The study — “Insult, Aggression, and the Southern Culture of Honour: An ‘Experimental Ethnography'” — is from 1996, but it investigates a phenomenon that still exists today. The study acknowledges several other theories of why the South is relatively violent, including poverty, hot weather, and its history of slavery.
The study, however, sets up an experiment to investigate the “culture of honour” theory that Southern men feel the need to take some kind of action when they’ve been insulted.
The researchers enlisted white male undergrads from the University of Michigan, 42 from the North and 41 from the South. They initially were told they’d be participating in an experiment on “limited response time conditions on certain facets of human judgment.”
They didn’t know they were about to be called an arsehole.
Here’s the first part of the experiment:
As the participant walked down the hall, a confederate of the experimenter walked out of a door marked “Photo Lab” and began working at a file cabinet in the hall. The confederate had to push the file drawer in to allow the participant to pass by him and drop his paper off at the table. As the participant returned seconds later and walked back down the hall toward the experimental room, the confederate (who had reopened the file drawer) slammed it shut on seeing the participant approach and bumped into the participant with his shoulder, calling the participant an “arsehole.”
The study also used other methods to “insult” the Southerners and Northerners.
Observers then observed the participants’ body language and verbal reactions. They were also asked to complete verbal exercises, and their testosterone levels were measured.
Southerners were more upset by the insult. Their testosterone levels rose. They were more likely to behave in a domineering way after the insult, too.
Southerners, to be sure, may have been more bothered by being called arsehole because they’re less used to rudeness, the researchers said. But Southerners could also have different “rules” for how to respond to an insult. That is, they may believe they should fight back if they’re put down.
That urge to retaliate could help make a whole region more violent.
Quoting a Dallas homicide detective, the study noted, “Murders result from little ol’ arguments over nothing at all. Tempers flare. A fight starts, and somebody gets stabbed or shot. I’ve worked on cases where the principals had been arguing over a 10 cent record on a juke box, or over a one dollar gambling debt from a dice game.”
Read the full experiment here.
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