Chapter 6 of “Outliers,” titled “Harlan, Kentucky,” is divided into four numbered parts. As he does throughout the book, Gladwell first presents a story, and then he follows it up with relevant explanatory research.
Part 1. Harlan County is located in the southeastern corner of Kentucky, in the part of the Appalachian Mountains called the Cumberland Plateau. The town’s two founding families, the Howards and the Turners, did not get along. They had a long-standing family feud that resulted in multiple killings over the years, on both sides. “There were places in nineteenth-century America where people lived in harmony,” Gladwell writes. “Harlan, Kentucky, was not one of them.”
Part 2. The most famous family feud in the larger region of Appalachia was the one between the Hatfields and the McCoys on the West Virginia-Kentucky border, not far from Harlan. But many more can be documented, including the Howard-Turner feud. Gladwell says, “When one family fights with another, it’s a feud. When lots of families fight with one another … it’s a pattern.” Sociologists believe this pattern is caused by the continuance of the “culture of honor” that the Scotch-Irish immigrants had brought to this mountain region. People in this borderland felt they had an innate duty to protect their territories, reputations, and families; and that it was honorable to run off or kill anyone who threatened any of them. In this way, we can see that our “cultural legacies” can influence behavior for generations.
Part 3. In the early 1990s, two psychologists (Cohen and Nisbett) at the University of Michigan conducted an experiment where young men had to complete a questionnaire. And as they left the testing area, they ran into someone difficult who was in the way and who called them a casual but offensive name. Some of the men let the insult just slide away. Others were immediately quick to anger and were ready for a bigger confrontation. The researchers found that what made the difference in their reactions was where each man was from. The men from the northern part of the United States laughed off the encounter. The men from the south were “itching for a fight.”
Part 4. The Michigan study addresses the power of the cultural legacy. The southern men in the study were not from the mountain region, and they were hundreds of miles from home. They were college students and had no reason to feel challenged over properties or families. “And yet none of that mattered. They still acted like they were living in nineteenth-century Harlan, Kentucky.” Gladwell wonders if such information about the importance of our cultural legacies can be useful in determining whether or not a person will be successful in life. He explores this theme in the chapters that follow.