Brief Thoughts on Attitudes Towards Interpersonal Violence

While reading Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd’s Not by Genes Alone, I came across a lengthy discussion of an experiment conduced by psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen, authors of Culture of Honor:

Working at the University of Michigan, Nisbett and Cohen recruited participants from northern and southern backgrounds, ostensibly to participate in an experiment on perception. As part of the procedure, an experimenter’s confederate bumped some participants and muttered “Asshole!” at them. This insult had very different effects on southern and northern participants, as revealed by the next part of the experiment. Sometime after being bumped, participants encountered another confederate walking toward them down the middle of a narrow hall, setting up a little game of chicken. This confederate, a six-foot, three-inch, 250-pound linebacker on the UM football squad, was much bigger and stronger than any participant, and had been instructed to keep walking until either the participant stepped aside and let him pass or a collision was immanent. Northerners stepped aside when the confederate was six feet away, whether or not they had been insulted. Southerners who had not been insulted stepped aside when they were nine feet away from the confederate, while previously insulted Southerners continued walking until they were just three feet away. Polite, but prepared to be violent, uninsulted Southerners take more care, presumably because they attribute a sense of honor to the football player and are careful not to test it. When their own honor is challenged, however, they are willing to challenge someone at considerable risk to their own safety. These behavioral differences have physiological correlates. In a similar confederate-insulter experiment, Nisbett and Cohen measured levels of two hormones, cortisol and testosterone, in participants before and after they had been insulted. Physiologists know that cortisol levels increase in response to stress, and testosterone levels rise in preparation for violence. Insulted Southerners showed much bigger jumps in cortisol and testosterone than insulted Northerners.

Nisbett and Cohen argue that this difference between Northerners and Southerners is rooted in social and economic history. 

Scots-Irish livestock herders were the main settlers of the South, while English, German, and Dutch peasant farmers populated the North. States historically have had considerable difficulty imposing the rule of law in the sparsely settled regions where herding is the dominant occupation, and livestock are easy to steal. Hence in herding societies a culture of honor often arises out of necessity as men seek to cultivate reputations for willingly resorting to violence as a deterrent to theft and other predatory behavior. Of course, bad men may also subscribe to the same code, the better to intimidate their victims. As this arms race escalates, arguments over trivial acts can rapidly get out of hand if a man thinks his honor is at stake. This account is supported by the fact that Southern white homicide rates are unusually high in poor regions with low population density and a historically weak presence of state institutions, not in the richer, more densely settled, historically slave-plantation districts. In such an environment the Scots-Irish honor system remained adaptive until recent times.

This opens up a number of interesting possibilities. We know that the ethnic composition of the U.S. population has changed dramatically since Scots-Irish livestock herders established themselves in the South, yet as David Hackett Fischer argued in Albion’s Seed, there is at least some reason to believe that these “founding populations” established patterns that persisted as later arrivals embraced the folkways and sensibilities of the dominant native ethnocultural groups. Moreover, there has been considerable domestic migration in American history, and one wonders if the Scots-Irish culture of honor has had a disproportionate impact on prevailing norms in certain neighborhoods, cities, and regions that received a disproportionately large number of Southern migrants. 

Rather admirably, Nisbett and Cohen have acknowledged that the herding economy hypothesis is not particularly strong. And other researchers have found the culture-of-honor framework wanting. But it is easy to see why culture-of-honor is so intuitively appealing as an explanation for why the United States is so much more violent than (most) other affluent societies. Dense urban societies are undergirded by the rule of law, and so contracts and repeated interactions can enforce good behavior. But in treacherous terrain, where the writ of the state is weak or non-existent — think the Pashtun borderlands — it makes sense that in-group loyalty and stronger kin-based networks would survive and flourish. 

But what does this mean in the modern United States, a highly urbanized society in which the rule of law is very well-established? I’d say that we’re dealing with a highly variegated environment, in which different cultural groups react to the larger institutional landscape in different ways. Perhaps the welfare state has undermined the power of kin-based networks among the poor, as they are no longer necessary for material sustenance, yet the security state isn’t strong enough to protect poor people living in violent neighborhoods, and so there is a demand for other forms of in-group loyalty and a strong incentive to protect one’s reputation. Among the non-poor, in contrast, physical security is taken for granted, yet maintaining strong kin-based and non-kin-based networks is increasingly seen as central to happiness and upward mobility. These different outlooks might yield different attitudes towards the uses of interpersonal violence, etc.  

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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