Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Honor Killings and the People Who Love Them

A husband shoots his wife in the back nine times with a rifle as neighbors watch and cheer. The first four shots shake her body as it falls to the ground. He hears the crowds’ encouragement and shoots her corpse again and again. The onlookers return to their lives and he is exalted as an honorable man. 

While these actions are close to unimaginable, reporters speculate that this is the story behind a recently circulated execution video from Kabul, Afghanistan. Here, as in a handful of countries, infidelity by women is punishable by death. In many other parts of the world, suspicions of infidelity lead to culturally condoned violence.

This violence is often perpetuated, endorsed, and watched by the friends and relatives of the victim. Lest we recoil and think this is a rare reaction from people who live far away and pray to a different God, I’d like to remind us that we are all made of the same human material and it wasn’t long ago that public executions were the social event of the week in much of Europe. It is also this same human nature that constructs gender inequality across all cultures and perpetuates domestic violence in the most “civilized” echelons of society.

To help understand the husband and crowd’s reaction, I present three different overlapping accounts from social scientists of why honor killings take place and why they are, not only tolerated, but endorsed by many.

Cultures of Honor – Men must defend their good name

Cultures vary in their emphasis on and definition of “honor.” It is possible that some cultures, especially those with a history of herding settlements, developed a “culture of honor” (Nisbett & Cohen, 2009). Michael has posted before about the culture of honor and it applies to this scenario as well. Unlike farmed crops, herds roam freely and are vulnerable to theft. Without institutionalized laws and government enforcement, it was up the early settlers to protect their property themselves. Therefore, developing a reputation for toughness and violent retribution for wrongdoing was beneficial to herders. This emphasis on strength, power, and the ability to enforce one's will on others remains a culturally valuable trait to this day in some areas of the world.

In such cultures men are attuned to insults and threats to their reputation. An honorable man is one who keeps others, especially his wife, “in line.” Female infidelity breaches this honor. It signals that the man is weak and may result in, not only a loss of face, but also a loss of status and a risk that others will easily take advantage of him.

One study (Vandello & Cohen, 2003) provided evidence for this explanation by asking participants from Brazil (a high honor culture) and the US (a lower honor culture) to report their attitudes toward men whose wives had cheated on them. Participants in Brazil had a worse view of men who had been cheated on, seeing them as not only less masculine, but also less trustworthy than those who had not been cheated on. These differences were either lower or not existent for US participants.

The study also showed evidence that violence against the wife restores the man’s status. Brazilian participants reported that a man who yelled at and slapped his wife, after learning she was having an affair, was stronger and more trustworthy than one who yelled at her without slapping. 

Infidelity is a threat to man's welfare in some societies. Violence may seem like the only solution to both his strong emotional reaction to the infidelity and a necessary step to restore his status and promote his (and perhaps his family's) wellbeing.

Purity Morality – When sexual fidelity is sacred

While many cultures see sexual impiety as wrong, some individuals elevate this wrong to a breach of a sacred moral code akin to killing an innocent person. In another blog post, I discuss different definitions of morality. Purity, which includes rituals and norms related to the body and sexual behavior, may seem like a matter of choice and preference to those who happen to be liberal, from “Western” nations, have higher education, and/or have higher social economic status. However, for much of the world, violations of purity norms are exceedingly damaging. Sexual deviance including infidelity, immodesty, and homosexual acts are considered breaches of a sacred code. Those who perform such acts defile themselves and deserve retribution. In some cultures, their impurity may taint not only themselves, but their families and must be punished or killed in order to cleanse this defilement.

The Illusion of Sincerity – Women hurting women

Sadly, violence against women in these cases is often condoned, and sometimes perpetrated, by other women.  On the one hand, it is possible that women endorse the culture of honor wholeheartedly and to the same degree as men. This position is contentious and definitely deserves deeper investigation.  A different theory is that some women may feel obliged to endorse the culture of honor in public in order to maintain their safety and status, but privately oppose it.  If this is the case, why then do such women actively participate in the oppression?  They could, just as easily, watch passively. 

One explanation for this paradox is that these women are participating in the “illusion of sincerity” (Centola et al., 2005).  Women may feel pressure not only to prove their worth by following the moral codes of the culture, but also to punish those who do not to further bolster their apparent sincerity.  Punishment is a signal that you really believe what you say you believe.  Professor Robb Willer and colleagues (2009) suggest that the situation is somewhat similar to what we all feel when trying to fit in with a group whose attitudes we oppose.  For example, suppose you start spending time with new colleagues and managers at work and learn that they all love opera, when, frankly, you’ve always thought it was a little boring.  If you wanted to prove yourself and not step on anyone’s toes, you would certainly feel compelled to keep your true anti-opera attitudes to yourself.  If a new colleague came onboard who started making fun of opera, you might be further pressured to ostracize her in order to really prove that you’re a true opera fan.

Dr. Willer demonstrated this effect in a set of clever and fun studies, which included participants finding themselves in a situation where other study participants purportedly enjoyed a wine that was spiked with vinegar and exalted a barely comprehensible philosophy text – situations that may sound familiar. Some participants admitted, in private, that the wine was pretty awful and the text was unclear, while publicly admiring the wine and text. It was usually these very participants who gave low ratings to another participant who spoke openly about his dislikes.

It seems that people punish and ostracize others in order to prove something to others about the sincerity of their opinions. Interestingly, people who publicly spoke their mind, were less likely to denigrate others who agreed with them in public. 

 The Stormy Waters of Moral Relativism

I hope that the accounts presented here contribute to our understanding of why people do things that are unimaginable to us. It is always difficult for me, in my field of moral psychology, to walk the very fine line between understanding others and condoning their actions. I have confidence that somewhere in this balance emerges a wisdom of how to improve conditions in the world. One step to ameliorating violence is understanding its root cause. It is important to remember that other cultures may define morality in ways unfamiliar to us. There may also be "good" reason for them to define morality in the way they do. It is also crucial to understand how norms are perpetuated, even by those who do not privately condone them.  

Vandello JA, & Cohen D (2003). Male honor and female fidelity: implicit cultural scripts that perpetuate domestic violence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (5), 997-1010. PMID: 12757144

Willer R, Kuwabara K, & Macy MW (2009). The false enforcement of unpopular norms. AJS; American Journal of Sociology, 115 (2), 451-490. PMID: 20614762

Centola, Damon, Robb, Willer, & Michael, W. Macy (2005). The emperor’s dilemma: A computational model of self-enforcing norms American Journal of Sociology, 110 (4), 1009-1040.


  1. To me honor killings are completely wrong. Nobody should be punish to death just because they cheated on their husband. They should be able to leave their husband if they are unhappy with the relationship, the women should not be tied down by "rules" and "laws" that what the men says goes and no questions can be asked. It's like the husband is the all "high and mighty." I think the men are motivated by what is called extrinsic motivation which means it consist of external influences on behaviors, such as rewards and social acceptance. No man should kill their wife just because she cheated, if the men cheated then its just a normal thing, they should just let their wife leave and move on or choose to work it out.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Helen. Yes, these are very tragic events to hear about and the gender asymmetry in what counts as acceptable behavior is really stark.