'Honor Culture' Makes People Do Dumb Things

A new study shows that an "honor culture" of toughness and badassery in the American South and West may lead to an increased risk of accidental death.

According to ABC, researchers found that states with strong honor cultures — that is, "societies that place special emphasis on the aggressive defense of reputation" through such activities as getting in fights or riding a motorcycle without a helmet — have a 14% higher rate of accidental death than sissy, helmet-wearing states. The researchers also found that people who identified strongly with an honor culture took more risks.

There are a number of possible explanations for the prevalence of honor culture in the South and West. Expert Richard Nisbett says, "The South was settled by people who kept herds for a living. Their livelihood depended on the herd, and that herd could be stolen in an instant, so they had to do whatever they needed to do to protect it." But evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber counters, "I suspect that these attitudes are connected to childhood experiences, poverty, and religiosity, rather than a distant herding ancestry among rowdy Gaels." An evolutionary psychologist chalking something up to life experience rather than ancient survival instincts? Pardon me while I pick myself up off the floor. Study co-author Ryan Brown valiantly holds up the evo-psych side, though, arguing that honor culture "persists because of evolutionary neurobiology. It's so deeply ingrained."

Whether herding instinct or social and experiential factors cause people to ditch their helmets and get in knife-fights, the fact remains that these behaviors will kill you. Which, of course, is precisely why people engage in them — they wouldn't be honorable if they weren't dangerous. And it might be tough to get people who deeply value aggression and risk-taking to play it safer. Somehow the study authors' suggested pro-seatbelt slogan — "Don't be a sissy! Buckle up!" — doesn't sound like it'll catch on. It might be better to emphasize something that's already seen as a form of strength — the ability to take care of your loved ones. Being a great mom or dad or daughter or son may not be quite as exciting as a good round of stabbing, but many states with powerful honor cultures also have deeply-rooted notions of family. And it may be worth reminding people in those states that you can't play catch with your kids if you have no fingers.

"Honor Culture" Linked To Accidental Deaths [ABC]