Made of Honor

Stories help us make sense of the world, and can even help us to heal from trauma. They also shape our cultural narratives, for better and for worse. This week on Hidden Brain, we conclude our three-part series on storytelling with a look at the phenomenon of “honor culture,” and how it dictates the way we think and behave. 

Additional Resources


Honor Bound: How a Cultural Ideal has Shaped the American Psyche. Ryan P. Brown. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Research Studies: 

To be liked or feared: Honor-oriented men’s sensitivity to masculine reputation concerns depends on status-seeking strategy. JE Bock, RP Brown. Personality and Individual Differences, 2021.

Burdens of Honor: Examining Honor Ideology, Suicide Risk-Factors, and Ageism in Older Adults. J Bock, RP Brown.Innovation in Aging, 2019.

Culture, Masculine Honor, and Violence Toward Women. RP Brown, K Baughman, M Carvallo. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2018.

Naming Patterns Reveal Cultural Values: Patronyms, Matronyms, and the US Culture of Honor. RP Brown, M Carvallo, M Imura. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2014.

Honor and the Stigma of Mental Healthcare. RP Brown, M Imura, L Mayeux. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2014.

Gun culture: Mapping a peculiar preference for firearms in the commission of suicide. RP Brown, M Imura, LL Osterman. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 2014.

Living Dangerously: Culture of Honor, Risk-Taking, and the Nonrandomness of “Accidental” Deaths. CD Barnes, RP Brown, M Tamborski. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2012.

Culture of Honor, Violence, and Homicide. RP Brown, LL Osterman. The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Violence, Homicide, and War, 2012.

Culture of Honor and Violence Against the Self. LL Osterman, RP Brown.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2011.

Male Honor and Female Fidelity: Implicit Cultural Scripts that Perpetuate Domestic Violence. J Vandello and D Cohen.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003.

Insult, Aggression, and the Southern Culture of Honor: An “Experimental Ethnography”. D Cohen, RE Nisbett, B Bowdle, N Schwarz. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1996.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. When they were teenagers, Ryan Brown and four of his friends decided to visit a really old graveyard. It was midnight, and they piled onto an ATV belonging to his friend, David.

Ryan Brown: And this ATV is really just made for one person. So it's a vehicle with one big wheel in the front, two big wheels in the back. And David was driving. The rest of us were all kind of piled onto the back, sitting on top of the wheel guards.

Shankar Vedantam: They took off down a dark country road.

Ryan Brown: There are no street lights. He's going about as fast as he possibly can and nobody's wearing a helmet. So if we crash, we're all dead.

Shankar Vedantam: Fearing for his life, Ryan spoke up.

Ryan Brown: And I said to David over the road noise, the engine noise, "It'd really be nice if you'd slow down a bit." And he decided that was actually a great opportunity to turn off the headlights. So we're on this dark country road, no lighting, no seat belts, no helmets.

Shankar Vedant m: Ryan panicked.

Ryan Brown: I kind of freak out. I'm thinking, "He's going to kill us on the way to a graveyard, no less." So I start yelling at him and telling him he needs to slow down and he just turned the lights back on. And he is having none of it. He feels threatened. He feels challenged. By the time we get to the graveyard, I'm livid, I've been yelling at him for the past mile to slow down and turn on the lights. And really, after that weekend, we never really spoke much again. He was not able to apologize for his behavior. I sort of apologized for mine, but I really wasn't all that sorry. I felt like he'd taken my life and my friend's lives into his hands and treated them callously, and thoughtlessly, and recklessly.

Shankar Vedantam: That story has stuck with Ryan who went on to become a psychologist at Rice University in Texas. He now understands why his friend refused to back down. Over the past two weeks, we've looked at how stories help us explain the world and how stories can help to heal the world. Today we examine how our society has gave us stories that dictate what we can and cannot do. How cultural scripts shape our lives. This week on Hidden Brain.

Shankar Vedantam: Years later, and thousands of miles from the scene of that midnight ride in the ATV, France and Italy are battling it out in the finals of the World Cup soccer championship. They're playing in Berlin. More than 700 million people across the globe are watching. The game is very close. France scores first. Then Italy scores. The score is 1-1. With just a few minutes left of the game, something astonishing happens. France's captain and star player, Zinedine Zidane violently knocks the Italian player, Marco Materazzi, to the ground. It's a flagrant foul. Zidane is ejected from the game. Without its captain and star, France goes on to lose the match and lose the championship. It did make headlines around the world. Everyone had a single question. Why did he do it? Why would someone on the cusp of the greatest victory in his life throw it all the way?

Ryan Brown: This was Zidane's final game of his career. He was the captain of the team, as you mentioned, representing France, although he was actually from Algeria.

Shankar Vedantam: This again is Rice University psychologist, Ryan Brown

Ryan Brown: Throughout the match, he was kind of sparring with Marco Materazzi from Italy. You could tell that they were being a little physical with each other. They were exchanging words throughout. And at one point, Materazzi says something to him. Nobody can tell, of course, watching what was said, but as it Zidane headbutts in the chest. Now, nobody knew what had sparked this until a while later when Zidane was interviewed about it. And it turns out that Materazzi had insulted his sister. Zidane said, "After the game, I'll give you my Jersey as a souvenir." Materazzi replied that he'd rather have the Zidane sisters Jersey. Clearly, a suggestion of a sexual nature. And Zidane couldn't handle it.

Shankar Vedantam: Again, the French captain said he'd give the Italian his Jersey after the game. He was implying France was going to win. And he would graciously give the Italian his Jersey as a souvenir to remember the crushing defeat. The Italian player later recalled saying, "I'd rather have your sister, the whore." As hundreds of millions of people watched, Zinedine Zidane responded with a sudden burst of violence.

Ryan Brown: About four years after this event, he was asked if he felt like he should apologize to Materazzi. And he said, he'd rather die than apologize.

Shankar Vedantam: The French president, Jacques Chirac, weighed in on the incident. Far from bemoaning the loss of the world championship, he hailed Zinedine Zidane as a man of heart and conviction. Ryan Brown thinks there's a connection between what happened on that soccer field and what happened to him and his friends when they were teenagers. Even with the World Cup on the line, Zinedine Zidane would not back down when he felt his family was insulted. David would not back down even as he was risking his life and the lives of his friends. Both the soccer player and the teenager were following the gendered scripts of what Ryan calls an "honor culture."

Ryan Brown: Honor cultures are societies that put the defensive reputation at the center of social life and make that defense one of the highest priorities that people have. So in each one of these cases, there was an element of defensive reputation driving people's behaviors. In the case of Zidane, his sister's virtue had been called into question by an opponent, and he felt he absolutely had to respond. He had no choice, but to respond with aggression. In the case of my friend David, driving late at night, that sort of behavior, excessive risk-taking behavior to show how brave and tough you are, is an element of honor culture. It's a way of building your reputation. And furthermore, his inability to back down when confronted by me was another aspect of honor culture. That's very typical of people who are driven by honor-related beliefs and values.

Shankar Vedantam: But all of us care about reputation. What's different about reputation in one of these honor cultures?

Ryan Brown: Well you're right. Every human being that's ever lived cares about their reputation, they care about how other people see them. Honor cultures put this normal universal human concern on cultural steroids. And they also create a set of scripts or demands for how you should respond when your reputation is at risk. When your honor has been threatened, you have to respond in kind. You don't back down. If you ever back down, you'll be known as the kind of person who can be taken advantage of, who can be teased, who can be humiliated. You can't have that in an honor culture.

Shankar Vedantam: You see that honor cultures are more likely to thrive in communities that are small or rural. In a small town, as you say, everyone knows your name and everyone knows your shame.

Ryan Brown: That's right. So smaller communities seem like, on the face of it, they should be safer communities because everybody knows everybody. And there are ways in which that might be true. But if that smaller community exists within an honor culture, then the fact that everybody knows who you are can be problematic for you, at least in the case when your honor has been threatened, when you have been humiliated, when you have failed in some public way and everybody knows about it. So you're the opposite of safe.

Ryan Brown: In a larger community, in a big city, you might have the same failure experience but you can walk down the street and be relatively anonymous. That's not true in a small town, if those smaller communities are situated within honor cultures.

Shankar Vedantam: Are you yourself a product of an honor culture, Ryan?

Ryan Brown: I am. And I knew that when I began this research on honor cultures, but I didn't actually realize the extent to which it was true. In the United States, at least, a lot of the roots of our honor-related beliefs and values come to us from immigrants from Southern Scotland, people who were broadly known as the Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish. And so it turns out my own people, my own fore-bearers on my father's side are Scottish immigrants. Largely because of where they settled in the U.S, we can see the residue of these honor-related beliefs and values that they brought with him in states, primarily in the South and in the West. In the North and Northern Midwest, there were actually different groups of immigrants that came over from England, from the Netherlands, from Germany, from Sweden. And all these different immigrant groups brought their own beliefs and values with them. And to some extent, those beliefs and values remained intact within communities. And so in communities in the Southern colonies, when the U.S was not quite the United States yet, those beliefs and values of those Scottish immigrants really came to dominate the cultures of the Southern colonies, eventually Southern States. And because these Scottish immigrants came over with their families, which was unusual for trans-atlantic immigration at the time, they were essentially able to outbreed all these other groups that settled in the South. And so their norms and their values that they brought over with them really came to dominate the communities, the cultures of the Southern colonies, the Southern states. Then they push West. And so if you think about Westerns, if you think about Western movies or Western history, they're always rough and tumble guys with names that sound kind of Scottish, McTavish, McDonald, McDougal, Graham, et cetera. And that's not an accident. So even today, even though most people in the South don't think of themselves as byproducts of Scottish history, you can still see this cultural residue in some fairly powerful patterns of social life that social scientists, many others, including myself, have documented over the last 20 years.

Shankar Vedantam: You've actually found a connection between honor culture and military valor. Can you talk about that at a moment? What is the relationship, for example, between the states that have a high honor culture and states that don't and military success or military valor?

Ryan Brown: Well, several years ago, my colleagues and I looked at the recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor for soldiers that fought during World War II. So we examined these recipients And what we found is that soldiers who came from honor States in the U.S South and West were significantly more likely to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor than soldiers who came from other states. Now, let me be clear. Valor can be exhibited by anyone, men, women, white, black, it doesn't matter where you're from or who you are, but the important thing was that in this study, that people who came from honor states seem to be more likely to engage in the sorts of behaviors that would be recognized as valorous. Which often meant they lost their own lives, or at least risk their own lives for their comrades. And this is an element of, again, the kind of reputation that you want to build if you're a man living in an honor culture: You're strong, brave, and loyal, that you take care of the people around you. You defend them even as you would defend yourself. Even at the risk of your own life.

Shankar Vedantam: Showing courage, even when your own life is at stake and protecting the people around you, these might seem like inherently positive traits. But groups that are intent on defending that honor can also get trapped in endless cycles of violence and retribution. To be clear, honor cultures are widespread across the globe. They can be found in many countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. They can also be found in black and brown communities in the United States. They are particularly prevalent in the U.S South and West. Drive through States like Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas, and you can see honor culture reflected, even in the names of towns and businesses. The researcher, Michael Kelly, found a family in Alabama could have that television serviced at Warrior Electronics, their dog housed at Gunsmoke Kennels, their home addition built by Bullet Construction, and that children taught at Battleground School.

Ryan Brown: One of my favorite examples I actually ran into, kind of literally, as I was driving through Texas many years ago, trying to take a shortcut back between Alabama and Oklahoma where I was living at the time. And we were going through all these back country roads until we came upon this little town called "Cut and Shoot," Texas. And we stopped on the side of the road to take a picture of the signs, Cut and Shoot, Texas. So who names a town, not one violent, but to "cut" and "shoot." In case we don't get you with one, we'll get you with the other. And research has found that businesses and town names that contain some kind of violent imagery are much more common in honor states than non-honor states in the U.S.

Shankar Vedantam: Place names are only one small example of the many ways in which honor culture shapes the lives of millions of people. When we come back, the surprising origins of honor culture and the profound ways it shapes who we are and how we vote. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Ryan Brown is a psychologist at Rice University. He's the author of Honor Bound: How a Cultural Ideal Has Shaped the American Psyche. Ryan, honor cultures don't just spring out of nowhere. You say there are very specific conditions that tend to produce these cultures. What are those conditions?

Ryan Brown: The conditions that social scientists believe spawn honor cultures fall into really two main categories. The first is that, economically, people have to feel insecure. That kind of insecurity at an economic level often coincides with poverty. But it's more than just poverty. It's the instability. You've got to feel uncertain about whether or not you will survive economically the next season, the next year. And combined with that economic insecurity, there's a sense of the unreliability of law enforcement. So what we refer to as the rule of law is not very strong. When these two things coincide that makes threats, social threats, especially important. If somebody comes and steals your cattle, threatened your family, you know that nobody's coming to save you, that's it for you. And so reputation is incredibly important. You want to have a reputation as someone that nobody should mess with. They're going to think twice before messing with you, or your stuff, or your family. Because they know that you're going to respond aggressively and violently. And that sort of reputation protects you.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. It's important to flag here that it's not just a culture of violence. Because, in fact, honor cultures don't necessarily endorse people acting violently toward one another with no provocation. It's responding violently or aggressively in the face of threat or the face of some kind of an effort to exploit you.

Ryan Brown: That's right. Honor cultures, for example, are often very polite cultures. But something that Dov Cohen has referred to as the paradox of politeness, is that these politeness norms coincide with norms associated with responding aggressively to honor threats. So for example in the U.S South, it's a very polite place, is where I grew up in Alabama. You learn to say, yes, ma'am and no, sir, and please, and thank you, and pardon me, but once you cross me, you cross a certain line, I'm going to kill you then. One of us is going to die. This is the paradox. Is that you have this politeness that goes hand in hand with this sensitivity to threat. And the problem, of course, is that if you have a sensitivity to threat, although you're not always walking around behaving aggressively toward people, what it takes to set you off isn't very much.

Shankar Vedantam: It could be as little as, "You're looking at me."

Ryan Brown: Exactly. Now you've got to respond and then I have to respond. Yes, I technically didn't start the fight, but it didn't take very much to get me into it either.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, someone could say things that happened in the long ago past, what do they have to do with the present? So you mentioned immigration patterns of the Scots-Irish to the United States, for example, but what is the culture of Scotland in the 15th, 16th, 17th century have to do with the culture in South Carolina in the 21st century? Can you talk a moment about the power that culture has to get passed down, even into contexts where the original environment that created the culture no longer exists?

Ryan Brown: Yes. That is a really important question, I think. Because it's easy to look at these origins of honor culture, beliefs, and values and say, "Well, that doesn't describe us today. That's not my people. That's not my family. That's not my community." But it doesn't have to be. And that's the power of social norms. That's the power of these beliefs and values that are rooted in our definitions of self. What does it mean to be a person of value? In an honor culture, what it means to be a person of value is that you are the kind of person who's lived up to the demands of what it means to be a "real man" or a "good woman." In other cultures that we sometimes refer to as dignity cultures, a person has value, they have worth because they're a human being. So of course there's differences in reputation, differences even in social status, but there's a degree to which you can never fully lose your worth if you live in a dignity culture. And in honor culture, you have to maintain these standards. You have to live up to these standards of being a real man or a good woman. And if you don't, you could lose your value altogether and never get it back.

Shankar Vedantam: Ryan and his colleague, Jennifer Barnes have explored how American movies have long-valorized honor cultures. There's The Princess Bride.

Mandy Patinkin, as Inigo Montoya:

Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Shankar Veda tam: Dirty Harry.

Clint Eastwood, as Harry Callahan:

Go ahead. M ke my day.

Shankar Vedantam: And of course, The Godfather.

Marlon Brando, as Don Vito Corleone:

What have I ever done to make you treat me so disresp ctfully?

Ryan Brown: These movies, frequently, teach people and reinforce the themes that are associated with honor-related beliefs and values. So themes of retaliation, for example, are incredibly common in these very popular films. And kids' movies or superhero movies, even some animated films were the most likely to exhibit these honor-related themes. Again, they weren't directly about honor. They didn't always say honor and reputation, but they were about this idea of retaliation for wrongdoing. That you stand up to the bad guy, you stand up to the bully and you fight. You don't back down. And so this is one of the ways that we see these beliefs and values kind of subtly, I think, being reinforced in contemporary times. You see it in music as well. Country music I think is especially prevalent, where we talk about what it means to be a "real man" or a "good woman." And so these beliefs and values really stick around for a long time, long after the social conditions that created them have disappeared into the past.

Shankar Vedantam: Ryan first got interested in honor culture because of a study of homicides conducted by Richard Nisbett and his colleagues. In his book, Ryan describes what happens during argument-based homicides.

Ryan Brown: What Nisbett and his colleagues found early on was that, first of all, argument-based homicides are one of the most common forms of homicide in the U.S. So they start with what police typically refer to as a trivial altercation. You're in a bar, perhaps, you've been drinking a little bit, and you notice somebody at the table next to you who's kind of looking at you funny. So at some point, you make eye contact, you lock eyes and you say, "Are you looking at me?" And maybe they respond with some glib comment about why they'd be looking at you. "You're too ugly to look at." Or, "No, I was looking at your sister." Or some comment like that. And escalates. And now you have to respond. So it began with something that was nothing, a trivial altercation. And because, in an honor culture, you can't stand somebody insulting your honor, you can't just sit there and take it, it escalates. And each party tries to one up the other. And eventually, you wind up in the parking lot and somebody is lying on the ground in a pool of blood. And it usually happens in a public setting where whatever you do or don't do, will be known by the people around you. So again, your reputation is at stake. And these sorts of homicides, unlike other forms of homicide, like homicides that are committed in the midst of a robbery, for example, these argument-based homicides are much more common in honor-oriented states than in non-honor States in the U.S.

Shankar Vedantam: Researchers have conducted experiments to see how threats to reputation can quickly escalate. In one study men from the Southern United States, whether as a strong honor culture, and men from the Northern United States, whose honor culture is less strong were insulted by an actor. The actor then disappeared behind a locked door. The volunteers in the experiment were then made to walk down a narrow corridor that was lined with chairs.

Ryan Brown: So right after being insulted, they're walking down this long-narrow hallway, again, lined with chairs, only one person can walk down at a time. And there's a large person walking in the opposite direction toward them. And now they have a dilemma to get out of this person's way, which they're going to have to do because he's enormous. He's like a football player, a linebacker. They're going to get out of his way, but to do so, they're going to have to awkwardly turn to the side, sit or stand on the chairs. And it's essentially a game of chicken. Now, what do you do if you're from an honor culture and you feel your honor has been threatened? You're going to go toe to toe with this guy. So the researchers were actually measuring the distance between these two people, the linebacker and the insulted participant, to see how close the participants let this guy get before they finally got out of his way. And again, they always got out of his way. There was no choice. The Southern participants who were not insulted previously, so there was no honor threat, were extremely gracious, extremely polite. And they were actually likely to turn and get out of the guy's way much earlier than the Northern participants, the ones that grew up in non-honor states. But after an insult, the Southern participants went toe to toe with this guy. They're going to get out of his way, they can't help it, they're going to have to, but they get right up next to him. Because they're demonstrating that they're tough. They're not afraid. They're real men.

Ryan Brown: And subsequent studies that use the same sort of paradigm actually showed that these Southern males, after being insulted, experienced spikes in testosterone and cortisol so that they had higher levels of hormones that are associated with both stress and social competition coursing through their bloodstream.

Shankar Vedantam: So there's something that ties together many of the examples we've discussed, Ryan, whether that's violence on a soccer field or teenage boys behaving recklessly or games of chicken. It does seem like there's a connection between honor culture and masculinity.

Ryan Brown: Well, I've said already that honor cultures put the defensive reputation at the center of social life. And that leads to the question, well, what kind of reputation? What sort of reputation do you want to build and then maintain if you live in an honor culture? And the answer to that question depends upon whether you're a man or a woman. So if you're a "real man" in an honor culture, then that means you've built a reputation as someone who's strong, tough, brave, loyal, and utterly intolerant of disrespect. If you're a woman in an honor culture and you're considered a "good woman" and "honorable woman," that means that you've lived up to the social standards of, say you should be loyal to family, especially loyal to your husband, and sexually pure. So imagine a situation in which you have a couple, they could be a married couple, or they could be dating, and the man feels like the woman has been flirting with another man. And so he confronts her about it because this is a threat to his honor. Are you disrespecting me? Are you suggesting that you can just behave that way with other men and I'm not going to notice, or I'm not going to care? So that might be the beginning of a pattern that is similar to what we talked about before with the trivial altercation. It begins with something small. It might just be a look, it might be a laugh, a giggle at another person's joke. And the man feels disrespected. He's suspicious. He's worried about his reputation. And so it escalates from there. And what we found is that domestic homicide rates in the U.S are significantly higher among white males in honor states compared to white males in non-honor states. And what we found is that women who endorse the beliefs and values of honor feel like those acts of jealousy and anger and even aggression and control are signs that the man is invested in her, and that he loves her, and he cares about her. So you can see why this sort of norm might get perpetuated. It's the kind of thing that could elevate me in the eyes of others, in the eyes of women, that I show this pattern of aggressive control of my woman in a relationship.

Shankar Vedantam: There was a disturbing study by Joseph Vandello and Dov Cohen, in which they staged a fight between a couple in a waiting room. And the fight was partly designed to figure out how someone watching it would respond. Can you describe the experiment to me and what they found?

Ryan Brown: In this particular experiment, the researchers had women from honor-oriented cultures or non-honor cultures who are sitting in a waiting room waiting to participate in the study. And as they're sitting there, there's another woman sitting next to them. And at some point, her boyfriend apparently comes into the waiting room in accosts her. And there's a different scenario depending on the condition of the study that the people are in. In one scenario, he accosts her for sort of random reasons having nothing to do with honor. In the other scenario, he accosts her for reasons that are associated with his masculine pride, with his honor. And at the end of this confrontation, he actually shoves the young woman up against the wall, threatens her, and then storms off. And the researchers are actually looking at how the real participant responds to the young woman who's been accosted by her boyfriend. And women from an honor culture who witnessed this confrontation, if it were based on an honor-related threat to the guy, they were basically telling her it'll be okay, you should placate him, stay in the relationship, et cetera. And this is really important, going back to your comment, Shankar. In any kind of culture, we care about what others think. And this is another way in which honor-related beliefs and values get transmitted and taught. Even when people are not explicitly using the word honor or reputation, we still learn what's important to the people around us, what sort of behaviors we're supposed to engage in, in order to be respected, in order to have high status and to be valued by everybody else.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the things that's really intriguing about this body of work, Ryan, is how you can see the same psychological dynamics at play in different countries, in very different contexts. The psychologist, Anna Costanza Baldry, ran a study with police officers in Afghanistan, where the officers were presented different scenarios of domestic violence. Do you remember what scenarios the officers were shown and how they reacted?

Ryan Brown: The important thing to remember, to begin with, is that Afghanistan is a very honor-oriented culture. It may be the most honor-oriented culture in the world. So these police officers responding to an assault situation, a domestic violence situation. If an officer is called in to respond to a domestic dispute, shows up and the husband, or the boyfriend, or even the ex-husband or boyfriend is claiming that the woman has been unfaithful, the officer might downplay, might not arrest the man, might even leave the couple to work it out on their own and say, "Oh, this is a personal matter. I don't need to respond." So it's a very important phenomenon in which the way that we construe a domestic violence situation is affected profoundly by the extent to which we believe in and embrace the values of honor culture.

Shankar Vedantam: Ryan, we've talked about different ways in which an honor culture gets passed down, in books, or movies, in the ways in which people respond to our stories, in the ways in which a police officer might respond to something that he or she sees. But honor cultures are also enshrined in laws, in state laws that are on the books. Can you talk a moment about how, in some ways, the ideology of honor cultures show up in laws, for example, like Stand Your Ground where very, very explicitly, you're told, you can act in your own self-defense if you feel like you are under threat.

Ryan Brown: Yeah. It's Stand Your Ground laws are legal extension of the castle doctrine goes back to English, common law, and it basically says, "A person's castle is their home. And they can defend that home, that castle, even by taking someone's life." So somebody breaks into your home, you can kill them according to the castle doctrine. And it's not murder. It's the defense of home. And so Stand Your Ground laws extend that castle doctrine to not just your home, but any place where you're legally allowed to be. So rather than being required to retreat when confronted by an aggressive person who might look dangerous, might be dangerous, might even have a weapon, you don't have to retreat according to Stand Your Ground laws. You can stand where you are and defend yourself. And if you assault that person, if you even kill that person, it's not considered murder. It's not even considered assault. It's considered self-defense. And different states have different orientations towards Stand Your Ground around laws. Some of them don't call them that. And what you see, looking around the U.S, is that the vast majority of states with Stand Your Ground laws are in honor states as opposed to dignity states. So these laws, again, allow people to live up to the expectations of an honor culture by not retreating when they're confronted by another person. Which is exactly what you want to do if you're in an honor culture.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, if people bound by an honor code are willing to retaliate against those who threatened them or threatened their reputations, what happens when people feel they have let themselves down, when their own actions have damaged their reputations? You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. In places where the rule of law is weak, a culture of honor can spring up as a form of self protection. In such a culture, your security is tied to your reputation and the reputation of your group. You must guard this reputation against all slights, big and small. If you show any weakness, frailty, or fear, it's like putting up a big neon sign that says, "Take advantage of me." Ryan, I want to talk about a very serious implication of honor culture in the modern United States. You told a story of a friend whose child developed a series of physical tics. The child had Tourette's syndrome. Your friend lived in Oklahoma, tell me about the conversation you had and the fears he had about this diagnosis going public?

Ryan Brown: One of the subtle aspects of honor culture dynamics that my students and I have found over the years is connected to this concern about being seen as weak. And it turns out that, and there's a lot of research on this idea, when people have a struggle with mental illness, whatever that particular struggle might be, it might be depression, anxiety, or even something like Tourette's syndrome. Other people, if they're coming from a culture of honor, might see that struggle and view it as a sign of mental instability, mental weakness, and add extra stigma to it. So, again, mental health issues are stigmatized all over the place, all over the world and virtually every community, but honor cultures magnify that kind of stigmatization. So my friend's concerned about his son with Tourette's syndrome, I think, was not unreasonable given where he was living, in an honor culture and in honor oriented community. But there's a second element to this that I think compliments, in kind of a perverse way, these honor-related mental health stigmatization issues. And that's that if we see something as a sign of weakness, if it's something that we disparage or despise, then we're not very likely to invest in resources to help deal with that issue. So one of the things that we found in our research is that honor-oriented States in the U.S invest significantly fewer resources in mental health care. And this creates kind of a perfect storm, because you have all these enormous pressures associated with living up to the standards of honor in your honor-oriented community. And then in addition to that, if you have struggles with these honor-related standards, living up to them, you have fewer people to go to. You have fewer resources to draw upon.

Shankar Vedantam: And note that this next section of our conversation will touch on the topic of suicide. Ryan has looked at the connection between honor cultures and the prevalence of suicide. He tells the stories of two men, both fathers of his friends who died by suicide.

Ryan Brown: They were very different men. One was very extroverted and outgoing, was a firefighter, spent his life dramatically saving other people's lives. The other was a sociable, but more introverted pastor. Again, he spent his life caring for others, but in a less dramatic fashion. This experience of within about a two-year period going to the funerals of these two men really inspired me to look more closely into the connection between honor culture and suicide. Honor cultures value reputation above all else. And if you lose your reputation, you might never get it back. You might always live with dishonor. It could make some sense that people who feel like they failed in some important way, or they're deeply anxious about an impending failure that they perceive on the horizon, that they might consider suicide as an escape from dishonor, from shame. So my students and I spent a few years looking at this connection. And what we found was, men in particular, women to a lesser extent, who live in honor states, especially if they're white, are significantly more likely to die by suicide.

Shankar Vedantam: And I think the statistics show that, even though suicide affects every race in every age group, middle-aged white men appear to be especially at high risk. And in fact, I believe that risk is growing, perhaps growing especially in honor states.

Ryan Brown: Yes. What we find is that at every age group, white males in honors states are significantly more likely to die by suicide than white males in non-honor states. But the gap between men in these different regions of the country grows pretty consistently over time. And by the mid-fifties, that gap really starts expanding dramatically. So men in the oldest age category of 75-plus are dramatically more likely to die by suicide if they live in honor states versus non-honor states. What's their value based upon now? They're not providers anymore. They're getting older and frailer. They're going to the doctor all the time. So they probably feel physically weak. And it makes a certain amount of sense that they might feel this kind of failure as a reflection of a lack of honor. And consistent with what we see in the case of argument-based homicides, this pattern of higher suicide rates in honors states is once again magnified in people living in smaller, more rural communities. Where, again, everybody knows your name and everybody knows your shame.

Shankar Vedantam: And some of the statistics on suicide appear to be linked to patterns of gun ownership. Certainly, people who use guns to attempt suicide are far more likely to end up killing themselves just because guns are so much more lethal than many other means of suicide. Can you talk a little bit about the patterns of gun ownership and honor culture in the United States?

Ryan Brown: Certainly. And you're absolutely right that gun ownership is closely tied to suicide rates at a community level. Whether at the county level or the state level, research has shown that the percentage of people with guns in the home is the single best predictor of suicide rates in that community. So what we found is that when we look at suicide rates across different states, and we compare honor states to non-honor states or dignity states, that the suicide rates are higher in our states even controlling for gun ownership rates. Gun ownership rates, probably not surprisingly, are significantly higher in honor states than they are in non-honor states. And it's interesting, you can actually go beyond just gun ownership and find that the methods people use to commit suicide are actually more violent if they live in honor states. So they're more likely to use a gun, but they're also more likely to use other weapons as well. It's as if they're making a statement in the manner in which they take their own life, that says, "I'm strong. I'm tough. And I'm going out in a dramatic and violent way."

Shankar Vedantam: I want to spend a few minutes talking about the role of honor culture in politics. Your list of states where there is a strong honor culture include South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. And states that don't include Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Hawaii, and Minnesota. It's hard not to see a division there between prototypical red states and prototypical blue states. Republican states and Democratic states, Ryan.

Ryan Brown: Yes. And there is, in fact, across a variety of studies that we've done, a modest connection between the endorsement of honor-related beliefs and values and political conservativism. It's a consistent and robust connection. But it's not all that strong. I think, perhaps, a more important way of thinking about how honor and politics are related is not to connect the ideology of honor with any particular political camp, but to think about them as distinct ideological frameworks that can sometimes be combined.

Ryan Brown: So, for example, in today's political climate, it's extremely polarized, it's extremely partisan. And what I see, what I think many people see in the U.S, is that once you've picked aside, if you're a Republican, or Democratic, or Conservative, or a Liberal, you have a tendency to demonize the other side. You define them as other. They're the bad guys. They're the enemy. Even though their fellow Americans. Once you've demonized your opponent, you've decided they are other, now they're the enemy. And if you combine that sort of thinking with the beliefs and values associated with honor culture, that's a really bad combination. Because what do we do to our enemies and an honor culture? We kill them. We fight them. We get honor, to an extent, by winning and defeating them.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering, as someone who grew up in the South, and grew up in an honor culture, and has spent much of his professional life studying it, what do you think today it means, or should mean, to be a man or a woman of honor?

Ryan Brown: I like the idea of loyalty and taking care of the people around me and being that kind of person, but other aspects of an honor culture, I don't like so much. I mean, this has been my approach personally, and even the way that I've raised along with my wife, our two sons. We want to raise sons who are loyal and who care about and take care of the people around them. We don't want to raise young men who define their worth according to whether they live up to these standards of being tough, and brave, and intolerant to disrespect. So it's important to recognize that these beliefs and values can affect you even if you consciously reject them. Because then that way, you can take a more deliberative approach to your life and think more objectively and carefully about who you want to be.

Shankar Vedantam: Ryan Brown is a psychologist at Rice University. He's the author of "Honor Bound: How a Cultural Ideal Has Shaped the American Psyche." Ryan, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Ryan Brown: Thank you, Shankar. It's been great talking with you.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is Alan Henry. Alan is an editor at WIRED, and a former physicist. He has a knack for making difficult and complicated subjects easy to understand. As we were putting together a recent episode that explored a concept in physics, we found ourselves confused. We pinged Alan. He was instantly responsive. He was also gracious and very helpful. A true unsung hero. Thank you, Alan. The episode you've just heard is part of a three-part series looking at how our minds engage with stories. If you haven't listened already, please check out the two earlier episodes in the series, which are titled; the "Story of Stories" and "Story of Your Life." If you enjoy this series, please take a moment to tell your friends about us. If your friends are new to podcasting and need help subscribing to our podcast, please show them how to do so. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.


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