Honor, Dignity, and Face: Culture as Personality Writ Large

April 19, 2014
Honor and dignity divide American society to this day. Here illustrated in the Western classic "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

Honor and dignity divide American society to this day. Here illustrated in the Western classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”


I recently read an interesting yet largely ignored study from 2011 by psychologists Angela Leung and Dov Cohen. It’s about honor culture, dignity culture, and face culture. These cultures all deal with the concept of self-worth and how to preserve it when interacting with other people. It seems most countries or regions, possibly all, have one of these cultures, or sometimes a mix of them. In a broad categorization, we find honor culture in most parts of the world while dignity culture (often called guilt culture) is confined to Northwest Europe and the Anglosphere, and face culture to East Asia. Let’s kick things off with a brief introduction of the cultures in question,

Honor Culture

This culture is based on the idea that a person’s worth is based on his reputation. Reputation, in turn, is based on positive and negative reciprocity. This means that in order to be considered honourable you need to repay favors, but also revenge insults, even very small ones. If you fail in these obligations, especially in revenging insults, other people will shame you by laughing or expressing disgust, and your reputation/honor will be ruined. The motivating emotion that makes people do what they are supposed to do is shame. For that reason it’s sometimes called shame culture. People from honor cultures come off as friendly and generous, but with a dark side; they can quickly turn angry and violent if they feel slighted. This culture is masculine and can be found in male subcultures such as the military, student fraternities, in prisons, and among school boys.

Honor culture is the norm in societies where the state is weak and can’t enforce the rule of law properly. You can’t call the police so instead you deter bad people from attacking you by showing that the slightest disrespect will come at a cost. If you combine this with always repaying a favour people know that you are open for cooperation but you won’t be taken advantage of. In short, that you’re a person of honor. This culture is also closely linked to power and influence. The higher up in the hierarchy, the more honor.

Dignity Culture (AKA Guilt Culture)

The dignity culture is characterized by the conviction that all individuals have an inner, inalienable worth. The ideal person of dignity is one who stands by his principles and doesn’t listen to gossip. This attitude will of course not protect your life or property so it requires a state that enforces the rule of law. The person of dignity is less prone to corruption since he follows his internal standards and is less swayed by what other people say. And unless he is at odds with society he will abide the law even when he knows he could get away with breaking it. Because knowing he did something bad will trouble him even if no one else knows about it. The motivating emotion in dignity culture is that of a guilty conscience. This is why it’s also known as guilt culture.

Dignity culture has some obvious advantages. It allows people to be more free and individualistic and it prevents corruption. But it has a weakness in that a person prone to guilt can easily be exploited by someone who isn’t. Like honor culture, dignity culture features positive reciprocity, since most people feel that returning a favour is the good thing to do, but not necessarily an absolute must. It’s often done more like an understanding between two individuals. But there is definitely less negative reciprocity since this culture relies on the rule of law and if you agree to that you’d be breaking your own code if you took the law in your own hands. However, if your principles are in conflict with the law you can break it and maintain a sense of self-worth. In this case you become a prisoner of conscience. This fact also illustrates that dignity is unrelated to power. You can be in prison and have dignity and you can be the president and lack dignity if your principles have been compromised. While honor culture is conservative in nature, the dignity culture is found in liberal democracies. It’s the culture of Enlightenment but its roots are most likely older than that (for more on this see anthropologist Peter Frost’s posts on the subject).

Face Culture

This type of culture is predominant in East Asia and can be a bit elusive to an outsider, myself included. Face is similar to honor in that it’s largely determined by your reputation which depends on the judgments of other people. Shame is the motivating emotion so like honor culture it’s sometimes called a shame culture. But while honor culture enables a power struggle, face culture is intended as a way of cooperating within existing hierarchies. If you deprive someone of his honor then shame on him, but if you make someone lose his face – then shame on you. Face is a way of keeping the peace by helping each other to maintain a sense of self-worth. As such I think you can call it a feminine culture. It’s less competitive than honor and dignity cultures and more concerned with group cohesion. And while honor is determined heavily by your place in the hierarchy, face is also about how well you perform at your station. So it’s similar to dignity culture in that you can maintain a high sense of self-worth even if your role in society is minor. As you might expect reciprocity works like in dignity culture: returning favors is a virtue but getting personal revenge is not ok.

The Culture X Person X Situation Approach (CuPS)

In their study, Leung & Cohen wanted to go beyond a mere look at these cultures, but take into account how they will interact with personal characteristics of the individual as well as with specific situation – the CuPS approach. The point with the CuPS approach is that all three variables influence human behavior so they should all be taken into account instead of treating one as the signal and the others as noise as is often the case. A personality psychologist would for instance view the person as the signal, a social psychologist the situation and an anthropologist might view the culture as the signal. And whatever falls outside their field of expertise would then be the noise. So what does this CuPS approach look like in the study?

Since America is a diverse nation, the authors could rely on American participants to represent all three cultures. The honor group consisted of Southerners and Hispanics, the dignity group of Northern Anglos, and the face group of Asian Americans. While Southerners and Hispanics may seem to differ in many ways they acted very similar in terms of honor and could be combined into one group. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that male and female participants of all cultures were similar enough to be combined into single groups.

The personal characteristic in this study was that of whether a person embraces or rejects a particular culture or not, regardless of whether they are of that culture or not. For honor culture this was measured by having participants view film clips of honor violence and evaluate them (this under the pretence that the study was about violence in the media). Note that this violence was not the extreme honor violence common in the Middle East that the term usually refers to. Instead the clips showed more general situations where insults were revenged in a violent manner. For dignity culture they used a questionnaire regarding the individual’s inalienable worth versus socially conferred worth, the central element of dignity culture, and for face culture they used another questionnaire called the Loss of Face Scale which had been modified to contrast to the other cultures.

The situations Leung & Cohen looked at were one where participants had the chance to reciprocate, more specifically return a favour, and another in which they were given the opportunity to cheat. And this is how it all came together,

Experiment 1: Returning Favors in Different Cultures

As I’ve mentioned earlier, participants were told that the study was about violence in the media. Then every participant was offered candy by an experimenter posing as a participant, thus introducing the favour. This experimenter, or in some cases another undercover experimenter who didn’t offer any candy, then conspicuously dropped a disk marked either “Term paper” or “Softball schedule 2002 – can erase” at the feet of the participant. When the experiment was supposedly over, the experimenter with the disk would ask the participant for directions to another room in the building, claiming to have an appointment there. If the participant didn’t know where the room was another undercover experiment would answer, thus informing the participant of where the person was headed. The experimenter with the disk would then leave the disk in plain view of the participant and head off. This gives us several scenarios: participants could return the disk that was either important or not to a person who had either done them a favour (offered candy) or not. To measure the eagerness to return the favour (or simply help out) they put a sign on the door to the room in question saying the meeting had been move to another location, and other similar complications to get a scale of eagerness to reciprocate.

Embracers and Rejecters

The findings are a mix of expected and perhaps less expected behaviors. The first interaction looked at how endorsement of honor violence related to returning favors in the honor group and the non-honor groups. As you might expect they found that for the honor group, endorsement of honor violence significantly predicted the eagerness to return a favour, but not the eagerness to help out when no one had offered them candy. This is simply saying that people who live in and endorse a fundamental characteristic of honor culture will be more likely to behave according to that culture in other ways too.

But what about the rejecters, the people in honor groups that didn’t endorse honor violence and the people in the non-honor groups that did endorse it? These people were significantly less eager to return favors. So they weren’t renegades who embraced another culture than the one they lived in – since all three cultures hold returning favors as a virtue. Leung & Cohen’s explanation for this result is that people from non-honor groups who endorse honor violence are selfish and immature, something that is in line with the fact that they were less willing to reciprocate. While this sounds plausible it doesn’t explain the contrarians in the honor group. And it makes conforming sound like the only sane option. As if Ayaan Hirsi Ali would have been better off conforming to the local Somali honor culture and not disgrace her relatives with her childish defiance. My guess is that there are many reason people will reject their culture and selfish childishness is just one of them.

The Airy Fairyness of Dignity Culture

Next they looked at the willingness to return a favor in dignity versus non-dignity groups as a function of how much participants agreed with the idea that an individual’s worth is inalienable or if it’s derived from the judgments of other people. In line with previous findings, a belief that all individuals have an inalienable worth predicted a higher willingness to return favors in the dignity group. So yet again, those who reject their culture are not adopting another culture but appear to act selfishly or rationally depending on how you interpret the result. More surprising is that this belief had no effect on willingness to return favors for the non-dignity groups. So for these groups there is no selfish or immature contrarianism linked to holding this belief even though it contradicts their group culture. It’s as if it didn’t matter either way. How can this be? The author’s offer no explanation but my suspicion is that non-dignity groups view dignity ideals either as a bit airy-fairy, or use them as pleasant fantasies without reflecting too much on how they conflict with their own culture. A man of honor, especially in a Western country, may well hold the belief that every human has an inalienable worth until one of them sleeps with his wife and brags about it. Then he finds out that the police may bring justice but it won’t restore his honor.

Experiment 2: Honesty and Trustworthiness in Different Cultures

In this experiment film clips of honor violence were shown to half of the participants (again under the pretence that the study was about violence in the media) to prime or make them aware of this culture. This should, according to the authors, make people from the honor group (who also embrace their culture) more honest and trustworthy since it makes their cultural ideals more salient. This is a rather ballsy assumption since it also implies that honor people living in dignity cultures will act less trustworthy than back home – not exactly a strong endorsement of diversity.

They also hypothesized that rejecters in the honor group would cheat more when reminded of the ideals of their culture (as shown in the film clips). The other half of the participants who didn’t view the film clips were simply thought of as honor people living in a dignity culture, since the experiment is conducted among students at the University of Illinois. For the dignity and face cultures they added another manipulation by offering half of these a piece of gum before the experiment began. Leung & Cohen hypothesized that this would make those embracing their own culture less prone to cheating. This makes less sense to me since at least for dignity culture, the whole point is that you act according to your principles and conscience which shouldn’t be affected by gifts.

Then followed the main part of the experiment, which was a simple word memory test with the possibility to cheat by “accidentally” leaving papers with the words in question in plain view of the participants. A measure of cheating was constructed by a statistical analysis of how many words a person retrieved from the exposed papers.


In line with previous results, people in the honor group who endorsed honor violence cheated less than those who didn’t endorse it – but only if they had been primed. (Those who weren’t primed got to watch the clips and evaluate them after the word test.) Those who weren’t primed had the reverse result: those who did not endorse honor violence were more honest than those who did; in fact, these non-primed honor-contrarians were the most honest participants in the entire study, which is a bit peculiar. This is the reaction of honor people living in dignity culture who the authors at least indirectly assumed would be less honest. I’m personally sceptical of diversity and half of this group is made up of White southerners. But it may hint that some non-White honor groups can adjust to a dignity culture. It’s certainly in line with the fact that the overrepresentation of Hispanics in American prisons is very modest (some 20 percent of prisoners and 16 percent of the population as opposed to 40 and 13 percent for Blacks). As for the non-honor groups, those endorsing violence cheated the most, which again is in line with earlier findings of how rejecters fail to reciprocate. The priming had no effect on these groups, most likely because honor violence is not part of the moral context provided by their culture.

Next, they looked at how dignity and non-dignity groups compared on cheating depending on whether they believed in every person’s inalienable worth and whether they’ve been offered gum before the word test or not. In the dignity group, those who endorsed inalienable worth and were offered a gum cheated less than those who didn’t. Again, I find this odd because the gum shouldn’t make a difference to a principled person of dignity. It may be that dignity culture is more idealized and that it has less impact in actual behavior than the other cultures. The non-dignity groups didn’t cheat more or less depending on whether they endorsed inalienable worth or not – and they were also unaffected by the offer of the gum, something I would have expected to find among those in the honor group who embrace their culture.

Finally, they looked at how face and non-face groups compare on cheating depending on whether they embrace face culture (as measured by the modified Loss of Face Scale) and whether they’ve been offered a piece of gum or not. In the face group, those who embraced their culture and were offered a gum cheated very little, almost on the level of the honor-contrarians I mentioned earlier. At the same time those who didn’t embrace their culture and were offered a gum cheated the most of all categories. Not sure how to interpret that. For non-face groups there was a slight difference between those who embraced face culture and those who didn’t in that again those who embraced their own culture (here by rejecting face culture) were more honest.

Culture as Personality Writ Large

So what can we make of all of this? For Leung & Cohen the answer to this question seems to be that culture and personality are separate entities, that personality will predict one behavior in one culture and another in the next. Here is their summary (the call the cultures “cultural syndromes”,

It is important to understand individual variation in a cultural context. Culture is important because it helps define psychological situations and create menaingful clusters of behavior according to a particular cultural logic. Individual differences are important because individuals vary in the extent to which they internaliz or endorse (or reject) a cultural syndrome.

While this sounds plausible it still doesn’t prevent culture from being personality writ large in the sense that traits common among a group of people will lead to a consensus on how to behave. That if for instance cautiousness is a common trait among East Asians, they would seek to avoid conflicts by always being polite and show respect, and when a conflict is a fact they would easily agree to resolve conflicts by appealing to figures or institutions of authority or the law rather than retaliating themselves with the risks that involves. And that would explain face culture. This makes perfect sense regardless of the existence of some rejectors.

Similarly, if the trait of clannishness or tribalism, the tendency to be loyal to your own group, is more common and cautiousness is less common, then the highest authority will always be your own family or tribe. So the state will be weak and unable to resolve conflicts while people will not hesitate to settle their conflicts head on. Also when the state is weak it will be hard to cooperate using contracts so it will make sense to be generous in returning favors as a way to build trust among friends. And that would be honor culture.

And if clannishness/tribalism is a rare trait and a sense of being principled and individually responsibe is common? Then it would make sense to rely on those principles to resolve conflicts because most people agree on what these principles are and a consensus culture of dignity could arise from that. Cautiousness would then become a neutral trait irrelevant to these cultures. Swedes and Norwegians are for instance much more cautious than Danes but all of Scandinavia is clearly dignity culture.

This is not to say that culture doesn’t affect human behavior, merely that it most likely is personality writ large in that the traits of the culture correspond to the average levels in the respective populations. There is always going to be plenty of individual variation so that the consensus culture will clash with the personality of the individual so we need both variables (as well as that of the specific situation) to explain human behavior.

This is in fact what the study itself suggests. There isn’t much social control in America and yet even today young students from the South hold on to their honor culture. How can that be if the ideal of this culture isn’t something they have within themselves? Something that affects behavior while being highly heritable and stable over the lifespan? And why are there so many Asian Americans holding on to face culture even though they live in America which has the most dominant culture in the world? How can Korean comedian Bobby Lee make a career with the simple shtick of acting as non-face as possible? And has any country or region ever changed from one of these cultures to another without the help of large-scale migration? Not that I know of. And yet culture which is less obviously linked to personality traits changes wildly. Fashion, literary genres, and the type of food we eat can change from one year to the next. Meanwhile dignity, honor, and face stay the same through the centuries. What other factor than human nature, innate tendencies – that which we call personality – prevents these cultures from changing?

It’s like hbd chick* insists, that “different peoples are different.” And the way they are different is in the same way as individuals differ from each other: by displaying different personality traits. The more common traits will inevitably become influential in deciding how we behave socially, and the different patterns of behaviors that emerge in different populations, due to these influential traits, may be called cultures. But they are really just personality writ large.



%d bloggers like this: