It's a matter of honor: Why Southerners are more polite

Unlike much of the United States, the South has a culture of honor. While this makes Southerners more polite, it's also something of a double-edged sword.

  • Good hospitality and manners are well-known stereotypes of the American South.
  • Psychologists believe that the South is so well-mannered because it has a culture of honor, where an individual's reputation is highly valuable.
  • To test this, researchers conducted what's known as "the asshole experiment."

According to a survey by Travel + Leisure magazine, New York, Washington D.C., and Boston are among the top five rudest cities. The common denominator? They're from the north of the U.S. Compared to the casual aggression, indifference, and lack of common courtesy you can find in the U.S.'s northern cities, the American South can feel like a breath of fresh air. People smile more, the waitresses call you "honey," elevator rides are (horrifyingly) filled with small talk instead of silence — people seem to have better manners there.

Why is it that expressing an otherworldly opinion is met with "bless your heart" in the South rather than, "What the hell is wrong with you?" What cultural difference accounts for this?

Psychologists Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett believe they have an answer: "We think the best single explanation has to do with the South being home to a version of the culture of honor." In essence, a place can be said to have a culture of honor if one's reputation is highly valued. If somebody insults you and you fail to respond to the slight, you might start to look like the kind of person who can be taken advantage of. Conversely, if somebody were to insult you and you socked them in the jaw, you would have successfully defended your honor, and people might think twice before behaving poorly around you. The same applies to protecting one's personal property or defending a significant other against unwanted attention.

As a consequence, good manners are a must. If you live in a culture of honor, a certain amount of respect is expected even from strangers. The alternative is that you risk offending somebody, and if they care about their reputation, they might react violently.

There are some real consequences for this. Cohen and Nisbett related how a researcher from 1934 "argued that in much of the South of his day it was impossible to convict someone of murder if (a) the killer had been insulted and (b) he had warned the victim of his intent to kill if the insult were not retracted or compensated." This different way of thinking about violence appears to have persisted. The map below, for instance, shows the homicide rate per 100,000 in 2015. There's a fairly clear demarcation between the places we think of as the South and the rest of the country, barring some outliers like Michigan.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

There's clearly a lot more at work than just the culture of honor: poverty, gun laws, and other factors play a role too. But Nisbett and Cohen conducted an experiment that suggested the culture of honor is very much alive, and damaging somebody's honor can enflame violence.

In what has been called the "asshole experiment," the researchers recruited a sample of Southerners and Northerners for an experiment advertised as one studying the "limited response time conditions on certain facets of human judgement." In the test, the participants were given a phony explanation of the experiment, asked to fill out a survey, and then asked to walk down a narrow hallway to another room, where they were told the rest of the experiment would take place.

But as they walked down the hallway, another individual walking the opposite direction would bump into the subject with their shoulder and call the subject an "asshole." At the other end of the hallway, researchers evaluated the reactions of the subjects. Overall, Northerners tended to seem more amused by the encounter, while Southerners tended to become angrier.

This is clearly a subjective evaluation, so the researchers also measured the participants' cortisol levels — it's a hormone associated with stress — and testosterone levels before and after the altercation. Southerners' cortisol and testosterone levels rose 79 percent and 12 percent respectively after the bump compared to Northerners' 33 percent and 6 percent respectively.

The researchers surmised that this physiological and behavioral difference was attributable to the fact that Southerners grew up in a culture of honor. Without a sense of how valuable a reputation can be, Northerners tend to shrug off insults — and it's likely they're ruder to each other, too. But in a place where honor and reputation are highly valuable to an individual, people treat each other with more respect, but also with more violence.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.