The University Record, July 30, 1997

Violence more likely in 'cultures of honor'

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Violence is more likely in "cultures of honor," communities where status, property and personal safety are protected by a stance of vigilance toward threats and insults.

That is why homicide, and especially homicide in the context of arguments, is far more common among whites in the South than among whites in the North, according to psychologist Richard E. Nisbett.

Nisbett, who is the Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the U-M and a research scientist at the Institute for Social Research, delivered an invited address on "Cultures of Honor: Economics, History, and the Tradition of Violence," in May at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Society.

"Surveys show that Southerners endorse attitudes toward the appropriate occasions for violence that are similar to those expressed by adherents of cultures of honor elsewhere in the world," says Nisbett, co-author with Dov Cohen of Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (HarperCollins).

"Experiments show that when Southerners and Northerners are insulted in the laboratory, Southerners display more anger, manifest more physiological changes characteristic of stress and aggression, and behave more aggressively in response to subsequent affronts.

"Field experiments show that Southern employers are more willing to hire people who have killed in an honor-related crime than are Northern employers, and that Southern college newspapers describe honor-related killings in ways that are more sympathetic to the killer."

There is reason to believe, Nisbett maintains, that the culture of honor in the U.S. South, like many such cultures around the world, is due initially to the region's herding economy of the past.

"People whose livelihood is based primarily on the keeping of animals must be vigilant against the possibility of losing their herds, hence they adopt a stance of willingness to be violent in the face of threat or even a display of disrespect."