Be a man! That pointed phrase, often offered as a rebuke, means pretty much the same thing the world over. Be strong.Don't back down. Show some courage.
What does differ from one culture to another is how seriously such admonitions are taken. In more macho societies, challenges to one's manhood — such as being the recipient of ridicule for avoiding risky behavior — must not go unanswered. And the results can literally be deadly.
For evidence of this, you don’t have to go to Mexico or Argentina. Mississippi or Alabama will do.
In a newly published study, three University of Oklahoma researchers report there is a higher rate of accidental deaths among whites (but not nonwhites) in the American South and West — regions where a “culture of honor” makes backing down from a challenge problematic for many males.
Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, they conclude men living in these regions “might be more prone to engage in risky behaviors that sometimes lead to death,” because this willingness “signifies that one possesses the ‘manly’ attributes of strength and courage.”
The notion that a “culture of honor” pervades the American South was first proposed in 1993 by University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett. It was later popularized by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, who describes Nisbett’s research in his book Outliers.
Nisbett and his colleague Dov Cohen argued that this honor-based culture can be traced back to the Scotch-Irish who settled the American South in the 18th century. Not unlike America’s Old West (which created a similar culture), theirs was a largely lawless land, with an economy based largely on animal herding. One had to be tough and aggressive to survive.
This lineage, which some scholars embrace and others doubt, has been used to explain the high level of homicides in the region. This new paper, written by Collin Barnes, Ryan Brown and Michael Tamborski, looks at the phenomenon through a different lens: risk-taking.
The researchers compared the rate of accidental deaths (as classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in “culture of honor” states versus the rest of the nation. They used two different definitions of the region in question: One which consists entirely of Southern states, and a second that also includes the West (excluding Alaska and Hawaii).
They then controlled for “a host of statewide variables that might account for the expected difference is accidental deaths,” including the unemployment rate, median household income, mean annual temperatures and the proportion of people living in rural areas.
“As hypothesized, we found that state honor status (using either configuration of states) significantly predicted accidental deaths among whites from 1999 to 2006,” they conclude. “This regional difference was especially pronounced among whites living in nonmetropolitan areas.”
Whites, in this definition, included Hispanics. Blacks, who arrived in the South under, er, different circumstances, developed a separate set of cultural norms.
These findings do not definitively prove the researchers’ thesis, but they bolster their argument with the results of an experiment on 81 University of Oklahoma undergraduates.
The students completed a 16-statement survey in which they gave their definition of a “real man,” responding to such assertions as “a real man doesn’t let other people push him around.” They then estimated the likelihood they would engage in a variety of risk-taking endeavors if given the opportunity, including bungee jumping and high-stakes gambling.
The researchers found a positive association between endorsing an honor-based conception of manhood and the willingness to take greater risks. Interestingly, this held true although more than three-quarters of the participants in the study were women.
The national study found the difference in accidental death rates between honor and non-honor states was considerably larger among men than women. But it remained significant among (white) females. They offer several possible reasons why this machismo-driven dynamic would also apply to the opposite gender, albeit at a lower level.
“It seems plausible that the accidental deaths of women results from their mimicking, wittingly or unwittingly, the risky behaviors of men,” they write. In addition, “it is also possible that they die as a consequence of men’s dangerous actions, as would be the case if a husband crashed his car as a result of driving recklessly.”
Given the fact that injuries are the leading cause of death for Americans age 44 and younger — and the rate of such injuries is creeping up, according to a 2007 report — public agencies are always looking for ways to persuade people to act in less-risky ways. This cultural explanation for such behavior suggests they face a particularly tough task in certain parts of the country.
“Merely including seat belts in motor vehicles, or warning labels on firecrackers, might not be enough to prevent accidents in cultures that confer social status on those who are willing to throw caution to the wind,” the researchers note.
So what can be done? “It might be possible to use the force of the culture of honor itself to promote the public welfare,” they write. “Perhaps interventions that shame people into safer behaviors, 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.”
Maybe, but the only example they offer (“Don’t be a sissy — buckle up!”) is something of a stretch. Rather than discouraging daring behavior, which is apparently a nonstarter, perhaps teachers and counselors could help young men distinguish between stupid risks and intelligent ones (such as starting your own business, or embarking upon a career you are passionate about rather than one that feels safe).
Culture is a powerful force. But the risk-taking impulse it transmits from generation to generation could conceivably be channeled in a more positive direction.