The role of insults in an honour culture

People from an ‘honour culture’ often respond more aggressively to insults and provocations than those from a ‘dignity culture’. Saïd Shafa examined the underlying mechanisms and discovered how such responses can be avoided. PhD Defence 26 June.

Honour and dignity

Saïd Shafa

Saïd Shafa

Large parts of the world can roughly be divided into honour cultures and dignity cultures. An honour culture, often to be found in the Middle East or Mediterranean regions, is all about the idea of honour. To a large extent honour is determined by the way you are regarded by others. Honour is given to you by others; you can lose this status if someone threatens or harms you. In a dignity culture, as found in Western Europe and the US, self-worth is determined far more by the individual himself, by his self-image. A person bestows worth on himself; he is as it were, born with it, and no one else can take it away.


The way in which people cope with insults is influenced by their cultural background. Saïd Shafa, PhD researcher and psychologist, is one of the first to examine the underlying mechanisms. Shafa: ‘It appears that people from an honour culture react more defensively to insults, from fear of their honour being affected.’

Physiological observations

This caution can be observed even at a physiological level. Shafa: ‘In one of our experiments we had people interact with someone who would insult them, while we measured physiological indicators such as heart beat and blood pressure. The subjects from an honour culture showed types of stress similar to those encountered in threatening situations.’


Shafa also discovered that people from an honour culture tend to moralise insults much more. ‘People judge themselves and others primarily on competence and morality. Someone from an honour culture focuses more strongly on morality. After an insult, he will regard himself more as a bad person, than as someone who has done something stupid (and incompetent).’


The result is that people from an honour culture tend to be more civil and co-operative towards each other, as long as they are treated with respect. Aggravation can cause loss of honour. Shafa: ‘In dignity cultures, however, it is normal in some respect for people to have some kind of interpersonal tension. There is more room for confrontation and criticism, because one’s feeling of self-worth remains more or less intact. This feeling of self-worth doesn’t become affected by others so much, which is why people don’t feel the need to defend themselves in a verbally aggressive way, as is the case in an honour culture.’

Social self-confirmation

According to Shafa these aggressive reactions can, however, be avoided by confirming the social self-image of a person from an honour culture. ‘An effective approach is to allow a person to reflect on his or her own character traits that are appreciated by others. Honour depends largely on the other. With this social self-confirmation an insult becomes far less threatening.’


A grant from the NWO will allow Shafa to carry out further postdoc-research during the coming few years. ‘I would very much like to investigate if there are other possible interventions to be found in order to avoid honour-related aggression.’

(24 June 2014)

See also

Studying in Leiden





Psychology (research)

Last Modified: 03-07-2014