Don't Tread on Me: The Culture of Honor and Militant Responses to Terrorism

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Principal investigator:

Collin D. Barnes

Hillsdale College


Sample size: 328

Field period: 10/22/2009-12/7/2009


An environment of uncertainty and insecurity once pervaded the southern and western regions of the U.S. and contributed to a mentality of honor defensiveness that emphasized the violent defense of personal reputation. Through various social mechanisms, this cultural-ideology has persisted into the present day and may influence how people (White males, in particular) respond to national reputation threats in the form of terrorism. The present study relied on an individual difference measure of honor ideology endorsement to capture the extent to which White male participants from the southern and northern regions of the U.S. subscribe to the cultural ideology of honor. Southerners endorsed the honor ideology measure more than their northern counterparts, and this instrument predicted militant responses to a hypothetical terrorist attack on the Statue of Liberty, but only when participants wrote about a control topic or a time when they felt their masculine honor was affirmed. For participants who wrote about an honor threatening experience from their lives, the honor ideology measure failed to predict militancy. This occurred because the threat caused low scorers on the honor ideology measure to exhibit levels of militancy similar to those of high scorers (threatened or not), which suggests that it is possible to trigger violent responses to terrorism even among those who do not subscribe to an honor ethic.


This study examined the association between individuals' endorsement of the cultural ideology of honor and militant responses to terrorism. It was expected that this association would 1) exist at baseline (i.e., in a control condition), 2) be strengthened in an honor threat condition, and 3) be attenuated or eliminated in an honor affirmation condition.

Experimental Manipulations

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three writing-task conditions: honor-threat, honor-affirmation, or control. For the honor-threat condition, participants were asked to write about "an example from [their] life when [they] felt that [their] sense of manhood or masculine pride (i.e., [their] strength, prowess, or toughness as a male) was disrespected (i.e., insulted, humiliated, or disgraced)." Instructions for the honor-affirmation condition were virtually identical, but instead participants were asked to write about a time when they felt that their sense of manhood "…was respected (i.e., honored, admired, or revered)." The control condition instructions were intended to parallel those of the other two conditions but not require participants to recount an affectively charged personal experience. Specifically, participants in the control condition were asked to reflect on the food they had eaten over the last week and write about "what [they had] eaten and why, and what [they] thought and felt about the food [they had] consumed."


Participants read about a hypothetical terrorist attack on the Statue of Liberty. The content of participants' responses to the hypothetical attack on the Statue of Liberty were coded by two raters for expressed hostility (i.e., themes of hatred, aggression, and vitriol) toward the terrorists responsible for the attacks.

Participants also indicated the extent to which they would feel "insulted," "outraged," and "offended" if the Statue of Liberty catastrophe happened in real life.

Participants imagined that shortly after the Statue of Liberty attack, FBI agents apprehended Ahmad Farid who was believed to have once been an active member of the terrorist organization responsible for the attack. Participants were told to assume there was a 50% chance that Farid was withholding information that could lead to the arrest of those directly responsible for the attack, and they were then asked to recommend a level of interrogation for Farid on a 13-point scale. This scenario was adapted from one used by Carlsmith and Sood (2009).

Next, participants rated their level of agreement with the following three statements: "I would want authorities to stop at nothing to apprehend those directly responsible for the attacks," "I would want all of those who contributed directly to the planning and execution of the attack to be killed," and "I would want the U.S. to continue its war against terrorism until victory was certain."

Finally, participants read the following: "Suppose that at the time of the Statue of Liberty attack, 20% of the U.S.'s budget was allocated to the military and national defense. Use the rating scale below to indicate how much of the U.S.'s budget you would like Congress to allocate to the military and national defense in response to the attack.

Responses to the Ahmad Farid scenario, the militant attitude items, and the support for defense spending question were standardized and averaged together to create a composite measure of combativeness.

Summary of Results

First, we found that southern White males scored higher on the honor ideology measure than did their northern counterparts, which supports prior research indicating that an ideology of honor is stronger in the South than the North (Nisbett & Cohen, 1996). Second, the measure's association with hostile and combative responses to terrorism was tested in an experimental context where personal honor was either threatened, affirmed, or left unaltered. The honor affirmation and control conditions functioned equivalently in the experiment and were combined; in this combined "baseline" condition, the honor ideology measure predicted terrorist-directed hostility and combative responses in the Statue of Liberty scenario. However, in the honor threat condition, the honor scale's predictive power with respect to the dependent variables vanished. This did not occur because honor ideology endorsers suddenly became pacifistic in their responses to terrorism, but because their low-scoring counterparts became more militant, indicating that it is possible to trigger honor-defensive responses to terrorism even among those who disavow the ideology of honor.


Democratic theory suggests that voters carefully consider all relevant decision criteria before making a deliberate choice. These findings suggest that while such systematic processing might lead to votes that better reflect a voter's value priorities, they also induce ambivalence and reduce the likelihood that voters will participate in the democratic process.


Barnes, C. D., Brown, R. P., & Osterman, L. 2012. "Don't tread on me: Culture of honor, honor ideology endorsement, and militant responses to terrorism." Peronsality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi: 10.1177/0146167212443383