— People do stupid things all the time and they do them in all geographic regions, but as any regular viewer of Comedy Central’s "Tosh 2.0" can tell you, there does seem to be an uncanny correlation between certain regions of the country and the kind of risk-taking behavior that could get you seriously hurt or even killed.
That’s the premise of a new study out today in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. The three authors, all from the University of Oklahoma, found that states with a “culture of honor” –- in the South, and the West, mainly -- also have higher rates of accidental death for white males: 42 per 100,000 compared to 36.8 per 100,000 in non “honor” states.
So what’s a “culture of honor”? “The relentless, and sometimes violent, defense of masculine reputation,” according to the study.
“This is an adaptation to what the Ulster Scots [also called the Scots-Irish] experienced over 800 or 900 years in southern Scotland,” one of the study’s authors, Ryan P. Brown, explained. “That’s a breeding ground for the types of dynamics we are looking at.”
Interclan raiding and warfare led to allegiance to family and a high value being placed on one’s personal bravery; think Mel Gibson and his blue William Wallace face. Then, when those people came to the United States, they tended to move to some pretty wild areas.
“During the 1700s they came to Appalachia and they were dirt poor,” Brown said. “So they didn’t get the nice land, they got pushed into the back country” where there wasn’t exactly a cop on the beat.
They defended themselves against threats real or imagined, including threats to their reputations as manly men. Hence the fabled Hatfield-McCoy feud.
This is not unique to Ulster Scots or America; the Balkans are infamous for the cult of personal and regional honor. A perceived shaming from 500 years ago could be an excuse for a war today.
There aren’t many interclan raids in America these days, but, Brown explained, the culture of honor is expressed in ways other than killing your neighbor (though studies have shown higher risks for school shootings in such states). You might drive your bad-ass four-wheeler over a cliff because that other dude dared you, or cut a guy off in traffic because he passed you.
“The cultural dynamic that we have captured in these studies reveals a threat to public health that goes beyond the risk of interpersonal violence documented in previous research and points to the possibility that life in honor-oriented societies is more treacherous than previously realized,” the authors concluded.
Traffic accident statistics would seem to bear out the authors' conclusions. According the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Massachusetts in 2008 had the lowest fatality rate in the nation by miles driven -- .7 deaths per 100 million miles. Montana was worst with 2.1 deaths, with Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and South Carolina following close behind.
The story might not be all bad, though. Next Brown hopes to study Medal of Honor winners to see if there’s a connection between state culture and wartime bravery.
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