"Honor Culture" Linked to Accidental Deaths

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Whites living in the southern and western states have higher rates of accidental deaths than whites in other parts of the country, which possibly stems from the "culture of honor" prevalent in these areas, according to new research.

Researchers from the University of Oklahoma define the culture of honor as "a characteristic of societies that place special emphasis on the aggressive defense of reputation," and data from two studies suggest their desire to be seen as tough and fearless might lead them to engage in risky behaviors that lead to accidental deaths.

List of States Considered to Have Honor Cultures

Using data on deaths from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the researchers determined that states with honor cultures had a 14 percent higher rate of accidental death than non-honor states. More rural areas in honor states had an even higher mortality rate at 19 percent. They estimate that more than 7,000 accidental deaths a year are linked to the honor culture nationwide.

"White males living in non-metropolitan areas in the U.S. in honor states are more prone to accidental deaths," said Ryan Brown, a study co-author and associate professor of social psychology at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. "They may be living with reckless abandon -- by not wearing a seat belt or a helmet, for example -- as a way of demonstrating they are tough and brave."

In a separate study, the authors found that men and women who held beliefs related to the honor code were more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors.

Long History of Honor Culture

Experts familiar with the honor culture phenomenon say the findings are consistent with past research, although previous studies focused on homicide and other aggressive behaviors among white men toward others.

Richard Nisbett, author of "Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South," pioneered research in this area to try and determine why insult-related homicide rates are higher in the mountain areas of the South than in other states. There are also higher rates of similar homicides in the dry plains of the Western states.

"The South has a culture of honor, which means that if you are threatened or insulted, you respond to that with violence or the threat of violence to maintain a stance as someone tough enough to take care of yourself," said Nisbett, who is also a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Nisbett said the honor culture originally arose after Irish and Scottish settlers came to the southern and western United States.

"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," he explained. Northern states, on the other hand, were originally settled by farmers who didn't face the same threats.

Nisbett gave some examples of how the honor culture has influenced people's behaviors:

In the 19th-century South, if a young man were courting a young woman, he would have to talk to her father and her father would ask if the young man ever did any "sparking," or put his life on the line in combat. If the young man didn't, he wouldn't be permitted to date the young woman because he wasn't considered tough enough.

Andrew Jackson, who later became the seventh U.S. president, was in 100 documented violent arguments and even killed a man in one.

In the 1950s, one of his own relatives, a newspaper editor in El Paso, Tex., shot her husband because he was cheating on her. It wasn't a fatal shooting, and Nisbett said he doesn't believe there were any charges filed.

Nisbett's research on the honor culture and its relationship to homicide and other violent episodes focused on white men, because there are additional cultural and other factors that play a role in why men of other races commit violent crime.

Some social scientists, however, believe that the attitudes that prevail in the South have nothing to do with the early herders.

In a Psychology Today blog post, author and evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber wrote, "I suspect that these attitudes are connected to childhood experiences, poverty, and religiosity, rather than a distant herding ancestry among rowdy Gaels."

Public Health Implications

"The leading causes of death in people ages 1 through 44 are unintentional injuries, so we're looking at a substantial public health problem," said Dr. Paul Ragan, associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. "Homicides and suicides are the second and third causes of death, so we're looking at a huge number of deaths."

Brown hopes that by understanding the honor culture, future efforts at reducing the number of deaths will be successful.

"[P]erhaps interventions that shame people into safer behaviors (e.g., 'Don't be a sissy! Buckle up!'), or rely on strong, high-status figures as models of responsible conduct would be effective at modifying social schemas and scripts about the meaning of strength and courage," the authors wrote.

But it's doubtful that there will be large-scale change in the honor culture.

"It's possible it could start to dissipate since the original herder culture isn't around anymore, but it won't dissipate quickly," Brown said.

"It persists because of evolutionary neurobiology. It's so deeply ingrained."