What Drives Men to Commit Violence?

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Illustration by Paul K via Flickr

Researchers at Kansas State University say that adherence to an “honor culture” is a predictor of violent male behavior in many parts of the U.S.—but such behavior isn’t admired by peers if the violence is unprovoked.

In a study that challenges some stereotypes about violence, to be published in the September 2018 issue of Personality and Individual Differences, the researchers argue that masculine “honor ideology” only supports the use of physical violence to defend against threats or to protect reputations.

“Masculine honor ideology does not necessarily endorse…that men should behave violently in all situations,” the authors write.

“Instead, men are expected to respond aggressively to insults or [to] threats directed at themselves, their significant others, their families, or their property.”

The study, authored by Conor O’Dea, Steven Chalman, Angelica Castro Bueno, and Donald Saucier—all researchers at Kansas State University’s Department of Psychological Sciences—say violence is considered an acceptable way to reassert masculinity and community standing, particularly in the southern and western regions of the US.

The researchers based their findings on two surveys of nearly 500 people who self-identified as believers in “honor culture” and were recruited through Amazon TURK software. The majority of respondents were white and more than half were female, but no information about their geographical locations was provided.

The effort to examine third-party perceptions of masculine honor ideology represented an attempt to flesh out previous research showing higher support for honor-related violence in the Southern and Western regions of the US than in the North. In those regions, homicide rates are also four times higher than in other areas, the authors say.

They recorded people’s perceptions of a protagonist in quick scenes, or vignettes, depending on how the protagonist reacted to a verbal insult, or polite remark.

Individuals who adhere to masculine honor beliefs show a “hypersensitivity” to reputational failure, which explains the added motivation to respond violently when confronted or humiliated, the study said.

The authors found that people who endorse masculine honor ideology only look favorably on those who act violently in response to a threat or insult, suggesting an element of rationality in honor culture behavior that permeates large swaths of the US, despite its dangerous and volatile nature.

This finding goes against a common misperception that honor culture endorses violence for the sake of violence, without provocation.

But it also cited earlier research in an August 2015 article published in Social Psychology, showing that males who rank high in their commitment to beliefs about honor ideology also have more negative attitudes towards mental health services, report higher incidences of depression and also, somewhat counter-intuitively, have “stronger negative attitudes toward rape and women who have been raped.”

The study found that masculine honor beliefs are characterized “more positively” by individuals when the beliefs are employed to “confront threats…but not when they behave violently in general.”

Another phase of the study measured perceptions of a protagonist coming to the aid of a woman who was physically assaulted. It found that perceptions remained positive even if the man was defeated. The most important factor was simply whether or not the protagonist attempted to defend the woman.

The authors suggest that a man enhancing his reputation by defending against provocations makes him a hard target. It has the dual effect of “both preemptively deterring threats…by functioning as a shield, but also to swiftly and decisively respond to threats and provocation as a sword.”

The study notes that honor culture has deep roots in the American South, where rural residents needed to burnish a tough reputation to ward off livestock thieves, in contrast to the North, which had more easily defensible agricultural crops.

The study, “Conditional aggression: Perceptions of male violence in response to threat and provocation,” is available for purchase only.

This summary was prepared by Dane Stallone, a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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