Geography and Religion Made Us Who We Are

Written by Dr Paul Sander, Lecturer in Psychology, Centre of Applied Psychological Science.


Understanding human behaviour requires an appreciation of social history, anthropology and archaeology (Tileagă & Byford, 2014), from which comes an awareness that people always sense, interpret and respond in a social, historical, economic and geographic context.  Geographical psychology (Rentfrow, 2014) showing that human behaviour, including geopolitics, can be understood by geographical factors (Chen et al., 2020; Diamond, 2005; Marshall[1], 2015; Schaller & Neuberg, 2012; Van de Vliert, 2016) is of particular relevance in understanding the emergence of individualist and collectivist cultures around the world.

With this interdisciplinary spirit, research has shown that the widely used description of cultures as individualistic or collectivist is a product of a range of forces acting on the people living in different environments.  Culture is not a product of people but a process of people interacting with differing contextual forces and, as such, is liable to change should those contextual forces change.  Culture is more of a process than a product.

Nisbett (2003) outlines probable mechanisms by which Europe and China came to be psychologically different by contrasting the life and environment of Ancient Greece with that of China.  Through this he offers part of an explanation for why Western Europe became individualistic and China, collectivist.

Life in Ancient Greece (600BCE):

  • Was maritime, involving fishing, hunting or herding and trading facilitating wealth creation, all of which are activities that are not reliant on large scale group co-operation and which, in the case of the sea trade, provided exposure to an eclectic mix of peoples. Greece’s location made it a focal point for much Mediterranean maritime trade.
  • When agriculture came 2,000 years later than in China, it was based on the commercial production of wine and olives rather than the subsistence farming of China. The commercial production of sellable products fed into the trading tradition of the country and was based on products that were not reliant on large scale group co-operation.  The geography of the country limited agricultural options and so afforded less to large scale group co-operation commonly found in, for instance, the production of cereal crops and rice.
  • Had independent city states, themselves probably a product of the geography of Greece, providing citizens who needed or chose, the option to move from one place to another facilitating a more individual approach to life or, on the contrary putting less emphasis on the need for large scale cooperations which, for example, cereal and rice production requires.
  • With its geographic position as a hub and the nature of the terrain favoured activities which required low levels of group co-operation facilitated a strong sense of agency, individual identity, curiosity, and decision making.
  • Permitted a tradition of disagreement, persuasion and debate as opposed to conformity, obedience and large scale co-operation.
  • Facilitated the development of philosophic thought that sought to explain phenomena through underlying principles; a system now recognised as a hall-mark of modern science.
  • Saw the rise of democratic principles and governance by 5th century BC and along with the mechanisms to maintain it establishing the foundations for a way of life not unfamiliar to that found on modern Europe

Life in China from the same period:

  • Was ethnically homogeneous and isolated.
  • Centred around the farming of fertile land with rice predominating in the South requiring collective cooperation in the management of land and the water required to irrigate the crop (Talhelm et al., 2014)
  • Involved visiting friends and family maintaining the cooperative alliances that the land demanded. In that, maintaining harmony in a hierarchical system through deference and respect was central.  There was autocratic rule with absolute power residing with one or a few people, as is often found in agricultural countries (Nisbett, 2003).
  • Was focused on the person playing roles in a social context with a sense of collective agency.
  • Conferred rights that were a share of the collective gain.
  • Was technologically advanced, for example with irrigation systems that permitted the rice agriculture in the south of the country, but the focus was on practicality rather than scientific type understanding (Nisbett, 2003).

In summary, the geographical differences of Ancient Greece and China afforded very different developmental trajectories which gave the cultural differences of collectivism and individualism.  However, with people exploiting, influencing and changing their environments, social life could change as indeed happened in Europe which became less individualistic as agriculture took hold, and would remain so until the Roman Catholic Church’s European Marriage Pattern (Henrich, 2020) and the Renaissance afforded changes in the social fabric of Western Europe, the former by establish very strict rules on marriage and the later through a rebirth of interest in the arts, philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics.

The early Renaissance period was marked by the Black Death, a critical juncture discussed below, and later the emergence of European exploration (for example: Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan) which changed both the countries of the European explorers and those of the people which they “discovered”.   In short, research shows that individualism is not a fixed characteristic of a population (Santos et al., 2017), but is subject to range of pressures including:

  • Church doctrines (Henrich, 2020)
  • Agriculture (Nisbett, 2003; Talheim et al., 2014)
  • Frontier attitudes (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2014; Kitayama et al., 2014)
  • Pathogen prevalence
  • Disaster frequency
  • Climate stress (Santos et al., 2017; Van Vliert et al., 2013).

The changes in Western Europe in the latter third of Medieval period in Europe included:

  • Rising power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church, for example in regulating marriage in Europe as with William of Normandy and Matilda of Flanders.
  • The rise of the Italian city states like Florence, often seen as the epicentre of the Renaissance and the re-emergence of trade following the European maritime voyages of discovery.
  • The Renaissance and intellectual curiosity for example Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei and Johannes Gutenberg.
  • The Black Death which, in Western Europe facilitated an escape from Feudalism, opening a path to democracy and individualism (Asemoglu & Robinson, 2012) essentially through a shortage of labour enabling those that tilled the land to unit to demand greater freedom in their lives and less obligation to the feudal order.
  • Exploration and discovery. The impact of exploration in part depended on the human and physical geography of the lands visited (Asemoglu & Robinson, 2012), for example: that the British had to fend for themselves on arrival in what is now Virginia contrasted with the experience of the Spanish arriving in what is now Mexico, finding a populated land with complex civilisations that were exploitable.  Thus the Spanish in Mexico were able to live through the lives of the Mexican people whom they effectively enslaved whereas the English in what was to become the United States of America had to fend for themselves to survive promoting an individualistic culture in what was then seen as the least desirable land in the Americas.  Subsequent research has developed the concept of Frontier attitudes illustrated here in the colonisation of what is now known as the United States of America showing that it promotes individualistic attitudes (Kitayama,et al., 2010).
  • Increased affluence promotes individualism (Santos et al., 2017) and the impact of the Renaissance through science, exploration and the subsequent exploitation and trade gave Western Europe that affluence.
  • The Glorious Revolution in England which paved the way for British life as we know it today (Asemoglu & Robinson, 2012) through the establishment of a parliamentary democracy. The monarchy no longer had overarching powers.  Those no resided in parliament that came to be kept in check through institutions of the state.  It was thus a self-maintaining system and so substantially protected from corruption.

As an interim conclusion (see figure 1), macro-situational pressures affect how people sense, interpret and respond which can be expanded to assert that the cultural dimension of collectivism-individualism is, at least in part, a product of the neolithic farming revolution interacting with the physical geography of the different locations around the world as and when it unfolded.  As a significant proportion of our behaviour differs around the world (for example, Nisbett, 2003) our psychology is, to an extent, the product of differences in the world’s geography.

The psychology of religion identifies that religions bind people together (Diamond, 2012) and that, in the context of the big Gods of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, people watched by Big Gods are nice people but the fear of hell is more potent force than the attraction of heaven (Norenzayan, 2013).  More extensive analysis, as summarised by Henrich (2020), suggests that geographical factors are augmented by specific religious events in Mediæval, Western Europe.

Religion in Europe:

  • The Catholic Church and its European Marriage Pattern promoted WEIRD & individualism through controlling who was able to marry who which broke the power of aristocratic families to consolidate power through marriages of alliance, by prohibiting levirate and sororate marriages and marriages between first, second and third cousins. Polygynous marriages remained prohibited from Roman law.  The impact of these and other marriage related restrictions had the long term effect, visible at the beginning of the Modern Period, of promoting:
    • A social structure different to that seen outside of Western Europe (Foreman-Peck, 2011)
  • Nuclear families with neolocal residence
  • Late marriages
  • The number of unmarried people
  • Smaller families with lower fertility
  • Premarital labour period
  • With these policies firmly in place, people:
  • Were free to move, both geographically and socially,
  • Had lower family obligations
  • Were free to choose their friends, partners, spouses, and construct their own relational networks
  • And, in the longer term, facilitated the creation of:
  • Voluntary associations
  • New religious organisations
  • Charter towns
  • Professional guilds
  • Universities
    • The Protestant Reformation increased education which increased affluence (Becker & Woessmann, 2009) which could have increased individualism (Santos et al., 2017) although Becker et al. (2016) caution social scientists against this type of speculation.  The Reformation did put people in direct contact with their God, removing the hierarchy of the church and thus increasing personal agency.

The argument that the Roman Catholic Church and then Protestant Reformation played a large part in creating Europe as it is, culturally, today is very strong.  The Church’s Marriage and Family Programme reshaped the European family, giving Western Europe the contemporary social structure which Britain exported to what is now the Anglo-Saxon world.  Both these religious drives and the geographical factors that moulded life in Ancient Greece, allowing the emergence of an individualistic style of life made Western Europe with its individualistic cultural structures.  It is for that reason that the preponderance of psychological research based on the WEIRD samples of Western Europe (and its derivatives in the Anglo-Saxon world) do not necessarily say anything about the majority of people in the world.  There are also strong pointers that, to understand human behaviour, social scientists need to look around people and not in people.  Arguably, too often, psychologists commit the fundamental attribution error but then, since most of their work is with WEIRD samples, one would expect that (Yama, 2018).


I have to thank my daughter, Molly, for sharing her passion for geography with me and to my wife, Alex, for being so patient as I read book after book and paper after paper through the lockdown periods, furthering a project I started in 2018.


Acemoglu, D. and Robinson, J. A. (2012). Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty(1st ed.). Crown.

Becker, S. O., Pfaff, S. and Rubin, J. (2016).  Causes and Consequences of the Protestant Reformation.  Warwick Economics Research Paper Series

Becker, S. O. and Woessmann, L. (2009). Was Weber Wrong? A Human Capital Theory of Protestant Economic History, Quarterly Journal of Economics 124(2), 531-596.

Chen, H., Lai, K. He, L. & Yu, R. (2020).  Where You Are Is Who You Are? The Geographical Account of Psychological Phenomena.  Frontiers in Psychology, 11.

Diamond, Jared M. (2005). Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies. Norton.

Diamond, J. (2012). The world until yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? Viking.

Foreman-Peck, J. (2011).  The Western European marriage pattern and economic development.  Explorations in Economic History, 48(2), 292-309.

Henrich, J. P. (2020). The WEIRDest people in the world: how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous. (1st ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kitayama, S., Conway, L. G. III, Pietromonaco, P. R., Park, H., & Plaut, V. C. (2010). Ethos of independence across regions in the United States: The production-adoption model of cultural change. American Psychologist, 65(6), 559-574.

Marshall, T. (2015). Prisoners of geography: ten maps that explain everything about the world. Scribner.

Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently .. and why. Free Press.

Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict. Princeton University Press.

Rentfrow, P. J. (Ed.). (2014). Geographical psychology: Exploring the interaction of environment and behavior. American Psychological Association.

Santos, H. C., Varnum, M. E. W., & Grossmann, I. (2017). Global Increases in Individualism. Psychological Science, 28(9), 1228–1239.

Schaller, M. & Neuberg, S. L. (2012). Danger, Disease, and the Nature of Prejudice(s). In James M. Olson and Mark P. Zanna, (Eds),: Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 1-54.

Talhelm, T., Zhang, X., Oishi, S., Shimin, C., Duan, D., Lan, X., & Kitayama, S. (2014). Large-scale psychological differences within China explained by rice versus wheat agriculture. Science, 344(6184), 603–608.

Tileagă, C., & Byford, J. (Eds.). (2014). Psychology and history: Interdisciplinary explorations. Cambridge University Press.

Van de Vliert, E. (2016). Hidden Climato-Economic Roots of Differentially Privileged Cultures.  Nature and Culture 11(1), 44–68

Van de Vliert, E., Yang, H., Wang, Y., & Ren, X. (2013). Climato-Economic Imprints on Chinese Collectivism. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44(4), 589–605.

Yama, H. (2018).  Thinking and Reasoning across Cultures. In Ball, L. J. & Thompson, V. A. (eds.), The Routledge International handbook of thinking and reasoning. Routledge.

[1] Tim Marshall’s book, Prisoners of geography is a current, topical and readable introduction to geopolitics.