May 26, 2016 5:41 AM EDT

In most regional cultures, including those in the U.S., people work hard to earn honor–by protecting community values, for example, or defending a family member’s reputation. Superficially, this is a good thing; it encourages people to behave appropriately. But there is a downside, argues social psychologist Ryan P. Brown in his new book, Honor Bound: How a Cultural Ideal Has Shaped the American Psyche. Research suggests that if a society is overly concerned with honor, its members can become hypersensitive to insults. Consider the question “What did you just call me?” writes Brown, which is often a “prelude to potential violence.” Or the statistics, he adds, that show a correlation between certain honor-obsessed areas of the South and higher rates of domestic violence and school shootings. Ironically, Brown concludes, putting a premium on honor is “the primary force that makes honor cultures so often not honorable.”


This appears in the June 06, 2016 issue of TIME.

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