The University Record, October 26, 1992

English cavaliers responsible for Southern predisposition to violence

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

Why are small-town murder rates among friends, lovers and acquaintances three times higher in the South than in the New England and Midwestern states?

“Popular explanations include the heat, the poverty and the history of slavery, but our research suggests that none of those factors is significant,” says Richard E. Nisbett, a psychologist at the Institute for Social Research.

Instead, he says, the predisposition to violence was introduced to the South by swashbuckling English cavaliers in the 17th century, and reinforced, some 100 years later, by immigrants from the Irish and Scottish borderlands.

The cavaliers, Nisbett explains, were steeped in the medieval standards of knightly honor and believed all insults must be answered with force. The Irish and Scottish immigrants were equally quick to bristle at insults, but their sharp tempers were related to their livelihoods.

“The Scots and Irish were herders, and herding cultures the world over seem to be inclined toward violence,” Nisbett explains. “Herders are economically vulnerable because their herds can be wiped out overnight by theft, so they cultivate a tough image as prevention. They let it be known through public quarrels that they are not to be trifled with.

“White Southern males have inherited these cultural traditions,” he adds. “They feel insults intensely and often seem driven to defend their honor, unlike white Northern males who descended from staid Puritan or Quaker farmers.”

Nisbett’s theory is supported by both national homicide reports and national studies of regional attitudes toward violence, as well as psychological experiments with

U-M students from the South and North. He reported his findings to the American Psychological Association in August.

“We examined the white male homicide rates for 101 predominantly white small towns in the southern, southwestern and northern regions of the country that had 10,000–50,000 residents. After accounting for poverty levels, we found that, on average, murder rates among acquaintances were three times higher in the South than the North,” he says.

The same pattern held true in larger towns with populations of 50,000-200,000 residents, where the rates were twice as high in the South.

“This was not true of felony-related homicides, which generally involve murder of strangers,” Nisbett adds. “Such murders were equally common in the North and South.”

Nisbett and his research assistant, Dov Cohen, also analyzed data on regional attitudes toward violence collected by the National Opinion Research Council.

Southerners, they discovered, were not more likely to endorse violence in the abstract. “For instance, they were not more likely to believe that police should be able to beat suspects. But, if insult or protection of property were involved, they were much more likely than Northerners to endorse a violent response,” Nisbett says.

Thirty-six percent of Southerners said a man could kill to defend his home compared with just 18 percent of the Northerners. Eighty percent of Southerners said a man has the right to kill to defend his family compared with 67 percent of Northerners.

“Southerners also were twice as likely to report they carried a gun, and to approve hitting a drunk who walks into a man when he is with his wife,” he adds.

A U-M psychology experiment with 65 male students from the South and North confirmed these opinion surveys. The experiment included a staged insult to the Northern and Southern students, followed by tests that measured anger and hostility.

“The reaction patterns were quite different for the various groups,” Nisbett says. “Sixty-five percent of the ‘insulted’ Northerners were more amused than angered by the insult. This was true of only 15 percent of the ‘insulted’ Southerners.”

Also, three times as many of the insulted Southerners as uninsulted Southerners suggested violence as a possible response to a scenario that involved an insult to a fiancee. “The insult had no effect on Northerners,” Nisbett says.

Nisbett is the Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor of Psychology.