TIME medicine

Can Plastic Surgery Make You More Likeable? A Close Look at a New Study

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Robert Daly—Getty Images/OJO Images RF

Sure, getting facial plastic surgery can make you look younger, but can it change your personality? Or at least what other people think of your personality?

Putting aside reconstructive surgery, facial plastic surgery is all about vanity. Which, let’s face it, means looking younger and more symmetrical. But erasing those signs of experience and maturity also changes the way other people see you. Like it or not, and socially acceptable or not, we make snap judgments about people based on purely superficial traits all the time. Furrowed brow? You might be interpreted as mean or anti-social. Heavy, hooded eyes? Clearly untrustworthy. While it seems ridiculous now, at one time in our evolutionary history, being able to make such determinations might have been life-saving: Who’s out to do us harm? Who is there to help?

MORE: From Kim’s Butt to Angelina’s Lips: The Plastic Surgery Procedures Women Want

In modern times, the sad truth is we still make snap judgments about certain facial features and the way we read some faces—as aggressive or unlikeable, say—tends to be connected with saggy skin, heavy chins and more crepe-like skin. That’s what plastic surgeon Dr. Michael Reilly from Georgetown University and his colleagues found in a report published in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery.

In his study, he asked people to rate either before or after photos of women who had had cosmetic procedures. Not only did he ask them to evaluate how attractive and how feminine she was, he also had people make guesses about her personality based on the photos. Why the personality traits? Previous studies have shown that physical features have a strong correlation to certain personality types, and Reilly says he wanted to understand exactly how the changes he made as a plastic surgeon were affecting his patients. “If I’m embarking on this career, and if I’m doing this type of surgery, I want to know what I’m doing to patients,” he says. Laudable, certainly, but what are the raters’ responses really telling us? The raters never saw the before and after pictures of the same person, which Reilly says he did in order to reduce any potential bias.

Reilly found that people consistently rated the post-op photos as higher on things like social skills, likeability, femininity and overall attractiveness. Not a surprise, given that cosmetic procedures are supposed to improve attractiveness. But likeability? Social skills? Not to mention trustworthiness and risk-seeking?

MORE: Here Are the Most Popular Plastic Surgery Procedures In Three Charts

For one, asking people to rate faces on these characteristics is a bit artificial to begin with. The personality traits people were asked to assess have biased terms—like “aggressiveness,” says Dr. Sam Lam, a facial plastic surgeon practicing in Dallas, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study. Raters might be saying that faces have certain traits only because they’re forced to make a choice when they might not if they weren’t in a study setting.

The results also reinforce the fact that — surprise!— our society has a bias against aging. Since the post-op, and presumably younger-looking, images of the same women seemed to score higher on things like social skills and likeability than their pre-op pictures, that strongly suggests that aging-related features are associated with less-than-desirable personality traits like anti-social behavior. “Aging reverses positive dynamic expressions like smiling,” says Reilly, noting that when we smile, we bring our cheeks up and tighten certain facial muscles. “When we age, our faces look like the opposite of a smile.”

MORE: Plastic Surgery Doesn’t Work — but Neither Does Our Standard of Beauty

Yet couldn’t aging also be seen in exactly the opposite light, as a factor that makes someone more adept and experienced at social interactions and therefore more likeable than a younger person who is more awkward and uncomfortable navigating among strangers?

A previous study from 2013 of before and after plastic surgery ratings didn’t find the same improvement in attractiveness that the current one did. In that study, people looking at photos of patients pre- and post-op didn’t think the procedures made patients any more attractive, and only seemed to make them look about three years younger.

Which only goes to show that we still have a long way to go before we can figure out exactly what we’re doing to ourselves when we go under the knife for cosmetic procedures. We’re changing our outward appearance, yes, but how that affects our inner selves and how others perceive us isn’t — and likely won’t ever — be entirely clear.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

How Being Unemployed Changes Your Personality

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Getty Images

The new results question how permanent personality really is

Add another stressor to the financial burden of losing your job. Being unemployed can change the nature of your personality, making you significantly less agreeable and changing your level of conscientious and openness, according to a new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The study, conducted by a team of researchers from the U.K., asked more than 6,000 Germans to self-evaluate five of their core personality traits—agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness—over a period of several years. Everyone in the sample began the study with a job, but part of the group lost their jobs and remained unemployed for the duration of the study. Others lost their job and found new employment.

Read More: Employers Hired 257,000 Workers in January

Researchers thought that men and women would behave differently in response to unemployment, since the workplace values different things from each sex. Indeed, psychologically, men and women seemed to respond differently to unemployment.

Women scored lower in agreeableness every year they were unemployed, but when men lost their jobs, they saw a temporary spike in agreeableness before a sharp decline after the third year. The study argued that agreeableness is especially valued in women in the workplace, perhaps partially explaining why women reported being less agreeable after losing their job.

Conscientiousness immediately declined in men and continued the downward slope as long as men remained unemployed. It went down in women, too, but not as consistently as it did for men.

The study challenges the notion that personality is made of unchanging traits, and suggests that public policy efforts to combat unemployment might extend beyond economic benefits.

“Policies designed to curb unemployment preserve not only psychological health but also, critically, the basic personality traits that characterize personhood,” the study authors write.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Here’s Proof That Facebook Knows You Better Than Your Friends

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Peter Dazeley—Getty Images Facebook Likes reveal a lot about your personality

Your operating system knows you so well, says science

Nobody knows us better than our family and friends, right? Who else could predict how we’ll react to good and bad news, or whether to pick the pie or ice cream for dessert?

Facebook, for one. Researchers at the University of Cambridge and Stanford University studied how Facebook Likes matched up with people’s own answers on personality tests, as well as those of their close family and friends. With enough Likes of objects, brands, people, music or books, the computer was better at predicting a person’s personality than most of the people closest to them—with the exception of spouses. (They still know us best, it seems.)

MORE: Why a Facebook ‘Sympathize’ Button Is a Terrible Idea

Wu Youyou, a PhD student in the Psychometrics Center at the University of Cambridge, and her colleagues had previously investigated how computer models could predict demographic and psychological traits in people. But inspired by the movie Her, they were curious about how the models would do in evaluating personality traits. They asked 86,220 people on Facebook to complete a 100-question personality survey that determined where they stood on the so-called Big Five traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. They then analyzed their Facebook Likes to generate a model in which Likes were linked to the traits. Likers of meditation, TED talks and Salvador Dali, for example, tended to score higher on openness, while those who liked reality star Snookie, dancing and partying were more extraverted.

On average, people on Facebook had 227 Likes, and this was enough information for the computer to be a better predictor of personality than an average human judge (in other words, a friend), and almost as good as a spouse. The more Likes, the better the computer got. It only took 10 Likes for the computer to outperform a work colleague, for instance, 70 to do better than a friend, and 150 to outscore a family member.

MORE: How Well Do You Know Your Facebook Friends?

“We know people are pretty good at predicting people’s personality traits, because it’s such an important thing in all of our interactions,” says Youyou. “But we were surprised by how computers were able to do better than most friends by using just a single kind of digital data such as Facebook Likes.”

Computers are such good predictors because they can take all the Likes at face value and treat them equally, says Youyou’s co-author Michal Kosinski from Stanford’s department of computer science. People tend to forget information if it’s not top of mind and tend to give more weight to memorable or recent events, potentially biasing our evaluations. But computers can treat each piece of information objectively.

MORE: Your Facebook Profile is Also a Professional Tool

Still, the computer strategy isn’t always entirely accurate. It can’t account for changes in people’s moods and behaviors and outlooks, and given that people are notoriously dynamic, that could be a problem. (People who scored higher on the extraversion scale, for example, did like meeting new people but also inexplicably Liked Tiffany & Co., while those who were more conscientious expressed preferences for mountain biking and motorcycles.) But Kosinski thinks that this kind of computer modeling could help processes like career planning and job recruitment. People just entering the job market could benefit from such personality profiling, which could better link them to the right industries and jobs in those sectors. A free spirit who likes to travel, explore and take risks, for example, likely wouldn’t be happy as an accountant, while an introverted person wouldn’t be ideal for a marketing or public relations position.

Kosinski also speculates that computers could streamline job recruitment. Many companies use personality questionnaires, especially when seeking high-level executives, but such questionnaires can be inaccurate and unreliable, as candidates are incentivized to give the answers they think the company wants to see. Computers might be able to come up with a more accurate personality profile than these questionnaires, if the Facebook data are any indication.

Kosinski recognizes that applying such models is tricky. “We have to be really cautious and make sure we don’t upset people and don’t do anything that breaches the trust between the applicant and the employer, if the employer starts testing without explicit consent,” he says. “But we certainly hope that these technologies can be used to better human life.”

Read next: How Much Time Have You Wasted on Facebook?

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TIME Research

What Your Online Persona Says About Who You Really Are

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Does who you are online match who you are in real life? A new study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows that avatars, the little icons you can customize in video games and Internet forums, are pretty good depictions of the people who created them.

Since more and more people meet and develop friendships and relationships online, researchers at York University in Toronto looked into whether the impressions people get from avatars, like the kind you use on Nintendo Wii and World of Warcraft, are true reflections of the real-life players they’re interacting with. To measure this, the researchers had about 1oo people create an avatar representation of themselves, and then asked nearly 200 others to rate the avatars on openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

The results show that traits like being outgoing or anxious are pretty easy to assess, but other traits like conscientiousness and openness to new experiences are more difficult. People with agreeable traits were better able to get their personalities across through their avatars than narcissists.

Katrina FongExample of avatars used in the study

Specific physical traits of the online characters helped translate personalities more than others. Smiles, brown hair, sweaters and open eyes were more likely to come across as friendly and inviting, compared to avatars with neutral expressions or those that didn’t smile. Avatars with black hair, a hat, short hair or sunglasses were less likely to come across as friendly or desiring friendship.

Interestingly, the people in the study didn’t seem to apply usual gender stereotypes to the avatars, though avatars made by females were rated as more open and contentious over all. The researchers speculate that perhaps the digital realm has gender stereotypes that differ from the ones we more commonly experience offline.

“The findings from this study suggest that we can use virtual proxies such as avatars to accurately infer personality information about others,” the study authors conclude. “The impressions we make on others online may have an important impact on our real life, such as who becomes intrigued by the possibility of our friendship.”

TIME psychology

8 Things Your Pet Says About Your Personality

dog and cat
Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

1) Researchers have established some general conclusions about pets and their owners personalities:

  • Fish owners are happiest.
  • Dog owners are the most fun to be with.
  • Cat owners are the most dependable and emotionally sensitive.
  • Reptile owners are the most independent.

2) Yes, there are differences between cat people and dog people:

  • Dog people were generally about 15 percent more extraverted, 13 percent more agreeable and 11 percent more conscientious than cat people.
  • Cat people were generally about 12 percent more neurotic and 11 percent more open than dog people.

3) According to research by Richard Wiseman, people often see their pets’ personality as a reflection of their own.

So, more often than not, a quick way to find out what someone is like it to ask them to describe their animal friend’s temperament.

4) You can tell a liberal from a conservative by the breed of dog they own.

Via The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:

We found that people want dogs that fit their own moral matrices. Liberals want dogs that are gentle (i.e., that fit with the values of the Care foundation) and relate to their owners as equals (Fairness as equality). Conservatives, on the other hand, want dogs that are loyal (Loyalty) and obedient (Authority).

5) That guy with the pit bull might be just as scary as his dog:

A study carried out at the University of Leicester’s School of Psychology has found that younger people who are disagreeable are more likely to prefer aggressive dogs, confirming the conventional wisdom that dogs match the personality of their owners.

6) Dog owners are healthier.

Via 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute:

dog owners coped well with everyday stress, were relaxed about life, had high self-esteem, and were less likely to be diagnosed with depression.

Dogs provided more health benefits than a cat — or a spouse for that matter. Further research showed that at least some of these effects were causal, not correlative.

You don’t even need to own a dog to get some of the stress-relieving benefits: watching a video of a cute animal can reduce heart rate and blood pressure in under a minute. Stuffed animals can improve your immune system.

7) Researchers know the type of person who doesn’t clean up after their dog:

Fewer males (35.3%), those with a lower income (18.2%), and owners who allowed their dogs off the leash (26.2%) cleaned up their dogs’ feces than females (58.2%), those with higher earnings (68.7%), and those who kept their pets on a leash (72.6%).

8) A few other fun facts about pets:

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME facebook

How Well Do You Know Your Facebook Friends?

Take this quiz to find out

We all have Facebook friends with certain tells in their choice of status updates. There are the unabashedly peppy, the unrelenting complainers and the 800-word posters. To test how well you can identify your Facebook friends by these clues, we’ve built a simple quiz: This app will randomly select status updates from your recent newsfeed and present you with five possible authors for each one. (Note: This will not work for all users due to differences in privacy settings. If you’re asked for your password, you’ll be logging into Facebook. TIME is not recording or storing your password.)

Research suggests that a lot of our offline personality can shine through on Facebook, even if most of us complain about our friends’ behavior online. (And don’t delay. Facebook will soon be shutting down the service that lets us make apps like this one or the classic “How Much Time Have You Wasted On Facebook?”)

Read next: Find Out Which of Your Facebook Friends Makes You the Happiest

TIME

Are You a Type A Personality? 5 Life Hacks for the Competitive Champ Inside of You

Notes on computer
Jamie Grill—Getty Images/Tetra images RF

Do you freak out if you waste time? Can't relax? I feel you

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

I’m the definition of a Type A personality: not happy unless I’m unhappy, ridiculously competitive, cartoonish in my impatience and probably raising my chances of heart disease with every stressed-out feverish keystroke I type.

A brief history of Type A if you’re not familiar: Cardiologist Meyer Friedman wrote in his 1996 book, “Type A Behavior: Its Diagnosis and Treatment” that three symptoms define this glorious creature: (1) hostility that is generally “free-floating” and can be triggered at the drop of a hat; (2) a level of urgency and impatience and irritation that is informally known as having a “short fuse”; and (3) a drive for competition which results in perpetual stress and an achievement-/success-/goal-oriented workaholic mentality.

Sounds like a blast, right?

During a nine-year study of Type A men in the 1950s between the ages of 35 and 59, Friedman and cardiologist Ray Rosenman discovered that being classified as Type A (versus Type B which is easy-going, reflective, creative and not bound to pathetic markers of status and success) actually doubles the risk of heart disease in otherwise healthy people. Yay.

But let’s be all Type A about this Type A article: This neurotic super-stressed personality type is known for being frighteningly organized, overly sensitive, deadline driven, nauseatingly proactive, terrified of wasting time and beyond annoyed with ambivalence. Do you like this article so far? MAKE A CHOICE.

I’ve come to accept who I am. I like how my drive drives me, and when I think of times in my life where I’ve tried to mimic all those grinning Type B-ers, I feel like I’ve lost myself. Oh look, there I am, going with the flow. Hey check me out, not totally wracked with guilt and incapacitated with self-hatred for having done nothing all weekend. I feel like a cat pretending to be a dog. It’s not me. And if it’s not you, here are some of my favorite ways to life-hack your Type A world:

1. Say “No” To Meetings And Ignore Your Black Hole Of Never-Ending Emails With People Who Want, Want, Want.

It’s not rude. It’s Type A, and this is who you are. You don’t like to waste time, and if you’re being successful in the whole workaholic thing, then there are a lot of people asking to meet with you or wanting a piece/a minute/a second of your time. Instead of saying “yes” so often, write back: “I’m focused on finishing a big project right now, but I can answer one or two short questions over email.”

Or use email auto-reply. Here’s one from an author friend of mine who is more productive than anyone I know: “Thank you for writing. In an effort to focus on writing the next book and spend more offline time with those I care about, I am no longer checking email. However, your email has been forwarded to my ace assistant. She will be reading all my emails, and responding.” Speaking of getting good help around here…

2. Get A Damned Assistant.

Try TaskRabbit or FancyHands to hire the freelance assistant of your dreams, double your productivity and keep yourself accountable. (Are you going to slack when you’re paying for a helper? Probably not.) Want to try a virtual international assistant? I’ve heard good things about TasksEveryDay. At the least you’ll get a good cocktail party anecdote out of the experience.

3. Deal With Human Beings, Instead of Time-Wasting Robots When You Need Customer Service.

Know how some companies have seemingly impossible-to-locate customer service numbers? Here’s a great life hack for fellow Type A’s: GetHuman will lead you to real-life human beings who can make an actual difference in what you need to get done. I can speak from direct experience on this one. Amazon was terrific to deal with once I finagled the phone number and stopped waiting for an email reply. Results!

4. Send Emails When People Will Actually Read Them.

Own that short fuse: I am impatient! I like results! I am not going to be ignored, Dan! So try Boomerang and you can write your emails ahead of time but get them scheduled to be sent when people will be most receptive to reading them. Nothing reeks of desperation quite so much as a rambling late-night “please, please, please” email instead of a short, cool, confident note that pops up at 11:34 a.m. on a Tuesday when your boss has accepted the fact that it’s no longer Monday, has a coffee or two in her, is enjoying picking out her lunch from Seamless and settled into her work routine. Emails are little burdens. They’re little shoulder taps. So if you’re going to be tugging at people’s coats to get their attention, do it in the strongest way possible.

5. Network Like a Boss.

One of the better Type A qualities? Being incredibly proactive. But there’s proactive, and then there’s TYPE A PROACTIVE. Here are a few of my favorite hacks: Try Newsle, which scans the top news sites and then lets you know if someone in your network comes up in the press. People notice when you send congratulations and “I’m so happy for you” emails. People notice when you are there in the good times and there in the bad times, not just the “I need a favor from you” times.

Here’s another killer trick. Meet someone at a party but didn’t get their card — or perhaps you have the impressive chutzpah to try a cold email? If you guess the person’s email correctly—here are the most common configurations:

  • firstnamelastname@nameofcompany.com
  • lastname@nameofcompany.com
  • firstname.lastname@nameofcompany.com
  • firstname@nameofcompany.com
  • lastname@nameofcompany.com
  • firstinitial.lastname@nameofcompany.com
  • lastname@nameofcompany.com
  • firstinitial@nameofcompany.com
  • firstinitial-lastname@nameofcompany.com

—and then plug that email into Rapportive, check to see if the profile comes up. Did it work? Then, kudos, you’ve guessed correctly. You can also determine if the email is valid with: mailtester.com. Fool around with these two sites, and see what I mean — and I swear you’ll be impressed. Boom. You are hereby never helpless again.

It’s fun to embrace who you are, right? So what are your Type A life hacks? Or Type B life hacks? Or most annoying Type A person in your life? Is it me? I’m sorry if it’s me.

Mandy Stadtmiller is Editor-at-Large at xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

Why People Post Annoying Status Updates on Facebook

Facebook keyboard
Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

People who aren’t emotionally stable post more frequently in order to regulate their emotions and receive social support.

Low emotionally stable individuals experience emotions more intensely and have difficulty regulating their emotions on their own. Consequently, we suggest that they use the microblogging feature on online social networks (e.g., Tweets or Facebook status updates) to help regulate their emotions. Accordingly, we find that less emotionally stable individuals microblog more frequently and share their emotions more when doing so, a tendency that is not observed offline. Further, such sharing, paired with the potential to receive social support, helps boost their well-being.

Source: “Facebook Therapy: Why People Share Self-Relevant Content Online” by Eva Buechel and Jonah Berger

It might be a good strategy because, overall, Facebook users do get more emotional support than other people. (Here are some great tips by experts for using Facebook to enhance your happiness.)

The potential downside is that on Facebook everyone shows the best and not the worst, leading to portraits of unattainable lives that can make people feel bad by comparison. And the truth is, Facebook promotes mainly weak, low-commitment friendships.

Your Facebook profile probably reveals your true personality. It can tell people whether you have anxiety and even predict your job performance.

Your Facebook profile is as indicative of how extroverted you are as actually sitting down with you for a short meeting. It can predict your openness to experience as well as watching your social behavior.

Via Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You:

(Bigger blob indicates the item at the top is more telling about the characteristic on the left.)

Your Facebook “relationship status” says a lot about how happy you probably are.

What’s a really good sign? Men who listed their partnership status (“In a relationship with…”) and women whose profile picture displayed their partner both had happier relationships.

In fact, Facebook can predict with a 33% accuracy who you’ll be dating next week:

Via The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World:

As the service’s engineers built more and more tools that could uncover such insights, Zuckerberg sometimes amused himself by conducting experiments. For instance, he concluded that by examining friend relationships and communications patterns he could determine with about 33 percent accuracy who a user was going to be in a relationship with a week from now. To deduce this he studied who was looking at which profiles, who your friends were friends with, and who was newly single, among other indicators.

And those people posting all those status updates to regulate their emotions may not be aware of the main reason for un-friending:

Posting too many boring updates.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME leadership

Here’s the Most Useful Personality Quiz You’ll Ever Take

Addictive? Definitely

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This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article below was originally published on The Muse.

By Scott Dockweiler

It was after spending 10 minutes taking a “what kind of sloth are you?” quiz that I knew I had a problem.

Those little BuzzFeed-style quizzes are so addictive (who doesn’t want to know more about their personality?), but unfortunately aren’t really helping any of us get further in life. (I don’t think my co-workers knowing that I’m a “cuddle sloth” is going to help us work better together.)

But, thanks to VisualDNA, us aspirational careerists who also have an unfortunate penchant for taking quizzes have a happy medium: the “Who Am I” assessment.

While it’s built in a similar style to your favorite BuzzFeed quiz—a series of questions that have you choose a photo that correlates with your answer—the results of this one are actually based on a well-respected model of personality assessment called “The Big Five.”

Even better? While there are plenty of places online where you can go to learn your Big Five personality scores, VisualDNA takes it one step further and analyzes your results, explaining how the different elements combine to affect things like your outlook, composure, and resilience. In other words, actual character traits that can affect how you work—and how you can succeed.

So go ahead: Take 10 minutes to take a quiz and be happy knowing that, at the end, you’ll understand a little more about yourself—and be able to put it to good use.

Take the “Who Am I?” Quiz Now!

Read more from The Muse:

What to Do When You’re Just Not That Into an Idea Anymore

The Best Ways to be Productive When Your Energy is Gone

What Your Facebook Profile Says About Your Personality

TIME psychology

In China, Personality Could Come Down to Rice Versus Wheat

Rice farming in China
Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images Chinese from rice-producing regions tend to be more collectivist

Chinese in the north have always been different than their counterparts in the south of the country. Farming could explain why

In the mind of many Americans, China is a monolith of 1.3 billion people, all equally similar to each other and all equally different from the U.S. But Thomas Talhelm knows better. Talhelm first went to China in 2007, working as a high-school English teacher in the booming southern metropolis of Guangzhou. Observant from the start—he’s now a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Virginia—Talhelm noticed that his students tended to be very conflict averse. But when Talhelm moved after a year to Beijing in China’s north, he noticed a difference. “On one of my first visits to a museum, a curator pointed to my roommate and told him, ‘Your Chinese is good,'” says Talhelm. “But then she pointed to me and said, ‘But your Chinese is much better.'” People in Beijing were much blunter, Talhelm noticed.

He found differences in dialect as well, and the dividing line was the Yangtze River, which divides China’s north and south. Above the Yangtze one word meant “hand,” for instance, while south of the river it meant “arm.” By no means were these regional traits true 100% of the time—there were northerners who were conflict averse and southerners who were outrageously brash. But the differences seemed common enough to Talhelm that they were worth exploring.

As it turns out, the Yangtze doesn’t just divide China between the north and the south—it also marks the rough boundary between the chiefly rice-producing regions below the river and the mainly wheat-producing regions above it. That gave Talhelm an idea. Rice production is extremely labor-intensive, requiring about twice the number of hours from planting to harvest that wheat does. Rice is also mostly grown on irrigated land, which requires communities to build canals and dikes cooperatively, while sharing water. “Rice farming provides an economic incentive to be cooperative,” says Talhelm. By contrast, the only thing wheat farmers need to cooperate with is the rain, which allows them a greater measure of independence.

That is how Talhelm came up with what he calls his “rice theory”: personality differences between China’s north and its south could be explained at least in part by the kind of farming practiced in each region. And in a new paper published in today’s Science, Talhelm puts the rice theory to a successful test. Talhelm and his colleagues conducted psychological studies on 1,162 Chinese college students in the north and in the south, as well as on countries that straddle the borders of the rice-wheat divide. The northern Chinese tested as more individualistic and analytic—similar to Westerners—while southerners were more interdependent, holistic-thinking and more loyal to their friends. (Analytic thinkers prefer to use abstract categories, while holistic thinkers focus on relationships.) “The differences fell along that rice-wheat border,” says Talhelm.

There have been earlier attempts to explain the psychological differences within China. The modernization hypothesis argues that as societies become wealthier and more capitalistic, they become more individualistic and analytic. But that’s not the case in China, or indeed much of East Asia—southern Chinese cities like Guangzhou experienced economic liberalization sooner than northern cities, and are still much richer, yet it’s northerners who remain more independent. The pathogen prevalence theory argues that a high prevalence of communicable disease in some areas makes it more difficult to deal with strangers, which in turn can make a region more insular and collectivistic. Infectious disease tends to be correlated with warmer temperatures, and China’s south is warmer than it’s north—so it’s possible the pathogen prevalence theory could explain China’s psychological differences. But Talhelm’s study found that Chinese students who lived just south or just north of the rice-wheat divide were as different from each other as students from the far south and the far north. And he noted rice-producing Japan scores uniformly high on the collectivist scale, even though the country is cooler and wealthier than most of China.

The rice theory isn’t foolproof. It’s almost certain that none of the young Chinese college students participating in Talhelm’s study have any direct experience with wheat or rice farming, which raises the question of how these psychological values are transmitted. The sheer pace of change in modern China, which has transformed from a closed communist country to a global capitalist powerhouse in a single generation, can make it difficult to be certain of any larger conclusions about the society. And as different as northern and southern Chinese can seem, they’re still more similar to each other on the individualistic/interdependent spectrum than China as a whole is to the West. The real test of the rice theory will come outside Asia—Talhelm plans to look at West Africa next, which has a vibrant rice-growing tradition.

There’s also something slightly uncomfortable about using agricultural practices to stereotype several hundred million people. Surely we’re more than what our ancestors chose to plant in the ground. But Talhelm notes that in China, regional psychological differences are taken for granted. “A Chinese word for ‘northerner’ literally means ‘direct’ or ‘brash,'” he says. “They’ve just never thought it could be due to rice or wheat.”

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