The Frontal Cortex

Social Status

In the latest Mind Matters, Adam Waytz (an old college friend, co-author of my favorite book on basketball, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, and now a post-doc at Harvard) writes about a fascinating new paper by PJ Henry on social status and aggression. If you’ve read Gladwell’s excellent Outliers, then you’re probably familiar with the work of Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen. They argued, in an influential series of papers, that landscapes more conducive to herding were more likely to have a “culture of honor,” which led to increased violence. Here’s Waytz:

The story goes that because herders from Southern Britain originally settled in the Southern United States (and also established a herding economy on the new land), this left them in an economically precarious position. The possessions of these herdsmen–the most important of which was their livestock–was susceptible to theft, forcing individuals to develop a quick trigger in response to threats, economic or otherwise. In comparison, the farming economy of the North was far more secure, requiring a less aggressive and protective stance toward one’s personal resources.

It’s an extremely clever hypothesis. But Harvey suggests another explanation, which doesn’t rely on indirect historical effects:

Henry took on the traditional Culture of Honor hypothesis to suggest instead that differences between herding and farming cultures in violence actually stem from differences in status. His theory is based on a considerable psychological literature demonstrating that individuals from low-status groups (e.g. ethnic minorities) tend to engage in more vigilant psychological self-protection than those from high-status groups. Low-status people are much more sensitive to being socially rejected and are more inclined to monitor their environment for threats. Because of this vigilance toward protecting their sense of self-worth, low-status individuals are quicker to respond violently to personal threats and insults.

Henry first examined archival data on counties across the American South to show that murder rates from 1972 to 2006 were far higher in counties that were dry and hilly (conducive to herding) than those that were moist and flat (conducive to farming). Above and beyond the effect of geography, however, the level of status disparities in a particular county explained these increased murder rates. Even after accounting for the general level of wealth in a given county (wealthier counties tend to have lower murder rates), status disparity still predicted murder rates. Not content with merely looking at the United States, Henry analyzed data from 92 countries around the world, to find a replication of this pattern. From Albania to Zimbabwe, greater status disparities predicted greater levels of violence.

To provide evidence that tendencies for psychological self-protection were the crucial critical link between status and violence, Henry assessed survey data from over 1,500 Americans. In this nationally representative sample, low-socioeconomic status (low-SES) individuals reported far more psychological defensiveness in terms of considering themselves more likely to be taken advantage of and trusting people less.

In other words, herding isn’t the problem. There is nothing inherently violent about raising sheep. Instead, the important variable is inequality, which leads to large gaps in social status and concomitant increases in aggression, at least among those at the bottom of the social heap.

Comments

  1. #1 royniles
    December 8, 2009

    If the important variable is inequality, isn’t it also important to consider the nature or cause or context for that inequality? Which seems to make herding, if not, as you state, “the problem,” at least a part of the explanation.
    The statement that “there is nothing inherently violent about raising sheep” is meaningless in that context since specific reference was made to such individuals having “far more psychological defensiveness in terms of considering themselves more likely to be taken advantage of and trusting people less.”
    It seems to be a consistent failing of yours that you present an excellent set of contrasting observations and then proceed to miss your own point at the end.

  2. #2 RC
    December 8, 2009

    Not only is murder correlated to social inequality, but so is other crime, ill-health and psychological problems. See the recently published “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better”, by epidemiologists Wilson and Pickett. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Spirit-Level-Societies-Almost-Always/dp/1846140390)

    Provocatively, individuals at the top of these unequal societies also suffer these problems more than do members of more equal societies. In other words, it’s not just an effect of simple poverty.

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 8, 2009

    Fascinating! I’m glad you posted this.

  4. #4 The Organism
    December 9, 2009

    This is actually a pretty obvious conclusion. Was there really a need for such deep study to get to it?

  5. #5 Donna B.
    December 9, 2009

    I’m not able to read the paper, but the premise of herders of Southern England becoming herders in the dry hilly parts of the South. does not fit with what I have previously learned about settlement patterns, eg from Albion’s Seed (David Hackett Fischer).

    From your brief presentation, it would appear slavery was also overlooked.

  6. #6 Brett Stevens
    December 9, 2009

    The important variable?

    There are multiple important variables.

    This story is a great oversimplification of a complex situation.

    The problem isn’t inequality of outcome, it’s inequality of ability.

  7. #7 Tom
    December 9, 2009

    Soo…. its not clear from the post how herding/agriculture is related to social inequality. Does herding result in a more unequal distribution of resources?
    Even if there was a stronger correlation between inequality and murder rates, there first article seemed to suggest there was a statistically significant correlation between herding/murder rates that also needs to be explained..

  8. #8 Aman Zed
    December 9, 2009

    The Organism: Plenty of “obvious” conclusions turn out to be false, so I think it is worthwhile to do actual studies rather than sit in a comfortable armchair, gesticulating.

  9. #9 ali
    December 9, 2009

    um — isn’t herding in scrubby hills (sheep, goats) considered, generally, marginal territory?
    that is, if it become occupied by people then perhaps by those who have been migrated there for lack of other options?
    seems like both the setting/culture and the status factor would both create the honor culture outcome– the formation of herding cultures in conjunction with being isolated in other ways (ethnicity, status, etc).
    Seems like to two theories work together, not disprove each other. Could even think of it like a niche in multiple senses? Unused space with particular clime; particular domesticated animals that do well there; people with the opportunity and with the inclination to thrive in that setting.

    ‘course– just top of the head response. Mostly from having read Nisbett but also Albion’s Seed by Fisher. Will have to try & finagle a copy of the Harvey article. (esp. interested with regard to Nisbett’s experiments showing anger patterns only among those subjects from very specific geographical backgrounds, even generations removed)

  10. #10 Robyn
    December 11, 2009

    Japan is considered to have one of the most rigid ‘cultures of honor’ in the world, but they’re primarily agrarian in background? Or does the study ignore ‘non-western’ cultures?

    I live in one of the most unequal countries in the world, and it is that gap, not livestock farming and the psychological changes it engenders, that causes an increase in violence.

  11. #11 Parcel Dave
    December 25, 2009

    It’s amazing how so much in psychology comes back to an individual’s feeling (or not) of self worth and our/their attempts to protect/enhance/defend it at all costs. Surely our schooling should take the establishing of a robust sense of self worth as a fundamental goal for the first 5 years or so of education?

  12. #12 Jet
    December 27, 2009

    Violent crime also corresponds to IQ. People with IQs between 70 and 90 have higher violent crime rates than those above or below this range. People in this range are also likely to reside at the bottom of the social hierarchy in modern economies.

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