Why honor causes all of society's problems

Recent research shows how deep the roots of honor culture go

Breaking Bad
(Image credit: (Facebook.com/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/BreakingBad?fref=photo" target="_blank">BreakingBad</a>))

Glance at a list of critically acclaimed television shows and you'll see stories driven by characters who overreact to perceived signs of disrespect. Walter White doesn't care that people are fond of him; he wants to feel what it's like to be feared. In Fargo, Lester Nygaard's undoing begins when he takes his newfound refusal to not let others push him around too far. And in Game of Thrones, seemingly every character oscillates between calmness and boredom when encountering a "here's why I hate you" soliloquy, then concludes that murder is the only acceptable option when that hatred morphs into a public attack on their honor or status.

The power afforded to "disrespect" serves as a creative lever for generating conflict, but it's also an instance where art successfully imitates life. In a new study, Amber DeBono of Winston-Salem State examined how aggression is influenced by two distinct aspects of social rejection — dislike ("you're not nice") and disrespect ("you're an idiot"). In one experiment, participants read feedback that made them feel one of four combinations of liking and respect (e.g. liked and respected, liked and disrespected, etc.). Afterward, they decided how long the feedback-giver had to spend doing an undesirable task, with the number of minutes serving as a measure of aggression. DeBono found that feeling disrespected was a much stronger predictor of aggression than feeling disliked.

Both DeBono and script writers grapple with the relationship between disrespect and aggression among a diverse set of people, but the strength of this relationship has long been studied by social scientists in the context of the "honor culture" or "culture of honor," characterized by reputational concerns and the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, associated with the American South. Researchers have found evidence linking the endorsement of honor concerns to higher levels of violence, aggression, and homicide.

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In Culture of Honor: the History of Violence in the South, psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen make use of historical crime data, survey responses, and lab experiments to lay out the case that honor culture is responsible for higher levels of violence. They find that people from the South are more approving of violence that's used for self-protection, to respond to an insult, or to socialize children. In addition, Southern states have higher argument-related homicide rates, but are similar to Northern states when it comes to homicides related to felonies such as robbery.

In one of Nisbett and Cohen's experiments (PDF), participants were bumped into and insulted by a random person in a hallway. Later, a second, very large person walked directly toward the participant, threatening another collision. Compared to Northerners, Southerners came closer to the second person before moving out of the way, suggesting that the disrespect displayed in the first collision made them less willing to avoid a confrontation. In another experiment, Nisbett and Cohen found that insults led to larger increases in testosterone and cortisol levels among Southerners.

More recent research illustrates that the impact of honor culture goes beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression. A new study led by Ryan Brown of the University of Oklahoma examined the connection between honor culture and mental health treatment. Brown and his colleagues found that people who strongly endorsed an honor ideology expressed greater concern that seeking help for mental health needs would negatively influence how they were perceived. A follow-up analysis of national data sets found evidence that parents in honor states are less likely to utilize mental health services for their children, and that honor states dedicate less of their budgets to mental health services and have a lower ratio of mental health to primary care practitioners. These findings mesh with a 2011 study by Lindsey Osterman that found honor states had higher suicide rates — even when controlling for other relevant factors — as well as higher rates of depression and lower levels of anti-depressant prescription.

Researchers are also uncovering ways that honor culture can influence attitudes about economic inequality. A new study (PDF) led by Eric Pedersen of the University of Miami examined how honor ideology influenced the emotional response to payouts in a dictator game. Pederson found that the more strongly somebody endorsed honor beliefs, the more envious they felt when given an unfair economic payout. The honor-induced envy was then found to influence the level of anger a person felt over their payout.

Given that honor culture is mixed up in a variety of crucial social issues — crime, mental health, inequality, school violence — attenuating its negative impact (or enhancing its positive impact) is an important goal. Any efforts to do so, however, may be hindered by the difficult question of where honor culture comes from.

In Albion's Seed, historian David Hackett Fischer argues that honor culture arose among the herding societies that populated the border region between England and Scotland. The region's frequent wars led to political instability and the lack of a strong criminal justice system, and the result was strong norms in favor of private vengeance and self-protection. Furthermore, as Nisbett and Cohen emphasize in their work, poor farming conditions led these regions to be dominated by herders, and the mobile nature of a herder's property — a flock rather than a field — often required more forceful protection and a reputation for retaliation. Ultimately, colonists from these "borderlands" settled in what would become the Southern states, and they brought their cultural norms with them.

Historical migration theories — for which there is also some contradictory evidence — are not the only explanation. Research led by University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough (PDF) has linked the endorsement of honor norms, as well as behaviors associated with them — specifically, unprovoked or retaliatory defections in the dictator game — to the presence of conflict, neglect, and violence during childhood. McCullough's findings were partially replicated in Pedersen's study, which also produced evidence that the perception of an ineffective police force is another factor that can lead to stronger honor norms.

The theory behind McCullough's research is that when people receive signals that life may be relatively short they are likely to focus on short-term mating efforts. McCullough refers to this as the "live fast, die young" strategy, and it can lead to retributive strategies — starting a bar fight, for example — that lower long-term quality of life but have potential reproductive benefits in the short run.

Overall, research on honor culture suggests that the poor decisions it encourages are a relatively intractable problem. Centuries-old cultural norms don't change overnight, and it's not as if society is unaware of the drawbacks of poverty and childhood violence.

Still, it's not a lost cause. One promising solution for reducing violence is to ignore deep-seated beliefs and focus on thoughts that bubble up in contexts where aggression might build. An evaluation of the "Becoming a Man" intervention (PDF) has found that cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective way to reduce violence among middle and high school students by teaching them to make better causal attributions — deciding that not being invited to a social gathering was an oversight rather than an intentional slight, for example. Rather than attempt to convince youth that their reputations aren't important, the program essentially teaches them to avoid classifying behavior as an assault on their reputations.

Though difficult, it's also not impossible that cultural norms will be driven to a more positive place. After all, there's nothing inherently wrong with honor or reputational concerns. They can encourage people to treat others with kindness and be respectful of boundaries. In fact, in the control conditions of Nisbett and Cohen's experiments — where there was no prior insult — Southerners tended to act in less aggressive and more courteous ways than Northerners.

We appear to be at a point in history where socio-cultural norms can shift faster than ever. Nowadays respected role models from nearly any background can communicate with large swaths of people. Consider how much norms about what it's acceptable to do to raise awareness for a disease have changed in just the last month. That's not to say a few public services announcements from famous musicians will lead to drastic change, but it's not unreasonable to picture a world 25 years from now where the meaning of honor has shifted to encompass backing down from violence and seeking help for mental health trouble.

It's important, too, to continue fighting poverty, neglect, and inequality in criminal justice systems. The work of McCullough suggests that this will not only lead to the expected benefits, but may lead to the development of positive feedback loops where less conflict leads to a set of norms that are less likely to produce conflict.

Ultimately, we're still a long way from understanding enough about honor ideology to easily alleviate the problems it may cause. While researchers have made great strides in linking honor concerns to a variety of different outcomes, more must be learned about the specific cognitive processes, emotions, and individual differences that determine whether an abstract endorsement of honor norms will lead to a specific behavior. Perhaps one day the aggressive pursuit of honor or respect will be so farfetched no TV writer will consider it worthy of their attention.

Pacific Standard grapples with the nation's biggest issues by illuminating why we do what we do. For more on the science of society, sign up for its weekly email update or subscribe to its bimonthly print magazine.

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