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Why Men in Southern States Are More Likely to Die in Accidents

A new study shows how a macho conception of white masculinity leads to risky behavior among white males in Southern states.

Be a man! That pointed phrase, often offered as a rebuke, means pretty much the same thing the world over.  Be strong. Don’t back down. Show some courage.

What does differ from one culture to another is how seriously such admonitions are taken. In more macho societies, challenges to one’s manhood — such as being the recipient of ridicule for avoiding risky behavior — must not go unanswered. And the results can literally be deadly.

For evidence of this, you don’t have to go to Mexico or Argentina. Mississippi or Alabama will do.

In a  newly published study, three University of Oklahoma researchers report there is a higher rate of accidental deaths among whites (but not nonwhites) in the American South and West — regions where a “culture of honor” makes backing down from a challenge problematic for many males.

Writing in the journal  Social Psychological and Personality Science, they conclude men living in these regions “might be more prone to engage in risky behaviors that sometimes lead to death,” because this willingness “signifies that one possesses the ‘manly’ attributes of strength and courage.”

The notion that a “ culture of honor” pervades the American South was first proposed in 1993 by University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett. It was later popularized by  New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, who  describes Nisbett’s research in his book  Outliers.

Nisbett and his colleague Dov Cohen argued that this honor-based culture can be traced back to the Scotch-Irish who settled the American South in the 18 th century. Not unlike America’s Old West (which created a similar culture), theirs was a largely lawless land, with an economy based largely on animal herding. One had to be tough and aggressive to survive.

This lineage, which some scholars  embrace and others  doubt, has been used to explain the high level of homicides in the region. This new paper, written by  Collin BarnesRyan Brown and Michael Tamborski, looks at the phenomenon through a different lens: risk-taking.

The researchers compared the rate of accidental deaths (as classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in “culture of honor” states versus the rest of the nation. They used two different definitions of the region in question: One which consists entirely of Southern states, and a second that also includes the West (excluding Alaska and Hawaii).

They then controlled for “a host of statewide variables that might account for the expected difference is accidental deaths,” including the unemployment rate, median household income, mean annual temperatures and the proportion of people living in rural areas.

“As hypothesized, we found that state honor status (using either configuration of states) significantly predicted accidental deaths among whites from 1999 to 2006,” they conclude. “This regional difference was especially pronounced among whites living in nonmetropolitan areas.”

Whites, in this definition, included Hispanics. Blacks, who arrived in the South under, er, different circumstances, developed a separate set of cultural norms.

These findings do not definitively prove the researchers’ thesis, but they bolster their argument with the results of an experiment on 81 University of Oklahoma undergraduates.

The students completed a 16-statement survey in which they gave their definition of a “real man,” responding to such assertions as “a real man doesn’t let other people push him around.” They then estimated the likelihood they would engage in a variety of risk-taking endeavors if given the opportunity, including bungee jumping and high-stakes gambling.

The researchers found a positive association between endorsing an honor-based conception of manhood and the willingness to take greater risks. Interestingly, this held true although more than three-quarters of the participants in the study were women.

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