Your Sense Of Honor Can Predict Your Movie Preferences

Dr. Aaron Pomerantz discusses his new research on honor and film preferences.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 19, 2022

A new study published in the journal Psychology and Popular Media examines why certain people are drawn to films that espouse a strong "code of honor" (think, for instance, of films such as Unforgiven, John Wick, or Braveheart). The answer, according to the researchers, has to do with how much one adheres to a philosophy of honor in their own life.

I recently spoke with Aaron Pomerantz, a psychologist at the University of St. Thomas in Texas and lead author of the research, to discuss this study in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of honor in popular media, how did you study it, and what did you find?

The idea to study a relationship between honor and media came from a broader movement within the honor literature to examine honor beyond the explicit topics of violence, aggression, and/or revenge. "Classic" studies of honor focused very much on specific honor norms related to aggression, such as the "rule of retribution" wherein one must violently retaliate to any insult, lest one risk loss to one's reputation.

Recent perspectives on honor have focused more on how honor, as a cultural framework, influences the lives of those who live within an honor culture (called "honor adherents") beyond phenomena specifically related to retaliation-based aggression.

For instance, research has looked at honor's relationship to seeking mental health resources, honor's relationship to religious belief and expression, and honor's relationship to physical health behaviors such as choosing to have one's children receive certain types of vaccines.

Given the broad influence that we've seen honor exert on its adherents, it seemed only natural to go to the topic of media consumption. Examining the relationship between media and behavior is one of the classic topics of Social Psychology — and one that remains important and impactful in the current field. Media is such a major part of our lives, and how we respond to media is very complex and contextual, because media consumption is, in many ways, an exercise in meaning-making. It thus seemed natural to examine how honor, as a cultural framework that likewise helps its adherents make sense of the world around them, would relate to media consumption and preferences.

There is also the elephant in the room regarding the effects of media violence. As much as honor goes beyond issues of retributive violence and aggression, it's undeniable that contextual instrumental violence is a part of honor ideology. Honor endorsers aren't inherently more aggressive people overall, but when they perceive themselves to be threatened or insulted, they are willing to use violence.

We also know that the effects of witnessing violent media can be very contextual, and so this was another reason we wanted to bring an honor perspective to the study of media. However, before examining the relationship between honor and violent media more specifically, we first thought it was important to examine if honor had a relationship with media consumption overall.

We therefore had a panel of independent raters rate a series of film trailers for their honor content based on core honor themes: a) an insult or transgression against the protagonist, (b) the protagonist striking back against this insult, (c) a reference to the reputation of one or more characters, (d) explicit mention of honor, (e) a depiction of men as protectors and women as needing protection, (f) explicit mention of revenge, and (g) depiction(s) of violence as justified.

We also had participants, whose individual honor levels we had measured, to rate their enjoyment of those films. We were interested in seeing if honor endorsement predicted a unique enjoyment for high-honor films, above and beyond simply enjoying movies more generally. What we found was that while honor didn't relate to how many movies people had seen (i.e., their overall consumption didn't relate to honor), but it did relate to their enjoyment of high honor movies. In other words, honor ideology seems to influence how honor adherents enjoy and respond to media containing honor themes.

Can you give a description of how you define a philosophy of honor?

Honor is a cultural framework that centers on reputation as a source of worth. In other words, in cultures of honor, what matters is how others perceive and respond to you, not just how you perceive yourself. In an honor culture, your worth and value as an individual is thus up to the mercy of others' opinions, and you have to make sure that your behavior is such that others think well of you.

While there are different cultures of honor across the world — e.g., the American South, Turkey, Spain, and many Latin American countries are all considered honor cultures — they all share this core value of reputation, as well as key norms about how to gain and maintain that reputation. The central way to garner reputation is thus reciprocity. If they do something bad to you, you have to do something bad to them. On the other hand, if they do something good to you, you should also do something good for them. These reciprocity norms manifest differently across genders.

For men, what matters is a reputation for toughness, strength, and competence. You want to be the sort of person who others think of as reliable, as someone who shouldn't be messed with, and as someone who it's better to respect, both them individually and those socially connected to them, such as family members (what is called the "honor circle"). Of course, to maintain that sort of reputation, you're going to occasionally have to become aggressive. If someone insults you or your wife or your mother, for instance, you can't let that stand; you have to violently retaliate — or at least show that you're willing to do so if the person who insulted you doesn't take it back.

For women, what matters is a reputation for loyalty — even in the face of danger. Women play a very important role in honor cultures, because they're who transmit the norms to their children and raise them to be honor endorsers moving forward. A great deal of research on feminine honor centers around a reputation for sexual purity — less in the religious or socially conservative sense and more in the sense of not being known as "loose" or potentially bringing any shame on the men in one's life. However, recent research has shown that there might be some overlap with what is traditionally considered more "masculine" reputational content, with women who take revenge or respond violently to insult being viewed positively by honor endorsers.

What would be a few examples of films/TV shows that have a strong (and weak) honor sensibility?

Name almost any western, mobster movie, or action film and it's probably high honor. One of my personal favorite films that exemplifies the norms of honor is The Godfather, where the opening monologue deals with issues of reputation, reciprocity, and violent revenge. You see similar themes in movies like Goodfellas (Joe Pesci's character especially exemplifies honor norms), Scarface, The Untouchables (think of the "That's the Chicago way!" monologue from Connery's character), and similar films and tv shows.

Looking at those central honor themes that our raters used to identify honor-based movies, it's not hard to see that a lot of our popular films like Unforgiven, John Wick, Braveheart, etc., all play into honor norms. I am notorious (Infamous? Despised?) in my friend groups for being able to relate most movies and TV shows — especially those that might broadly fall under the category of "Action" — to honor themes.

However, there are also some examples of popular media that I think do a great job of deconstructing honor norms — or at the very least challenging how we think about them. My two current favorite examples of these are both television shows: Avatar - The Last Airbender and Cobra Kai.

In Avatar, especially with the character of Zuko, there is an actively anti-honor theme, at least as far as the psychological definition of honor is concerned. Zuko starts the show by caring what others think about him, he needs them to feel that he's strong and tough and competent, and his refusal to think or act outside of that framework gets him into a lot of trouble, to the point where he realizes he doesn't like who he's becoming. The core journey of Zuko could be described as giving up an honor perspective and instead embracing the opposite, moving from centrally valuing reputation to instead valuing one's own perspective (and the perspective of loved ones) about one's self.

Cobra Kai is another great investigation of honor. It's an ongoing show so I won't get into plot details, but almost every main character in that show makes an honor ideology-based decision and ends up being hurt by it, or by someone else choosing to follow honor norms. Some of them learn their lesson, some don't, but it's such an interesting show to watch as an honor researcher. Of course, if you ask my wife, it's a terrible show to watch with an honor researcher because they keep pointing stuff like this out, but that's a different topic.

What percentage of people have a strong honor code, at least in the way you define it?

Honor used to be conceptualized as a primarily geographic phenomenon, especially in the American South where it was "discovered" and conceptualized as an explanation for the high rates of homicide and interpersonal violence. There are still geographic areas that we would considered "honor oriented" (for instance, the American "Honor Belt" consists of essentially the deep south and the former frontier states), but honor also exists as an individual phenomenon beyond geographic lines. I'd say that a lot more people are honor-oriented than might be comfortable admitting it, but I don't think you could put a percentage on it.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on honor go in the future?

Oh absolutely. Some places I'd love to see honor research on media consumption go would be regarding specific responses to violent films/TV (as opposed to simply honor-oriented films and television), as well as examining honor themes in other forms of media. For instance, there are a couple of country songs that have been released recently that essentially attack anti-COVID measures like masking or lockdowns and they use a ton of honor-based appeals and rhetoric to make their case. There's also been a link between honor ideology and broader political action, especially regarding revenge for collective insults, e.g. failure to pledge allegiance being perceived as a collective insult by honor endorsers who then feel that it should be punished. Songs like Toby Keith's "Beer for my Horses" or Lynyrd Skynyrd's "God and Guns" really seem to play into these ideas. Looking into the effects of media as they relate to the transmission and reinforcement of honor norms seems like an exciting and worthwhile place to take this research moving forward.

Another place would be examining depictions of honor-oriented women. For instance, in Rob Roy, there's what could be called a more "classic" depiction of an honor-oriented woman, for lack of a better term, whose agency is very much tied and limited to concerns of "hearth and home" and needs her husband to take revenge for her. However, there are also a growing number of popular films/TV shows/songs that show women having a lot more agency in taking their own revenge — e.g., Kill Bill, Mad Max Fury Road, The Chicks' "Goodbye Earl," Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead," or Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats." I think that taking a media-based approach could help honor research more clearly define what we mean by "feminine" honor and help us further develop and refine that concept beyond sexual loyalty and child-rearing.