Nature vs nurture, southern style

Culture shapes our lives in deep and often surprisingly intimate ways.

That is the take-home lesson of this lecture in UCLA anthropologist Robert Boyd’s class Models of Cultural Evolution (feed), in which Boyd discusses the “culture of honor” in the American South.

Boyd talks about the famous “asshole” experiments described in this 1996 paper by two psychologists at the University of Michigan, Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett. The researchers wanted to answer the question, why are levels of violent crime higher in the American South than in the North?

Nisbett and Cohen put together an experiment using white male undergraduates, some from the South and some from the North. In the experiment, the men had to walk down a hallway and squeeze past a large muscular man who was opening a file cabinet. The man in the hallway, a confederate of the researchers, contrived to jostle them as they walk by and then muttered “asshole” under his breath.

The typical response of the Northerners was to laugh off the incident, while Southerners tended to become visibly angry. Not only that, Southerners tended to show high levels of the stress hormones cortisol and testosterone after being bumped.

The conclusion that Boyd draws from this and other experiments contrasting the behavior of Northerners and Southerners is that cultural attitudes can become deeply embedded in our personalities and influence our physiology. That is, nature and nurture are deeply intertwined and influence each other.

A 2007 syllabus of Boyd’s course is here.

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