The "Crazy Bastard" Hypothesis

Why are men so much more disgusting and foolhardy than women?

Posted Feb 04, 2015

Crazy Motorcycle Stunt
pixabay.com/CC0 Public Domain

Take a straw poll of your friends (or of any random group of strangers) by asking “Who is more likely to risk their lives by doing something stupid: men or women?” 

I would wager a large sum of money that you will get a response of at least 90% in favor of the men. 

The Darwin Awards

The results of the annual “Darwin Awards” competition support this position convincingly.  The Darwin Awards feature those individuals who have lost their lives in dramatic fashion during the previous year by taking stupidity to a colossal new level.  For the last five years (2010 – 2014), the Darwin Award winners have been skewed toward men by a margin of 38 to 5, with two of the five women who made the list getting there by being talked into having sex with men under less than rational circumstances. 

The sheer brilliance of some of these untimely deaths could not possibly have been replicated by the most creative of Hollywood fiction writers.  If you are interested in the gory details, check out the Darwin Awards Page at http://www.darwinawards.com/.

Why are Men usually more Disgusting than Women?

A few years back I was at a conference listening to a paper presentation about a similar phenomenon.  My apologies to the researchers for not remembering their names, but the goal of their research was to figure out why men never seem to completely outgrow the junior high school mindset of aspiring to be the grossest guy in the room.  If one can eat or drink a more putrid concoction than one’s peers and/or become a virtuoso of disgusting body function sounds, one can attain a status in the group that most men covet but will never enjoy.  

So where do these male impulses come from?  How could such behavioral predispositions ever have been adaptive? As an evolutionary psychologist, I am always curious as to what the payoff is for such behavior in terms of mating success.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the researchers in the study of disgusting behavior discovered that women emphatically did NOT directly find such behavior attractive. However, such behavior impressed the Hell out of other men, and the status bestowed on a man by his peers ultimately translated into more interest from women. 

When you think about it, much of the time disgusting behavior is also risky behavior.  By eating or drinking things that might be contaminated in some way or by risking social ostracism by flouting the polite rules of society, you are putting yourself on the line.  You are risking serious illness or excommunication from the group, both of which would have been deadly in the brutal prehistoric world of our ancestors.  If you can take such risks and survive them, you are signaling to others that you have special qualities.  Evolutionary biologists explain such “Honest Signaling” as a way of demonstrating superior genetic or personal qualities that will make you a highly sought after political ally or a desirable romantic partner.

The "Crazy Bastard Hypothesis"

Man highlining at Taft Point in Yosemite National Park with El Capitan in the background.
creativecommons.org/LiAnna Davis CC BY-SA 3.0

Recently, a team of Anthropologists at UCLA led by Dan Fessler tested what they called the “Crazy Bastard Hypothesis” in a series of studies.  They gathered data online from thousands of Americans and in person from dozens of individuals in the Fiji Islands.  They had people read short scenarios about individuals who engaged in risky, daredevil behavior or in more cautious, risk-averse behavior.  They then asked them to make judgments about the characteristics that they thought the person in the story might possess.  Among other things, the daredevil was perceived to be taller, stronger, and generally more physically formidable than the cautious individual. 

Their "Crazy Bastard Hypothesis" gives us a fun and more complete way of thinking about risky male behavior.  Now, it is no longer just about advertizing genetic quality, but it is also about advertizing how one might behave as an adversary or an ally.  If you see a “crazy bastard” who behaves with apparent disregard for his own personal well-being by doing things that would scare ordinary men away, you definitely end up wanting to have this person as a friend rather than as an enemy.  Even though the crazy bastard’s behavior is not overtly aggressive, one can easily imagine the terror of dealing with such a reckless opponent in combat and the comfort that one might have going into battle with that individual as a comrade.  Going way back to the dawn of recorded human history one can find rituals (often involving excessive consumption of alcohol) used by warriors to at least temporarily make themselves feel and appear to be formidable crazy bastards as a way of intimidating their enemies and taking the fight out of them before the battle even began.

Perhaps the “Crazy Bastard” is not so crazy after all?

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