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You Insult Me, Sir: Lab Study Says Southern Men Take Insults Seriously

Posted July 7, 1996

— July 8, 1996 - 8:21 p.m. EDTBy MALCOLM RITTER,AP Science Writer

What happens when you insult a white man from the South?

His testosterone surges. He pumps out more of a stress-related hormone. He suddenly starts challenging a very large man who wants to pass by in a very narrow corridor.

And what happens when you insult a Northern white man? Well, he doesn't seem to care.

That's what researchers learned when unsuspecting college students were rudely bumped and insulted, and then tested for their reactions.

The experiment came in the latest in a series of studies that indicate non-Hispanic, Southern white men subscribe to a ``culture of honor,'' in which threats to one's reputation for toughness are especially likely to start a fight.

``To me, the culture of honor means the demand that other people respect your reputation for strength and integrity,'' says psychologist Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan.

He and psychologist Dov Cohen at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign say they see evidence for the culture in the South in surveys, state laws, and now even in their insult experiment with University of Michigan students.

It's a legacy of the South's heritage, they say, from when herdsmen settlers built reputations for toughness to keep rustlers away because they couldn't count on lawmen. Every insult was a test.

Nowadays, the residue of that mentality may be an important reason why Southern white men kill at higher rates than their Northern counterparts, Nisbett and Cohen say.

``There's not a hint of any indication that Southerners are just more fond of violence on general principles,'' Nisbett said. ``They're just more in favor of violence in those cases that relate to self-protection and honor.''

Southern white men aren't the only group to have a culture of honor, Cohen said; it's just the group he and Nisbett have studied so far, as noted in their book published this year, ``Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South'' (Westview Press).

``You could also see how this is applicable to the inner cities,'' he said. ``The area is sort of ripe for exploration with other groups.''

Bertram Wyatt-Brown, a University of Florida historian and author of the 1982 book, ``Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South,'' said it made sense to him that a culture of honor pushes up Southern homicide rates. An insult strikes at a Southerner's concept of himself, he said, and ``you cannot let it lie fallow.''

Nisbett and Cohen's conclusions are general and don't apply to every individual Northern or Southern white man.

Among the findings they cite:

  • An analysis showed that rates of homicide by non-Hispanic white men were consistently higher in the South and Southwest than in the North only for killings related to arguments, such as those involving barroom brawls, lovers' triangles and acquaintance murders. There was no difference in killings that occurred during another felony such as a burglary.

    In a bar, Cohen said, an insult ``means something different in the South than it does in New England. ... It's sort of a challenge to your manhood, and it's a challenge to your status to a far greater extent than it is for Yankees.''

  • A 1992 survey of rural men found that those in the South were more likely than their Midwestern counterparts to say violence was justified in response to several affronts.

    For example, Southern men were more likely to approve of a man's shooting somebody who had sexually assaulted the man's daughter, or starting a fight with an acquaintance who starts talking suggestively to the man's girlfriend.

    Southerners also said that being called a liar and a cheat by a friend would disrupt the friendship longer than a fistfight over a game would, while Midwesterners rated those two events as about equally disruptive.

  • In the same survey, 49 percent of gun-owners in the South said they had the weapon at least partially for protection, versus only 21 percent in the Midwest.
  • Cohen's analysis found that state laws in the South and West reflect the culture of honor through such means as looser gun control and less restrictive self-defense requirements than are found in the North.

    For the insult studies, researchers did three experiments with the same general pattern. Students were lured to the lab on the pretense of participating in a different study. In the course of the experience, they filled out a questionnaire and were asked to drop it off at a table at the far end of a narrow hallway.

    On the way to the table, some participants encountered another student working at a file drawer, who closed the drawer to let the participant pass and then opened it again. When the participant made the return trip seconds later, the student angrily slammed the drawer shut again. Then he bumped the participant with his shoulder and called him an insulting, scatological name.

    The participants, along with those who made the hallway trip without the unpleasant encounter at the file drawer, were given a variety of tests to check their reactions.

    What happened?

  • When levels of testosterone, an indicator of aggression, were measured in saliva before and after the hallway incident, Southerners showed a 12 percent increase. There was no significant effect on Northerners.
  • For cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress, levels shot up 79 percent for insulted Southerners. That was about double the rise seen in students who weren't insulted. The insulted Northerners had an even smaller rise than non-insulted students.
  • In a test of aggressive behavior, some participants who continued walking after the insult suddenly saw a 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound student appear and start walking toward them. The hallway was narrow, and it was clear that somebody would have to step aside to let the other pass.

    It was a game of chicken. How close would the participant get to this challenger before deferring? While non-insulted Southerners politely stepped aside about nine feet away, insulted Southerners pressed in to about three feet.

    In contrast, insulted Northerners stepped aside at about five feet, only about a foot closer than non-insulted Northerners did. By statistical standards, the insult affected only Southerners.

    Cohen acknowledged that the hallway insult might affect Southerners more because it is so impolite, and that ``people just don't do that in the South, wheras it may be part of everyday rudeness in the North.''

    Nonetheless, he said, the experiment follows the other indications of a Southern culture of honor.

    ``No single piece of evidence is enough,'' he said. ``But when you put it all together, it looks like a coherent cultural pattern.''

    Copyright ©1996 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or distributed.

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