"Honor Culture" Linked to Accidental Deaths

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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."

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