Character  &  Context

Honor Is The Original Enforcer

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By Alexander Danvers

“My name is my name.” –Marlo Stanfield, The Wire

Honor is stubborn. It compels people to respond to aggression in kind—even when responding to a provocation will lead to losing a fight. It seems out of date, even irrational. But if honor is so problematic, why is it so common across the U.S.?

Psychologist Andrzej Nowak, in his talk this morning at the Dynamic Systems and Computational Modeling Pre-Conference at the SPSP Annual Convention in San Diego, suggested that the culture of honor—though it may seem irrational at an individual level—is actually adaptive in specific societal contexts. In particular, a culture of honor appears to be crucial for dampening aggression in social situations where government is unreliable.

To understand how the culture of honor evolved, Nowak and his colleagues employed an agent-based computational model. This model used simplified representations of conflict between individuals in a society iterated over time in order to determine which social strategies were most effective—with fitness being the ability to survive to the next round and possibly produce new agents.

In this model, agents are able to attack others, with winners and losers determined in proportion to strength ratings for both individuals. Strength goes up slowly over time (as individuals “recover”), and goes down when a fight is lost.

Critically, agents also have a reputation, which goes up whenever a fight is initiated, accepted, or won; it goes down when an agent calls on authorities for help, refuses to fight, or loses. An agent’s reputation determines the likelihood of another agent attacking it.

The model explored four strategies of agents:

  • an aggressive strategy that tends to attack weaker agents;
  • a rational strategy, that does not tend to initiate attacks but will defend itself if the opponent is weaker
  • a public interest strategy that calls for help from authorities whenever attacked
  • an honor strategy, that rarely attacks but never refuses to fight—even when it is overmatched

The model also includes parameters meant to represent stable characteristics of the environment: how effective the authorities are at ending conflict, and how harsh the environment is (how strong the agent needs to be to survive to the next round).

Results of the simulation find that when the environment is harsh and authorities are ineffective at stopping conflict, both a culture of aggression and a culture of honor flourish. Importantly, the model suggests that the presence of the culture of honor helps dampen the influence of the culture of aggression. As Nowak puts it, these cultures are antagonistic but symbiotic—they flourish under the same conditions, but counteract each other.

Further, the cultures tend to interact with each other in a typical cycle:

  • When there is little response from authorities, the aggressive strategy starts to do well by exploiting the weak.
  • Then, the culture of honor starts to develop in response. These agents do well because they build up their reputation very quickly by always fighting—which means less fighting and more winning later.
  • The success of the culture of honor tends to shrink the population of aggressive agents, which allows rational agents to succeed more.
  • Once the rational agents start to replace the honor agents, however, this creates an opening for aggressive agents to creep back in.

Nowak observers this cycle repeating itself over and over again in his model. In a sense, it is like individuals with a culture of honor are stepping in to take over where a weak centralized government falls down.

Particularly telling, Nowak finds that when the culture of honor is eliminated as an option, the aggressive strategy is able to drive the others—the rational and the public interest strategy—to extinction. When the culture of honor is present, the effects of opportunistic aggression are dampened.

Nowak believes these findings have implications for public policy makers, and the may help explain under what conditions cultural norms surrounding conflict develop.


Nowak, A., Gelfand, M. J., Borkowski, W., Cohen, D., & Hernandez, I. (2015). The evolutionary basis of honor cultures. Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797615602860

Alex Danvers is a PhD student in social psychology studying emotions in social interactions. He uses dynamical systems and evolutionary perspectives, and is interested in new methods for exploring psychological phenomena. 

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