Faculty & Research

Thomas Talhelm

Thomas Talhelm

Associate Professor of Behavioral Science

Thomas Talhelm studies how culture affects the way we behave. He studies how rice and wheat agriculture have given northern and southern China two very different cultures, even influencing whether people move chairs in Starbucks. His research also finds that liberal culture in the US is more individualistic and that getting people to think more analytically increases support for liberal social policies, whereas thinking holistically increases support for conservative policies. Thomas occasionally lectures and writes about research and culture in Chinese.

Thomas lived in China for five years teaching high school in Guangzhou as a Princeton in Asia fellow, a freelance journalist in Beijing, and a Fulbright scholar and a NSF Graduate Research Fellow. While living in Beijing, Thomas founded Smart Air, a social enterprise that ships low-cost air purifiers to help people breathe clean air without shelling out thousands of dollars for expensive purifiers.

Thomas earned his Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Virginia and a B.A. with Highest Honors in psychology and Spanish from the University of Michigan.

Professor Talhelm is recruiting PhD students. Students interested in culture, politics, and social ecology should apply.


2020 - 2021 Course Schedule

Number Title Quarter
38103 Strategies and Processes of Negotiation 2020  (Autumn)

New: Historically Rice-Farming Societies Have Tighter Social Norms in China and Worldwide
Date Posted: Sep  15, 2020
Data recently published in PNAS mapped out regional differences in the tightness of social norms across China. 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. Pre-modern 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 dry-land 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, ...

New: Emerging Evidence of Cultural Differences Linked to Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture
Date Posted: Jul  11, 2019
Roughly 4 billion people live in cultures with a legacy of rice farm. Recent studies find that rice cultures are more interdependent than herding cultures and wheat-farming cultures. In China, people from rice-farming areas think more holistically and show less implicit individualism than people from wheat-farming areas. These differences are mirrored in micro-level comparisons of neighboring counties differ in rice versus wheat. Research has also found evidence of cultural differences based on rice farming within Japan and around the world. However, we know little about the mechanism of how rice culture is transmitted in the modern world. More research is needed on the mechanisms, as well as other subsistence styles, such as corn farming and cash crops like sugar.

New: Ingroup Vigilance in Collectivistic Cultures
Date Posted: Jul  05, 2019
Collectivistic cultures have been characterized as having harmonious, cooperative ingroup relationships. Yet we find evidence that people in collectivistic cultures are more vigilant toward ingroup members, mindful of their possible unethical intentions. Study 1 found that Chinese participants were more vigilant than Americans in within-group competitions, anticipating more unethical behaviors from their peers. Study 2 replicated this finding by comparing areas within China, finding that people from China’s collectivistic rice-farming regions exhibit greater ingroup vigilance than people from the less collectivistic wheat-farming regions. The rice-wheat difference was mediated by greater perceived within-group competition. Study 3 found that Chinese participants were more likely than Americans to interpret a peer’s friendly behavior as sabotage in disguise. We also manipulated within-group competition and found that it increased ingroup vigilance in both cultures. Lastly, Study 3 ...

New: Teens in Rice County Are More Interdependent and Think More Holistically Than Nearby Wheat County
Date Posted: Dec  21, 2018
China’s smallest province Ningxia sits in north-central China. Surrounded by herding cultures to the north and wheat farmers to the south, Qingtongxia is a small outpost of rice farming fed by the Yellow River. We test the hypothesis that rice-farming cultures are more interdependent by comparing high school students from Qingtongxia (N = 190) to students in a nearby wheat district, Yuanzhou (N = 223). Comparing two nearby counties provides a natural test case that controls for third variables. Students in the rice county thought more holistically, treated a close friend better than a stranger, and showed lower implicit individualism. Students in the rice area showed more relative perception than students from the wheat areas on the practice trials of the Framed Line Task, but differences were nonsignificant on the main trials. Differences between teenagers — born after the year 2000 — suggest that rice-wheat differences continue among China’s next generation.

New: Residential Mobility Affects Self-Concept, Group Support, and Happiness of Individuals and Communities
Date Posted: Aug  08, 2018
Evidence across several studies leads to the conclusion that having moved and living in an unstable community are associated with some of psychology’s most central variables: happiness, self-concept, and altruism. We review evidence that mobile communities and mobile people have more individualistic self-concepts, identify with groups more conditionally, and support the local community less. People who moved as children have lower satisfaction with life—unless they are extraverted. We also show that extraverted US states are happier when they are mobile, and introverted states are happier when they are stable. We explain how mobility can have two different effects depending on whether we are talking about how many times people have moved (individual mobility) or what percent of the local population has moved (community mobility). Furthermore, regional and national differences in mobility help explain important regional and cultural psychological differences.

New: Moving Chairs in Starbucks: Observational Studies Find Rice-Wheat Cultural Differences in Daily Life in China
Date Posted: Jun  21, 2018
Traditional paddy rice farmers had to share labor and coordinate irrigation in a way that most wheat farmers did not. We observed people in everyday life to test whether these agricultural legacies gave rice-farming southern China a more interdependent culture and wheat-farming northern China a more independent culture. In Study 1, we counted 8,964 people sitting in cafes in six cities and found that people in northern China were more likely to be sitting alone. In Study 2, we moved chairs together in Starbucks across the country so that they were partially blocking the aisle (N = 678). People in northern China were more likely to move the chair out of the way, which is consistent with findings that people in individualistic cultures are more likely to try to control the environment. People in southern China were more likely to adjust the self to the environment by squeezing through the chairs. Even in China’s most modern cities, rice-wheat differences live on in everyday life.

New: Hong Kong Liberals are Weird: Analytic Thought Increases Support for Liberal Policies
Date Posted: Jun  21, 2018
This study tests whether liberals and conservatives within the same society think as if they were from different cultures. I tested this by measuring the cultural thought style of social liberals and conservatives in Hong Kong (Study 1). Liberals tended to think more analytically (more “WEIRD”), and conservatives tended to think more holistically (more common in East Asia). In Study 2, I trained people to think analytically or holistically before they read articles on political issues. Analytic thought caused people to form more liberal opinions, and holistic thought caused people to form more conservative opinions. The thought training affected participants’ responses to a social issue, but not an economic issue or whether they identified as liberal or conservative. This study replicates a previous US finding in an East Asian culture and a different political environment, suggesting that the link between politics and thought style extends beyond the US.

New: Who Smiles While Alone? Rates of Smiling Lower in China than US
Date Posted: Jun  21, 2018
Previous studies have found that Westerners value high intensity positive emotions more than people in China and Japan, yet few studies have compared actual rates of smiling across cultures. Particularly rare are observational studies of real-time smiling (as opposed to smiling in photos). In Study 1, raters coded student ID photos of European American and East Asian students in the US. In Study 2, observers coded people’s smiles as they walked outside in the US and China. Both studies found that people from East Asia smiled much less—about 50% less. These differences could reflect differences in happiness across cultures, norms of smiling, or differences in ideal affect.

New: How Rice Farming Shaped Culture in Southern China
Date Posted: Jun  21, 2018
We present a detailed theory linking southern China’s history of rice farming to its modern-day culture. We explain how rice was farmed traditionally, what makes it different from other major staple crops, and why these differences could shape culture. Next we review empirical evidence that people who have grown up in the rice areas of China have different relationship styles and thought styles from people in the wheat areas. We also discuss why the rice theory is not environmental determinism—rice does not automatically lead to collectivism. Finally, we ask whether modernization is signaling the death of rice culture or whether cultures rooted in historical subsistence style can persist even after less than 2% of the population actually farms for a living.

New: Culture and Ecology
Date Posted: Jun  21, 2018
Ecological psychology has boomed from a rare form of psychology to a flourishing field, including psychologists, sociologists, and economists. We review the development of the field from early studies to more recent advances in subsistence theories, environmental challenges, human environments, economic environments, and political environments. We also discuss frequent challenges in ecological psychology, such as reverse causality and ecological determinism, as well as ways to address these challenges. Finally, we outline paths forward including understudied regions and micro cultures.

REVISION: Liberals Think More Analytically (More 'Weird') than Conservatives
Date Posted: Jan  07, 2015
Henrich and colleagues (2010) summarized cultural differences in psychology and argued that people from one particular culture are outliers: people from societies that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD). In this study, we show that liberals think WEIRDer than conservatives. In five studies with more than 3,000 participants, we found that liberals think more analytically (an element of WEIRD thought) than moderates and conservatives — even in China. We found that social liberals had more analytic perception in the framed-line task (Kitayama, Duffy, Kawamura, & Larsen, 2003) and categorized objects more analytically on the triad task, which asks participants to categorize a group of objects based on either abstract categories or intuitive relation (Ji, Zhang, & Nisbett, 2004). Social politics predicted thought style much better than economic and overall political identity. Studies 4 and 5 showed that briefly training people to think analytically made ...

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