COVID Parties? The Reckless Psychology of Being Young

Why is organized, reckless stupidity such a universal symptom of youth?

Posted Jul 02, 2020

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Well, it was just a matter of time. Apparently, students in Tuscaloosa, Alabama have been throwing “COVID Parties."

Or maybe not.

A day after publishing this post, I discovered that I may have been duped; there apparently is not any hard evidence that the COVID parties in Tuscaloosa were for real. The eagerness with which I, along with many reputable media outlets, embraced this story reflects the general acceptance of the fact that young people are much less risk-averse than their elders. Having said this, it appears that COVID parties have in fact been occurring across the US.

A COVID party is a large gathering of young people, including some who have already been diagnosed with COVID-19. These get-togethers are actually competitions posing as parties, with party-goers vying with each other to become the next victim of the pandemic. Sometimes, participants even put money into a pot, with the first person to get infected after the party  becoming the “winner.”

COVID parties are emblematic of the spectacular organized stupidity that young people seem to have a special talent for.

I have written about this before, and it turns out that there are real psychological mechanisms at work beneath this façade of foolish behavior.

"The Young-Male Syndrome"

Events such as COVID parties are almost always dreamed up by males rather than by females.

It’s no secret that young men are notorious for engaging in foolish, risky behavior and that most people fear violent behavior by young men more than violent behavior over older men. In fact, the tendency of young men to engage in risky and/or aggressive behavior prompted the Canadian psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly to give it a name: “Young Male Syndrome.” The results of the annual “Darwin Awardscompetition support their conclusions convincingly. The Darwin Awards honor those individuals who have lost their lives during the previous year by taking stupidity to a colossal new level.

For example, during the five-year period from 2010 through 2014, the Darwin Award winners were skewed toward men by a margin of 38 to 5, with two of the five women making the list only because they got talked into having sex with men under less than rational circumstances.

How could this predilection for recklessness have evolved in young men?

For sound evolutionary reasons, younger men find themselves especially concerned with status and dominance. In early human societies, competitive success in early adulthood established a man’s standing in his social group for the rest of his life; it wasn’t possible to simply hit the “reset” button and join another group, so what happened during the teen years mattered a great deal. For this reason, high-risk competition between young males provided an opportunity for showing off the abilities needed to acquire resources, exhibit strength, and meet any challenges to one’s status. Consequently, even recklessly daredevil behavior was rewarded with status and respect—assuming, of course, that the young man survived the ordeal.

Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes has developed the “show-off hypothesis” to explain the well-replicated finding that men in hunter-gatherer societies who are predisposed toward more risky hunting strategies end up with greater sexual access to women.

Along these same lines, 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.

Thus, risky male behavior may not just be about advertising a genetic quality that enables one to survive risks, but it may also advertise how one might behave as an adversary or an ally. If one sees a “crazy bastard” who behaves with apparent disregard for his own personal well-being by doing things that would scare ordinary men away, one might 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 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.

This proclivity toward recklessness in young people is exacerbated by other factors, not the least of which are the feelings of invincibility that comes with being young and the especially strong susceptibility to conformity pressure that exists during this period of our lives. Once the ball gets rolling on an “exciting” event like a COVID party, the fear of looking like a chickensh*t can nudge even rational young people into going along with the group.