Football and the Southern Culture of Honor

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Michael Kraus and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on November 6, 2011.

This weekend, college football fans were treated to one of the most highly anticipated football games in the recent history of the sport: #1 LSU vs. #2 Alabama in a battle of the unbeaten juggernauts of college football. As expected, the game was a physical, defense-first battle. A true representation of what has become a southern tradition.

A social psychologist by training, I tend to think about this new southern tradition in the context of some of my other stereotypes of the south. For instance, southern hospitality comes to mind. This makes me wonder:

How does such a hospitable place also earn a reputation for smash-mouth football?

The answer lies in the research of Dov Cohen and his colleagues (1996) on what has been called the Southern Culture of Honor.  Cohen observed that the original people who settled in the southern parts of the USA tended to be from herding cultures of the United Kingdom. These herding cultures live in environments where people’s livelihood (e.g., their sheep) are in context motion, and also, under constant threat of theft from others. It is these environmental circumstances, Cohen argued, that make honorable behavior of critical importance.

Over time, the importance of honor among Southerners creates a culture. Cohen reasoned that in times that are free of conflict, Southerners would live up to their reputations of being kind and hospitable. In contrast, if others behaved aggressively, or even insulted a person from the South, the result would be an aggressive response that would be more extreme than that of a person from another region of the USA.

The way Cohen and colleagues tested these predictions was compelling. In the research, participants were screened for their ancestry, with about equal numbers of people with families from the Northern and Southern USA recruited for the experiment. Upon arriving, the participants’ path to the experiment was blocked by a file cabinet where an experimenter was working. The experimenter promptly closed the file cabinet when the participant arrived and either said nothing, or under his breath, said “Asshole.” Participants were subsequently greeted with a handshake by another experimenter. When experimenters rated the firmness of the handshake, this is what they found:

The Southern participants shook hands with the experimenter much more firmly when they were insulted before the experiment, relative to Northern participants, and relative to Southern participants who weren’t insulted.

In a follow-up study, Cohen and colleagues again conducted the same insult paradigm, but then had participants walk down the hallway directly toward a large male football player who walked directly toward them. For this game of hallway chicken, the experimenter measured the distance between the football player and the participant where the participant finally decided to step aside in the hallway. The results showed a similar pattern:

Again, the southern participants got much closer to the football player in the hallway chicken game when insulted.

So there you have it, the Southern Culture of Honor. In light of these classic findings, it is easy to see how people from the South can be seen simultaneously as warm/respectful/hospitable and as the forerunners of smash-mouth football! Are you a college football fan? If so, I’d love to hear your comments regarding who will win the BCS national championship (or your psychology-related comments)! Go Bears!

Cohen D, Nisbett RE, Bowdle BF, & Schwarz N (1996). Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor: an “experimental ethnography”. Journal of personality and social psychology, 70 (5), 945-59 PMID: 8656339

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