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.