Chapter 6 Summary

Harlan, Kentucky

Gladwell describes a feud that occurred between two Appalachian families in the late 1800s in Kentucky. The Howard and Turner families fought a bitter feud in which many people ended up dying. At the same time in other locations in the Appalachians, similar family feuds were breaking out. There was an epidemic of Appalachian family feuds, some lasting for decades. The area became infamous for the feuding, and outside help was often brought in to stop the chaos.

The explanation for this behavior is tied back to something called “the culture of honor.” Many of these families came from Scotland, Ireland, and Northern England—places that relied on raising and herding animals. Theft of sheep and cattle was common. Because of their fierce drive to protect their animals and right the wrongs caused by thieving, a culture of honor was born; injustice was fought through revenge to maintain one’s honor and send a message that you are not to be stolen from. These herdsmen moved to Appalachia, where they continued to herd livestock in the fertile mountains of America, and so their culture of honor continued. When someone tried to steal their animals, they retaliated with revenge and honor killings. These men’s behavior was outside the norm—they were outliers—and can be explained through their cultural background and how they earned a living.

Gladwell then describes a psychological study conducted in the 1990s that would have college students walk down a tight hallway where a passerby would bump into them and call them a name. The psychologists were interested in measuring how these students would respond to the insult; they measured heart rate, perspiration, salivation, blood pressure, and other indicators of rage and stress. Interestingly, students from southern states reacted to the insult with more aggression, hostility, and anger than did those who were form northern states. It was concluded that even though sheepherding and thieving livestock was no longer a part of southern culture, the descendants of those feuding families were still predisposed to react to slights in honor with greater offense than were northerners.

Even though this chapter does not describe a success story, Gladwell asserts that we need to take cultural and ancestral history more seriously in analyzing why some people are more successful than others are. This concept comes into play more thoroughly in the following chapters.