Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

The 7 BEST Things About Being a Male

The advantages of carrying a Y chromosome

In a recent blog, I listed the 7 worst things about being a male.  Although the problems I listed were real, I wasn’t really intending to whine, or to imply that women somehow it had easier than men.  But I got some responses that took it rather too seriously, including one fellow who suggested that by discussing the costs of being a male I could do great damage to my fellow hombres’ mental health!   

So, in the interest of fairness, and to show my commitment to positive psychology, what follows is a list of 7 good things about being a male.  More seriously, I speculate about the evolutionary roots of the trade-offs involved in being a male versus a female.


1. Men remain (relatively) attractive later in life.  Although the typical lanky 16 year old male is, sadly for him, not nearly as attractive to the opposite sex as is his nubile 16 year old female counterpart, there is a compensation when he is 60.  In a paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Rich Keefe and I analyzed data from around the world, and found the following to be true from remote islands in the balmy Pacific to crowded modern cities: Girls under 20 were many times more likely to marry than are boys their age, but men over 50 are several times more likely to marry than older women.  In Singapore, to take one example, there were 4,304 women under 20 married in the years we examined, but only 547 men.  The pattern flipped for Singaporeans marrying after age 50, when there were only 62 women to 240 men. (I discussed this research in a couple of earlier blogs describing a society in which young men marry older women).  Eugene Mathes and his colleagues asked subjects of different ages to judge the physical attractiveness of photographs of different aged males and females.  Compared with younger women, older women were judged less physically attractive by both men and women.  On the other hand, women did not judge photographs of older men to be less attractive than those of younger men.  I guess I’ve experienced this myself first hand.  Although I am over 60, I have a wife who is 24 years younger.  As my friends will no doubt point out, this isn’t because men don’t physically deteriorate.  When I look at my passport photographs, which give a random sample of what I’ve looked like on one day for every decade, I find the progression rather depressing (I won't show the sad decay, you'd rather look at Jon Hamm's mug).

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Related to the differential link between aging and desirability to the opposite sex is the fact that men do not go through menopause.  As one review concluded: “the alterations in testicular and pituitary function observed in senescence occur over long periods of time and remain subtle compared to the sudden and profound changes in gonadal function during female menopause...While women lose their reproductive capacities during the menopause, sustained androgen and sperm production indicate that impotence and infertility are not a corollary of advancing age in men." (Nieschlag & Michel, p. 69).  The bottom line: men in their 80s are still capable of fathering children (if you can wake them up).

2.  Men are less likely to suffer from depression.  A team of researchers in the Netherlands examined the data from a large national survey for people who met the criteria for diagnosable mental disorders.  They found that Dutch women were twice as likely to suffer major depression. These findings are typical.  Susan Nolen-Hoeksema is a prominent health psychologist at Yale, who published a classic review of this literature in the 1980s, and revisited the topic as recently as 2012, when she concluded that women are significantly more likely than men to be diagnosed with unipolar depression.  Nolen-Hoeksema suggests several possible explanations for this difference: Women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault, they are more likely to live in poverty, women are more likely to have disregulated HPA responses to stress (which may be magnified by ovarian hormone changes), and females are more sensitive to other people’s opinions, a tendency that is pronounced during their teenage years.  Nolen-Hoeksma also notes that women’s depression is higher to the extent that they ruminate.  Whereas men are more likely to turn to alcohol under stress, women tend to obsess over the stressors in their lives, which can be rather depressing.  That doesn’t mean that you should rush out and get drunk next time you’re feeling down; the Dutch study found that men were 3 times as likely to have substance abuse disorders, with alcohol by far being most common (Nolen-Hoeksma reviews other data showing that men's serious problems with alcohol aren’t unique to the Netherlands). 

Interestingly, Rosemary Hopcroft and Julie McLaughlin review survey data from 23 countries which show a greater sex gap in depression in societies where the women and men are more equal.  Their analysis suggests that this is linked to the greater burden of raising children posed for working women in modern urban societies. 

3. Men are less likely to suffer from anxiety disorders.  In a classic review of data on anxiety disorders, Isaac Marks reported that women made up 90 percent of animal phobias, 75 percent of agorophobias, and about 60 percent of social phobia cases. More recently, the Netherlands team I just mentioned found women were more than twice as likely to suffer from a diagnosable anxiety disorder. More recently, Nolen-Hoeksema reviewed the broader literature on this topic, and concluded that women are more likely to suffer from all of the anxiety disorders (except obsessive-compulsive disorder).  The difference in anxiety disorders may be indirectly linked to the next point:

4. Men are better able to defend themselves against physical assault.  Although women’s lower body strength is a bit more comparable to men’s, men’s upper body strength is, on average, substantially greater.  In one study of muscular strength, a team of researchers at McMaster University found that men’s upper body muscles were twice as strong as women’s (Miller et al., 1993).  The authors noted that the difference was linked to the type of muscle fibers, and their data suggested it was an innate difference, rather than a result of men’s inclination to work out more. Evolutionary theorists believe this difference in upper body strength is linked to a history of sexual selection, in which females chose males who were relatively dominant over other males.  And although that all means you’ll be in more fights if you're a fella, you can occasionally land a really good punch against some dominance-seeking bully. Whether it’s advisable or not, since he may get up and come after you with a weapon, is another question. But at least you have the option.

As I noted in the earlier blog, men are more likely to be physically assaulted in the first place. But there’s a notable exception – forcible rape.  The largest gap in arrests is in the category of forcible rape, where only 1% of arrestees were women.  Some of this might be due to men’s unwillingness to report such crimes, but it’s unlikely that the difference is not real, given men’s ability to defend themselves.  For young boys, there are plenty of Sandusky-type perverts lurking around, but most adult men are exclusively heterosexual, so the unreported sexual victimization of minors is almost certainly higher for girls than for boys.

5. Males get to play with Legos and toy rockets instead of dollhouses. I have had two sons and one grandson, all three obsessed with Legos, and every time I sit down with them to play with the little blocks, I experience their delight myself.  And both my sons have had those rockets that you pump up with air and water, which can only be described as “awesome!”  If you’re a female, you may object that dollhouses are a lot of fun for the more socially sensitive XX set.  But these early play preferences may be related to the fact that men are more likely to move into the higher reaches of science, technology, and math fields, which get a lot of respect compared to more traditionally female occupations such as being an elementary school teacher or a nurse.

6. Men are more likely to become high-ranking political officials, or CEOs of large companies.  As of 2012, only 17 of the 100 U.S. senators are women. Likewise, women currently hold 17% of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Things are getting more equal, slowly, and that ratio is up from a decade ago, when women held just under 14% of seats in the United States Congress. Worldwide, the U.S. level is typical, women hold the majority of seats in only 2 countries out of 189 (world figures are also up from a decade ago, but nowhere near equity when you aggregate data from around the world).

This difference is not likely due to men’s being more adept at things political, and Alice Eagly has reviewed literature suggesting that people in organizations who work for female leaders do not find them any less satisfactory or inspiring as leaders in comparison with men. Melanie Trost and Jill Sundie and I have noted that the sex difference in high status positions has historically been found across cultures, and that it matches data from other animal species, in which males are generally more likely to compete for dominance.  The most parsimonious explanation of these parallels, we argue, is again linked to sexual selection: Because females invest more in the offspring, they are more selective about choosing mates, and pick those whose traits suggest superiority over their competitors.  To the extent that males invest more in the offspring, the sex differences reduce.  In species such as phalaropes, where the males invest more in the offspring, the sex differences in competitiveness reverse, with females being more likely to show off and compete for mates.

7. Men make more money.  Although I read recently that this is becoming less true for young men in the modern era, over the lifespan, men still tend to make more than women.  I attach a graph from Wikipedia to show the trends. 


I’d also guess that this difference in earnings is an indirect byproduct of sexual selection and differential parental investment, as explained in number 6 above.  Julia Barthold and her colleagues have recently analyzed data from 13 countries, finding that the famous link between more income and fewer children holds only for women, and not for men.  In fact, men with low income had the same or slightly lower number of children when compared to men with higher income.

This is just a partial list of the benefits of being a man. As with everything in nature, there are trade-offs involved in being a male or a female.  We are just beginning to understand how these trade-offs work by viewing human beings through the lens life history theory, a powerful set of ideas linking evolutionary biology with developmental and social psychology.  I’ve described some of these ideas in my paper reconstructing Maslow’s pyramid in evolutionary terms, in my paper with Keefe (cited below), and in a chapter with my (younger and more attractive) wife (who is one of the reasons that I am personally quite happy to be a male, and not presently contemplating a trip to Johns Hopkins medical center to make a change). 

Douglas Kenrick is author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity, are revolutionizing our view of human nature.  His most recent book, just released in September 2013 is: author of The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think.  Check out this 3 minute video in which he and coauthor Vlad Griskevicius discuss the books 2 main themes.

Related blogs:

The mind as a coloring book: Explaining a society in which younger men marry older women.

How a passing mood can profoundly alter your economic decisions.  Includes a link to a cool video on sex differences in economic risk, prepared by my talented son David Lundberg Kenrick.  

The cost of a woman vs. the cost of a man.  Prostitution, brideprice, and dowry analyzed.

The 7 worst things about being a male.

Never tell a woman you love her (unless....

Slugging your way to the top

References

Barthold, J.A., Myrskylä, M., & Jones, O.R. (2012).  Childlessness drives the sex difference in the association between income and reproductive success of modern Europeans. Evolution & Human Behavior. In press. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2012.03.003.

Bijl, R.V., de Graaf, R., Ravelli, A., Smit, F., Vollebergh, W.A.M. (2002).  Gender and age-specific first incidence of DSM-III-R psychiatric disorders in the general population - Results from the Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study (NEMESIS). Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol, 37: 372–379.

Eagly, A. H., Karau, S. J., & Makhijani, M. G. (1995). Gender and the effectiveness of leaders: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 125–145.

Hopcroft, R.L., & McLaughlin, J. (2012). Why is the sex gap in feelings of depression wider in high gender equity countries? The effect of children on the psychological well-being of men and women.  Social Science Research 41: 501–513. 

Kenrick, D.T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S.L., & Schaller, M. (2010). Renovating the pyramid of needs: Contemporary extensions built upon ancient foundations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 292–314.

Kenrick, D.T., & Keefe, R.C. (1992).  Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in mating strategies. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 15, 75- 91.

Kenrick, D.T., & Luce, C.L. (2000).  An evolutionary life-history model of gender differences and similarities.  Pp. 35-64 in T. Eckes & H.M. Trautner (Eds.) The Developmental Social Psychology of Gender. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kenrick, D.T., Trost, M.R., & Sundie, J.M. (2004). Sex-roles as adaptations: An evolutionary perspective on gender differences and similarities. . Pp. 65-91 in A. H. Eagly, A. Beall, & R. Sternberg (Eds.), Psychology of Gender. New York: Guilford.

Marks, I.M. (1969).  Fears and phobias.  New York: Academic Press.  Women made up 90 percent of animal phobias, 75 percent of agorophobias, about 60 percent of social phobia cases.

Mathes, E.W.,  Brennan, S.M., Haugen,  P.M., & Rice, H.B. (1985).  Ratings of physical attractiveness as a function of age.  Journal of Social Psychology, 125:157-168.

Miller, A. E. J., MacDougall, J. D., Tarnopolsky, M. A. &. Sale D. G (1993).  Gender differences in strength and muscle fiber characteristics. European Journal of Applied physiology and occupational physiology. 66, 254-262, DOI: 10.1007/BF00235103.

Nieschlag, E., & Michel, E. (1986). Reproductive functions in grandfathers..  In L. Mastroianni, Jr. & C.A. Paulsen (Eds.) Aging, reproduction, and the climacteric, Plenum Press..  Pp. 59-71.

Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2001).  Gender differences in depression.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 173-176.

Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2012).  Emotion regulation and psychopathology: The role of gender.  Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 8: 161–87.

Piccinelli, M., & Wilkinson, G. (2000).  Gender differences in depression: Critical review.  British Journal of Psychiatry, 177:486-492.

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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