In some cultures, people are frugal while in others they tend to be generous. Some cultures favour meticulous planning while others favour living in the moment. Theories abound about how and why differences like these between cultures emerge and, increasingly, researchers are looking to the environments people live in for answers.
In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we explore what role ecological factors, including the climate, play in shaping cultural norms and behaviour.
Scientists have long speculated about where cultural differences come from. Some have highlighted the role of institutions such as the Catholic Church. Others have pointed to the kind of crops traditionally grown in different regions, such as rice in the south of China and wheat in the north.
But a growing body of evidence suggests that human culture can be shaped by key features of the environment. Michael Varnum, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University in the US, wanted to track how much of an impact it made.
Using data from over 200 countries, Varnum and his team studied the connections between nine ecological variables – including rainfall and temperature, but also inequality, population density and disease threat – and 66 cultural variables including personality traits, social values and motivation.
The results indicate that a combination of long-term, sustained ecological conditions can explain nearly 20% of the differences between cultures.
In some communities in Iran, where it’s very dry and people have managed to live there in large numbers for a long time, the idea is that, for the group to be successful in those conditions, people had to get pretty good at thinking about the future and planning for it. So the amount of available water is really driving long-term thinking.
The level of variability in ecological factors can also play a part, for example in what’s called cultural tightness and looseness. Tighter cultures are those with strict rules and punishments for deviance, while loose cultures are those with weaker rules and are more permissive.
Varnum’s analysis suggests that cultures that experience a lot of variability in their ecology are likely to have tighter social norms than those that experience more consistent ecological patterns.
To find out more about his research, and how ecological factors may also influence the behaviour of other animals, listen to the full episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast.
A transcript of this episode will be available shortly.
This episode of The Conversation Weekly was written by Mend Mariwany, and produced by Mend Mariwany and Meher Batia. Gemma Ware is the show’s executive producer. Sound design was by Eloise Stevens, and our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. Stephen Khan is our global executive editor, Alice Mason runs our social media and Soraya Nandy does our transcripts.
Michael Varnum has previously received funding from the National Science Foundation, the US Fulbright Program, and the China Postdoctoral Science Foundation.