The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Accident-Prone States

Southern and western states have higher rates of accidental death.

I have written previously about psychological differences across states in the US, and I have written previously about accidents. So, my interest was drawn to a recent research article by Collin Barnes, Ryan Brown, and Michael Tamborski (2011) finding that the death rate due to accidents - traumatic mishaps like auto crashes, drowning, and fires - is higher in some states than in others. The states with the highest rates of death due to accidents are those in the south and the west.

 

What makes this research more than a gee-whiz exercise is that the researchers proposed a plausible way to make sense of what they found. They made use of previous work on the so-called southern culture of honor, which proposes that those who settled the American South, for various economic and social reasons, have long been concerned with reputation and affronts to it, as in "Don't mess with Texas" (Nisbett & Cohen, 1996).

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One of the behavioral manifestations of the culture of honor is doing things that demonstrate conventional masculinity and fearlessness, like riding a motorcycle without a helmet or rock climbing without a partner. Those of us who think these are stupid acts likely do not endorse the view that these are ways of showing our honor!

It is possible to gauge the degree to which residents of a given state collectively endorse the culture of honor, and in the research by Barnes and colleagues, these measures robustly predicted accidental deaths across states, even when likely confounds - like speed limits, number of police per capita, economic deprivation, and annual temperature - were taken into account.

A follow-up survey study by these researchers found that University of Oklahoma undergraduates who endorsed culture of honor values (e.g., ''a real man doesn't let other people push him around'') also said they were likely to do risky things, like bungee jumping, showing more directly the link between the culture of honor and risk-taking.  

Interesting about the research is that the results held for both men and women, despite the framing of the culture of honor in terms of conventional masculinity.

Accidental deaths are a downside of a concern with one's honor and reputation. Are acts of bravery an upside?

References

Barnes, C. D., Brown, R., & Tamborski, M. (2011). Living dangerously, culture of honor, risk-taking, and the nonrandomness of "accidental" deaths. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Nisbett, R. E., & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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