For decades, scholars have sought to answer this bloody question: Why has the murder rate been disproportionally high in the South for more than a century? Some argue it's the weather -- hot, steamy conditions setting tempers on edge and provoking deadly violence. Others blame widespread poverty and illiteracy. Still others fault a so-called southern "code of honor" that requires any slight to be avenged.

Now three sociologists have found an additional explanation: lynchings.

Steven F. Messner of the State University of New York at Albany and his collaborators examined county data from 10 southern states where historically reliable information on vigilante lynchings is available: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. (Some counties where boundaries had changed were aggregated into groups of counties.)

This data set, originally collected by other researchers, contained the number of lynchings in each county in each state between 1882 and 1930, a period that scholars call the "era of lynchings." Then they gathered homicide data from the FBI and National Center for Health Statistics for each county covering the period from 1986 to 1995.

Based on this information, Messner and his colleagues produced two maps. One showed homicides: Those counties with the highest rates were colored black; those with lower rates were shaded gray, while those with the lowest rates were white. The second displayed lynchings, using the same shadings. Counties with the most lynchings were colored black, those with a lower rate were gray and those with the lowest rates were white.

A quick glace at the maps revealed a chilling pattern. The dark areas roughly overlapped: the counties with the most lynchings had the highest homicide rates, while counties with fewer lynchings had comparatively fewer murders. The overlap wasn't perfect, but it was apparent even to the naked eye, Messner reported in the latest issue of the American Sociological Review.

A more sophisticated statistical analysis confirmed the relationship. Counties with the most lynchings had homicide levels roughly 5 percent higher on average than those counties with the fewest lynchings -- a correlation that didn't disappear when the researchers controlled for factors known to influence the murder rate, such as population, poverty, low levels of education, the percentage of young people in the population, the unemployment rate and the percentage of single-parent households. They even developed an elaborate method to account for the code of honor, and found that that the correlation remained strong.

Why would a brutal practice that began more than a century ago affect these same areas today? Messner isn't yet sure. "That's the million-dollar question. We see these analyses as the first word, not the last." He hopes others will join in searching for the reasons. But Messner is confident that "lynching seems to matter and is relevant to our understanding of contemporary lethal violence" in the South.

Is capital punishment the modern equivalent of lynching?

Yes, argue three researchers who found that the states that sentenced the most criminals to death also tended to be the ones with the most lynchings in the past.

Sociologist David Jacobs of Ohio State University and collaborators Jason T. Carmichael of Ohio State and Stephanie L. Kent of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas found that the number of death sentences for all criminals -- black and white -- was higher in states with a history of lynchings. But the link was particularly strong when they analyzed only death sentences for black defendants.

The sociologists theorize that the death penalty became a legal replacement for the lynchings of the past. They found that the number of death sentences in states with the most lynchings increased as the state's population of African Americans grew larger, suggesting that "current racial threat and past vigilantism largely directed against newly freed slaves jointly contribute to current lethal but legal reactions to racial threat," Jacobs and his colleagues write in a forthcoming issue of the American Sociological Review.

This is poetic justice: Narcissistic employees have an inflated opinion of their job skills but are judged to be below-average performers by their supervisors and colleagues, according to a new study by Timothy Judge, a University of Florida professor of management.

Judge, along with Florida management professor Jeffery LePine and graduate student Bruce Rich, examined how people who scored high on a psychological measure for narcissism rated their leadership and job skills compared with performance reviews from bosses and co-workers. They asked 139 University of Florida graduate students with jobs outside the classroom to complete the self-assessments, as well as 143 lifeguards between the ages of 18 and 48 in the mid-Atlantic region.

They found that conceited, vain or otherwise self-absorbed people consistently considered themselves to be superior at their jobs. But when their bosses were asked to rate them, they got lower evaluations than other employees, Judge reported in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Is there no advantage that attractive people don't have? Apparently not, according to researchers who have found that women with pretty faces also tend to have pretty voices.

Psychologists in Scotland and Canada did their study by taking photos of 108 female students and also recording their voices. They prepared detailed measurements of each face and the frequency of the women's voice.

They found that women with more "feminine" features (wider faces, higher eyebrows) also had more feminine, higher-pitched voices.

Moreover, they found in a separate study involving men that guys preferred a higher-pitched voice to a lower-pitched voice, reported David R. Feinberg of the University of St. Andrews and his colleagues in the September issue of Evolution and Human Behavior.

This is the latest study that suggests physically attractive people have it all, or at least a lot more of it than the rest of us.

Other researchers have found that women with pretty faces also tend to have hotter bodies. And in 1999 one researcher reported that pretty women even smelled better.