Harlan Kentucky

“Die like a man, like your brother did.”

This section is from Chapter 6 and follows a discussion of what is called the “Culture of Honor,” a social and behavioral pattern specific to, among other places, the American South.

In the early 1990’s, two psychologists at the University of Michigan—Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett—decided to conduct an experiment on the culture of honor. . . . So they decided to gather together a group of young men and insult them. Their methodology was disarmingly simple. “We sat down and tried to figure out what is the insult that would go to the heart of a 18 to 20 year old’s brain,” Cohen says. “It didn’t take too long to come up with ‘asshole.'”

The experiment went like this. The social science building at the University of Michigan has a long narrow hallway in the basement, lined with filing cabinets. The young men were called into a classroom, one by one, and asked to fill out a questionnaire. Then they were told to drop off the questionnaire at the end of the hallway and return to the classroom—an innocent, seemingly simple academic exercise.

For half the young men, that was it. They were the control group. For the other half, there was a catch. As they walked down the hallway with their questionnaire, another man—a confederate of the experimenters—walked past them and pulled out a drawer in one of the filing cabinets. The already narrow hallway was now even narrower. As the young men tried to squeeze by, the confederate looked up, annoyed. He slammed the filing cabinet drawer shut, jostled the young men with his shoulder and, in a low but audible voice, he said the trigger word—”asshole.”

Cohen and Nisbett wanted to know, as precisely as possible, what being called that word meant. So they tried every conceivable way of measuring the emotions of the young men. They looked at the faces of their subjects, and rated how much anger they saw. They shook the young ‘s hands to see if their grip was firmer than usual. They took saliva samples from the students, both before and after the insult, to see if being called an asshole caused their levels of testosterone and cortisol—the hormones that drive arousal and aggression—to go up. Then they asked the students to read the following story and supply a conclusion:

It had only been about twenty minutes since they had arrived at the party when Jill pulled Steve aside, obviously bothered about something.

“What’s wrong?” asked Steve.

“It’s Larry. I mean, he knows that you and I are engaged, but he’s already made two passes at me tonight.”

Jill walked back into the crowd, and Steve decided to keep his eye on Larry. Sure enough, within five minutes, Larry was reaching over and trying to kiss Jill.

If you’ve been insulted, are you more likely to imagine Steve doing something violent to Larry?

The results were unequivocal. There are clear differences in how young men respond to being called a bad name. For some, the insult dramatically changes behavior. For some it doesn’t. But the deciding factor isn’t how emotionally secure you are, or whether you are an intellectual or a jock, or whether you are physically imposing or not. What matters—and I think you can guess where this is headed—is where you’re from. The young men from the northern part of the United States, for the most part, treated the incident with amusement. They laughed it off. Their handshakes were unchanged. Their levels of cortisol actually went down, as if they were unconsciously trying to defuse their own anger. Only a few of them had Steve get violent with Larry.

But the southerners? Oh my. They were angry. Their cortisol and testosterone jumped. Their handshakes got firm. Steve was all over Larry.

“We even played this game of chicken,” Cohen said. “We sent the students back down the hallways, and around the corner comes another confederate. The hallway is blocked, so there’s only room for one of them to pass. The guy we used was 6’3″, 250 pounds. He used to play college football. He was now working as a bouncer in a college bar. He was walking down the hall in business mode—the way you walk through a bar when you are trying to break up a fight. The question was—how close do they get to the bouncer before they get out of the way. And believe me, they always get out of the way.”

For the northerners, there was almost no effect. They got out of the way five or six feet beforehand, whether they had been insulted or not. The southerners, by contrast, were downright deferential in normal circumstances, stepping aside with over nine feet to go. But if they had just been insulted? Less than two feet. Call a southerner an asshole, and he’s itching for a fight. What Cohen and Nisbet were seeing in that long hall was the southern culture of honor in action: the Southerners were reacting like Wix Howard did when “Little Bob” Turner accused him of cheating at poker.