Why Men Behave Badly: Causality vs. Morality

Infidelity: "what is" and "what should be."

Posted Jun 22, 2011

                                                                          (Listen to this post, or right-click to download mp3.)

" ...many men are goats and can't help committing adultery when they get a chance; whereas there are numbers of men who, by temperament, can keep their purity and let an opportunity go by if the woman lacks attractiveness."
     -- Mark Twain

Many of the recent discussions about "men behaving badly" have been confounded by attempts to simultaneously understand the phenomenon and condemn it.  But like oil and water, causality and morality don't mix well.  

Often our first response to behavior we dislike is: I don't care why it happens. I just want it to be punished and to stop!   Sometimes our moral outrage shuts down cool headed attempts to understand the causality of behavior. However, as pointed out by fellow evolutionary psychologist and PT blogger Michael Price in his recent post, if we wish to reduce behavior that we find morally objectionable, having an accurate understanding of why it occurs is an essential first step.  

And sometimes we confuse immorality with psychological abnormality. We often label people as sick who act immorally (often they are not). Moral objections to homosexuality led to its classification as a psychological disorder only a few decades ago (it is not so classified now). As our cultural moral sentiments change over time, so too do some of our conceptions about what is, or is not, psychologically abnormal.

Another factor that bedevils our attempts to understand "men behaving badly"is our tendency to project our own motivations and beliefs on to others.  Or, in the words of the anthropologist Donald Symons, we tend to "construct other minds is our own."   When we are puzzled by someone's actions, we may often ask ourselves, Well, why would I do something like that?  A thin person may have difficulty understanding the gustatory appetites of someone who is overweight, and may think that the naïve suggestion to "just eat less" is actually helpful. Heterosexuals have difficulty conceiving the sexual attractions of homosexuals, and vice versa. And, men and women have notorious difficulties understanding each others' sexual motivations and intentions.

Let me suggest that when it comes to the opposite sex, "constructing other minds as our own" can be a very bad idea.   It can lead to mistaken conclusions about their motives and intentions. Why? Because the brains/minds of men and women can operate quite differently when it comes to sex. Most males can understand the motivations of men who succumb to sexual temptation, even if they do not do so themselves.  Even faithful President Carter admitted:  "I've looked on a lot of women with lust... I've committed adultery in my heart many times."  

Women may have more difficulty understanding men's sexual motives (and, vice versa).  This is especially true if they try to understand men by "constructing the mind of the opposite sex as their own."  For example, some women have wondered aloud:  Why would Tiger Woods want other women when he had a beautiful, young wife at home?   Most men, however, find his motivations less confounding. 

So, for now, let's leave aside both considerations of morality, and also curb our tendency to project our own perspectives on to the opposite sex.  

First, let's focus on ultimate causality -- why evolution has predisposed men to "behave badly."  

Our most basic desires and aversions are remnant adaptations of what worked in the ancestral past to increase the likelihood of reproduction.  We are the psychological fossils of our ancestors.   And, reproductively, what worked for males could be a ticket to reproductive oblivion for females, and vice versa.  

Below are some (brutally honest) evolutionary reasons why men have sexually dimorphic psychological adaptations that can make resisting sexual temptation a bit of a challenge, even if they are in a satisfying relationship.

1. Because men have a faster rate of reproduction compared to women, they are generally more easily sexually aroused and are more indiscriminate about sexual partners.

Human males can reproduce very quickly and at very little cost.  

In contrast, ancestral women bore a very heavy cost to reproduce – nine months of gestation, 3 to 4 years of lactation, and a decade or more of socialization.   From a male perspective sex is fun, free, consumes calories, and can be a way to get to know each other a little better. On the other hand, for ancestral women the consequences of sex could be anything but free.   By consenting to sex, an ancestral woman was consenting to the possibility of pregnancy by that particular man (who may or may not be able or willing to invest paternally), and she was consuming one of her precious opportunities to reproduce during a limited fertility time window.  Wonder why women today are generally more sexually choosy and discriminating than men?

In contrast, men can literally walk away from a bad mating. They can literally be in another state tomorrow pursuing new reproductive opportunities.  As a consequence, men generally tend to be far more sexually indiscriminate and eager than women.  The setpoint for their reproductive libido is generally higher than it is for women.

Sometimes women complain that men are not willing to commit.  Men are willing to commit... to as many fertile women as possible.  It is not the commitment that is a problem for men, it is the commitment  to limit his reproductive output to that of a woman.   In the "best" of circumstances, men have a potentially much greater reproductive output (see my previous post on this topic).  Men are polygynists by nature.   Because this is illegal in our culture, some men change their reproductive strategy from simultaneous polygyny to serial monogamy (or to "monogamy" with affairs on the side).

Keep in mind that these are not conscious reproductive calculations being made by each gender. Instead, they are evolved psychological adaptations that operate at unconscious levels that generate motivation and desire. We don't choose to have the motives and desires that we have, nor do we know the ultimate reasons about why we have them.  We just feel them.

2. Men are aroused by the prospect of sexual partner novelty in itself (the "Coolidge Effect").

The Coolidge Effect is the well documented phenomena of mammalian male sexual re-arousal when a novel sexual partner is introduced.   For example, when a cow is placed in a pen with a bull, he will typically copulate with her, but he will soon stop.   However, keep replacing the cow with a novel one, and the bull will continue to copulate with each new female, virtually until exhaustion.  Why? Because each new female represents a new reproductive opportunity -- another chance to impregnate a female and thus increase his reproductive output.

This effect gets its name from this true story:

The President and Mrs. Coolidge were being shown [separately] around an experimental government farm. When [Mrs. Coolidge] came to the chicken yard she noticed that a rooster was mating very frequently. She asked the attendant how often that happened and was told, "Dozens of times each day." Mrs. Coolidge said, "Tell that to the President when he comes by." Upon being told, President asked, "Same hen every time?" The reply was, "Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time." President: "Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge."

So human males are generally sexually aroused by sexual partner novelty per se.  Men's magazines like Playboy and Penthouse offer pictures of novel females each month.    But, come on. Once you have seen a couple of naked ladies, don't men get the general idea?  Additional naked ladies are just variations on a theme, right?  Do men have such a short memory span that they need to be re-reminded each month of the contours of the female form?   No, it is the pure novelty of a new naked woman that they haven't seen before that is of interest.  Ever seen a men's magazine that has had the same woman as the pin-up month after month?

Mistresses of Tiger Woods calendar

The sheer number of Tiger Woods' mistresses almost tests the limits of sexual partner novelty. Here is a portion of a "Tiger Wood's Mistresses Calendar," with one of his mistresses pictured each month.  

Of course, this male interest in sexual partner variety does not bode will for long term  monogamous relationships.

3. Men are most sexually attracted to women within the age window of maximal fertility (about 17 - 28).

Men of all ages are generally most sexually attracted to women of high fertility.  Men can assess fertility visually because a woman's fertility is so highly correlated with her age and health.  And, they can assess it very  rapidly, and very accurately -- just a fraction of a second glance will do. Women have a "prime high fertility window" for about 15 years or so.  Then, after about age 30, the probability of conceiving and bringing a pregnancy to term declines fairly rapidly.   Ancestral men who were oblivious to cues of female fertility, or who were most sexually attracted to, say, post-menopausal women, generally did not leave as many descendants behind.  

The male desire for sex with highly fertile women militates against the prospect for a life long faithful marriage.   To be bluntly honest, as a man's wife ages and her fertility declines, his eyes may start to wander to younger women who are still in their prime reproductive time window.  The reproductive value of his wife is depreciating at the very time that his own income, power and status (and thus his attractiveness to other women) may be peaking.  As noted above, some men engage in serial monogamy -- but the key point is that they tend to re-marry women who are increasingly younger than themselves.   That is, their focus remains on women who are still within their time window of high fertility.  To wit: the marriages of Donald Trump.

Paul Newman and wife Joanne Woodward

When I give lectures about this to my classes, I sometimes see a hint of despair in the eyes of some female students. So, I have used  the example of the happy 50 year marriage of the late actor Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward to emphasize the fact that men can indeed be faithful.  So there is hope, I would say, even if your husband was an extremely good looking and famous movie star who constantly had women throwing themselves at him.   Newman was once asked about infidelity, and he replied: "Why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home?"

Unfortunately, I won't be able to use this example in the future.  A recently published biography revealed that Newman was not a faithful husband throughout his long marriage.  It was apparently well known in Hollywood that he had an affair with the journalist Nancy Bacon.  The joke among the Hollywood insiders was that "Paul may not go out for hamburger, but he sure goes out for Bacon."


Journalist Nancy Bacon, mistress of Paul Newman

4. Powerful, high status men are generally more attractive to women, and thus they have more sexual opportunities and temptations. 

"A man is as faithful as his options."
          -- Chris Rock.

It is often suggested that powerful men feel entitled to what they want, and so they take it.  Although that may be true, it is also true that often they don't have to go looking for trouble.  Instead, trouble comes looking for them.   Rock stars have groupies who take the initiative, as do many sports heroes (such as Tiger Woods).  President Clinton didn't go after Monica Lewinsky, she came on to him by hiking her skirt and flashing her panties from behind.  High status men are less likely to be faithful simply because they have more opportunities presented to them by women. 

Men like Arnold Schwarzenegger are the paragon of high-testosterone alpha males.  We reveled and were transfixed by the super-normal stimuli of his steroid enhanced physique, his superhero movie star character, and his political power.   We admired him for being high testosterone Arnold, but were later surprised by the other behavioral effects of that hormone, which includes Arnold's increased levels of appetitive sexual desire.

This presents an ironic Catch 22 for women.  The men that women generally most desire --  powerful, high status men -- are the very men who are the least likely to remain faithful to their wives.   A man's income level and the probability that he will be unfaithful is almost a perfect linear correlation.   If a woman wants a faithful husband, she would do better to marry a taxi driver than a surgeon.  

5. Men are interested in "low cost" sexual opportunities.

Men can simultaneously pursue two different reproductive strategies: a high investment relationship with his wife and children, and a low investment sexual affair with women who are willing.  It is the low investment sexual affairs that can be particularly appealing to men (and often particularly upsetting to women).   Here is one example where "constructing other minds as one's own" can be particularly painful to a wife who has discovered her husband's infidelity.   Since women are more inclined to have a "high investment" affair that involves an emotional connection, by projection she may over-estimate her husband's degree of emotional involvement with the other woman.  Because men pursue low investment sex, it may actually be quite low.   It came as a shock to some of Tiger Woods' mistresses to discover that he had no intention of leaving his wife.  Nancy Bacon terminated her affair with Paul Newman when she realized that he was committed to his wife and family and was not going to leave them for her.

6. "Meaningless" sex can be quite meaningful to men.

"Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go its pretty damn good."
   -- Woody Allen

Sometimes women say they cannot understand how men can have sex with strangers, prostitutes, or with someone that they do not love.  How can that be meaningful?   Well, it depends on the meaning of meaningful.  Again, from a male perspective, there was little downside for ancestral men when an opportunity presented itself to have low investment sex with a fertile woman.   As a consequence, as noted by Woody Allen, a quick fling can be pretty meaningful to a male.  

Think about it this way. A woman is reassured of her own reproductive value to the opposite sex every month with her ovulatory cycle.   When is a man reassured of his reproductive value to women?  When he has sex.   In addition, one of the most meaningful experiences a woman has in her life is when she gives birth.  Men never experience that.  The closest men come to giving birth (and the meaning associated with reproduction), is sex.    After sex men usually feel pretty good about it -- their self-esteem is generally increased and they rarely experience "post-copulatory regret." The  song "I Just Had Sex" by The Lonely Planet exemplifies this post-copulatory male elation.



7. Our modular minds make hypocrites of all of us.

As Robert Kurzban pointed out in his book Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, our minds are composed of a multitude of emotional, motivational and cognitive modules, each of which operates somewhat independently.  Often they are in conflict, with one module telling us to do one thing, and another telling us to do the opposite.  No wonder we often experience internal conflicts.  Elliott Spitzer was prosecuting prostitutes while simultaneously patronizing them.  There have been many preachers who have told their flock to be faithful to their spouse, while they were simultaneously engaging in an affair.   


Now we have a better understanding of why men behave badly from an ultimate, evolutionary perspective.  For more proximate explanations (how the brain works and the effects of hormones), see this post by Susan Reynolds and this post by John Buri. 

Now, let us turn to issues of what we think should be -- issues of morality.  

First, let's keep in mind that understanding the causality of something doesn't morally justify it (that error is what is called the "naturalistic fallacy" -- the erroneous idea that if something is natural it must be good).   But we also need to beware of the "moralistic fallacy" -- the idea that the world simply can't work in a way that is immoral (the erroneous idea that the way the world ought to be is the way that it must be).

Given "men behaving badly," should we try to change men's sexuality -- try to socialize them to reduce their inherent tendencies that we find problematic or immoral?  Should unfaithful men be given "interventions," such as sexual rehab? Should past legal penalties for adultery be reinstated?   Perhaps if we make the penalties sufficiently costly, men may think more with the head above their shoulders?

Or, alternatively, should we change our culture? Europeans, especially the French, seem far more accepting of the affairs of powerful men.   In some cultures it is accepted that a man may have a mistress, as long as the affair remains rather covert and it does not negatively affect his family.  

Perhaps there are alternative, simulation activities that could satisfy men's primal impulses, but without the negative effects?  One successful non-sexual example is team sports.   Team sports mimics a truly immoral and horrific aspect of human nature, the "thrill" of in- vs. out- group tribal warfare.   Team sports manage to successfully simulate this human propensity for tribal warfare such that we can experience the primal thrill of victory (or, the agony of defeat), but without anyone actually getting killed.  

Can alternative simulations effectively subsitute for men's inclinations toward sexual partner novelty?  Say, via virtual sex (pornography) and/or short-term commercial sex (prostitution)?  There is evidence that when these have been legalized in various countries, rates of sexual assault have generally declined thereafter.  Might they also cause a decrease in the rates of male marital infidelity?   To my knowledge, there have been no studies that have assessed this.  

Or, in the future, will increasingly life-like virtual reality, or even life-like robotic sexual partners (such as those in the film Westworld), allow men to effectively satiate their sexual desires for multiple novel beautiful partners, without negatively affecting their real world relationship? Sounds creepy, I know.  But, who knows what the future may bring.

Finally, lest we bash too much on males, what about "women behaving badly?"  

Women too can behave badly, but often they do so to satisfy a somewhat different set of underlying motives and desires.  I will explore this in a future post.  But, here is a stunning statistic to contemplate in the meantime.  DNA testing suggests that, on average, the percentage of children with a biological father who is actually someone other than the man so identified by the mother is stunningly high: as many as about 10%. Look at the people around you.  With that rate of cuckoldry this is not just a rhetorical question: "Who's your daddy?"

So, along with men, "women behaving badly," for their own unique reasons, should also give us moral pause.


Recommended for further information:

Post by David P. Schmitt on correlates of infidelity, and this post by Laura Betzig on the history of powerful men and their mistresses, and this post by Michael Price re male sexual risk taking.

Video: BBC Human Instinct Series. Program 2: Deepest Desires

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