their partial Han Chinese blood -particularly in the North.

2. Throughtout history, there has been no single "Vietnam", but always (till today) 2 Vietnames : the North and the South, in almost every way. The North has significantly heavier Han Chinese blood running, with the South significantly lesser. The Northen part of Vietnam has been the intellectual centre of the whole region, contributing the lion share of Vietnam's elites). Nowadays you frenquenly see Vietnam ace Internatial Maths Olympiad , or int'l competitions like PISA 2012 ahead of Germany even. You now should know why - because of the involvement of the north.

3. Above is the fundamental reason why at the start of the Vietnam War, China warned the US never to corss the 17th parallel (lat. 17°N) of Vietnam or else, because China/Chinese have always deemed the north of the 17th parallel has been traditionally (culturally, ethnicly, etc) sort of half-"Chinese".

[ Actually from the historical point of view, the similar fits the Northen part of Korea as well- i.e. Northern part of Korea was a part of imperial China almost since the very start, and there had been 4 official counties there set up by the Imperial China central govt 2,000 year ago, heavily populated by the Han Chinese, together with later waves of migrations trying to avoid wars in Northern China noteablely at the end of 17th centry. Later, these Han Chinese interbreeded with much more numerous indigenious people of the southern part of Korea peninsula creating today "Koreans"]

So already having the lesson learned from the earlier Korean War, the US troops got the Chinese signal and did not get across the 17th parallel during the entire Vietnam War, not even once.

4. BTW, despite of several half-hearted attempts in the 2,000 years for imperial China to try to *recover* (note that not "invade") its former area of northern Vietnam, China has been never determined to do so, even in the recent encounter in 1979, just called it "to teach them a lesson".

5. The modern China (PRC) only participated (sending troops) foreign war twice since 1949. One was Korean War (sending troops to Northern Korea), the other was Vietnam War (sending massive logistics support to Northern Vietnam - north of the 17th parallel). Now I guess it won't take a genius for the West to understand why so.

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zaglossus said...

I think that not getting easily bored could actually be a sign of a person having a great wealth of inner resources to keep one occupied without the need for much external stimulation, although certainly there are certainly some number of individuals on the low end of the IQ average who aren't susceptible to boredom precisely because there is so little going on in their minds.
Conversely, while it is true that susceptibility to boredom can mean that someone is filled with intellectual curiosity that must be sated, it can also just as easily be a sign that someone is so poor of imagination that they require constant stimulation lest they become impulsive and disruptive.
So I think that high IQ can be related to boredom in multiple ways that are mediated by overall temperament.