Young Male Syndrome
In a previous post (here), I discussed the disconnect between Americans’ perception of trends in crime and the reality of same. Crime has decreased substantially since the early 1990’s, both property crime and violent crime. In recent years there has been a very modest increase in violent crime nationally, nothing approaching the levels seen 30 years ago.
There has been a rather sharp increase in murders in the last few years, fueled by an increase in certain cities, particularly Chicago. But again, nationally the levels are far below those of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Why was there some much crime in America 30 years ago, compared to today? One factor that has been suggested is simply this. There were far more young people, as a percentage of the population, than today. Here is America’s age pyramid in 1990:
Notice the large number of Americans between the ages of 15 and 40. At this time, 20% of the population was in this age range. By contrast, only 13% of the population was over the age of 50. Now compare this to today:
Today, only 17% of the population is between the ages of 15 and 40, while 18% is over the age of 50. And the fact is, crime rates among Americans aged 15-40 are much higher than those for older Americans. Interestingly, as the American population has aged, the peak age for crime rates has shifted somewhat. In 1980, violent crime rates peaked at about 17 years of age. Today the peak rate is between the ages of 20 and 30. Nevertheless, crime remains concentrated in youth.
But it isn’t just youth that exhibits a high crime rate, and especially a violent crime rate. It is specifically male youth. Males account for more than 73% of those arrested in America, and 80% of those arrested for violent crimes. 90% of those arrested for homicide are male. 99% of those arrested for rape. 83% of those arrested for arson. For less violent offenses, males still predominate, but far less so. 60% of those arrested for fraud are male. 51% of those arrested for embezzlement are male. Incredibly, by the age of 23, more than 4 out of 10 American males have been arrested for SOMETHING. About 58% of the men in America’s state prisons have been convicted of violent crimes. By contrast, about 62% of the women in these prisons have been convicted of non-violent crimes.
It isn’t just in the realm of crime that young males turn up more frequently. We have long known that they have a much greater propensity for risky behavior than other demographic groups. In practically all cultures, young males show these tendencies. Furthermore, risk taking is much more likely to occur when young males are in groups. It is also more likely in the presence of an attractive female. This is almost a cliche but it happens to be true. Interestingly, young males in stable romantic relationships tend to be more cautious than unattached young males. But even these “attached” young males tend to engage in risky behavior in the presence of an attractive female.
Young males exhibit higher levels of aggression than those in other demographic groups. This is particularly true of single males, and again, among groups of single males. Alcohol consumption is higher in men than women. A 2018 study of 8 countries found this to be true in every one of them. Higher-risk drinking is more prevalent in young men, and younger men tend to consume more alcohol than older men. Men are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs, and this usually begins at a young age. Even in more mundane areas of life, young males tend to take more risks. In gambling, finance, sports, travel, young males are more prone to risky behavior than other demographic groups.
Even when attempting to end their own lives, men tend to use more violent methods than women. 4 out of 10 American men own at least 1 firearm, compared to only 22% of American women. A firearm is by far the preferred method of suicide in American men. 56% of male suicides are by firearm. Only 8% are by poisoning. By contrast, only 32% of female suicides are by firearm. Poisoning accounts for 29% of suicides in women. The differences in preferred method explain why the suicide rate in men is much higher than that in women. Women actually attempt suicide more often than men, but since men tend to use much more lethal methods, their rate of suicide completion is higher. It should be noted that the suicide rate in men rises dramatically with age. Clearly, it isn’t that young males are more prone to straightforward self-destruction than older males, or for that matter, females. They don’t INTEND, as a rule, to cripple themselves or die in flaming cars. They do, however, tend to engage in behavior that puts them at risk.
Naturally, psychologists have a name for the tendency of young males to engage in risky behavior and aggression: Young Male Syndrome. Remarkably, there is no Wikipedia page devoted to this. Risk-taking is something that is very familiar to me. At the age of 15 I caught my first venomous snake, with no tools. In my youth it was not unusual for me to simply take off on my own on a trip over hundreds of miles, in unfamiliar territory, without telling a soul. No one knew even what state I was in or far how long I would be gone.. I often trespassed on private land and journeyed in remote areas. For 12 years I worked in the reptile department of a major zoo, dealing with rattlesnakes, cobras, Komodo dragons, and crocodiles. I once made a trip to Veracruz, Mexico, all alone, when I spoke hardly any Spanish and knew virtually nothing about the area. I have done storm chasing on a number of occasions. I have worked completely alone from dawn to dusk in remote swamps surrounded by cottonmouths and feral hogs. I could cite other examples. Most of these activities were done when I was considerably younger. I am much more cautious now, not least because I am married.
Young males are more prone to mental illness and self-inflicted injury than other demographic groups. Obviously, risk-taking and aggression are often self-destructive. Why, then, do young males have these tendencies? Evolutionary biologists have their answer, and it seems hard to deny – risk-taking for young males is a “winning” strategy, even though it is harmful to many of them. It has been selected for over evolutionary time because the rewards of successful risk-taking outweigh the risk. Natural selection does not care whether most individuals are harmed or helped. It does not even care whether the most “successful” individual is harmed, in the modern sense of the word. It only “sees” the RELATIVE DIFFERENCE in fitness between individuals.
Human beings are social beings. Everything we do must be understood in that context. A woman cannot increase the number of her offspring by mating with more than one man. A man, by contrast, can greatly increase the number of his offspring by mating with multiple women. Ismail Ibn Sharif, the Sultan of Morocco 300 years ago, fathered at least 800 children. In various cultures at various times it has been considered perfectly acceptable for a man to have mistresses, harems, “second wives,” or simply multiple wives. Even today, polygyny is perfectly legal in most African and Middle Eastern countries, and is widely practiced. And throughout the world, wealthy, powerful men often expect to have multiple female sex partners. Throughout the existence of the human species, there has been selection for male behavior that tends to increase the number of surviving offspring, even if it increases the likelihood of death. This is especially true for young males, since most of their reproductive years are ahead of them.
The most extreme examples of this kind of phenomenon occur in species (elephant seals for example) in which the females are crowded together at breeding time. A single male can control access to many females. As a result, competition between males is usually intense. Males are often much bigger and stronger than females, and engage in combat with other males, which is sometimes fatal. Even if they survive the combat, males are often badly injured. Natural selection doesn’t care that this behavior is “bad” for them. It only sees who produces the most surviving offspring, and will relentlessly favor behavior that produces that result. Human beings are a less extreme example of this, since it is much harder for a single male to control access to a large number of females. But natural selection only sees who produces the most surviving offspring, and will favor those who do.
Cooperation, of course, can result in every single male in the group doing “better” by modern standards – being healthier, avoiding injury, having less stress, living longer. But merely encouraging cooperation without active measures to counter inherent tendencies is clearly not enough. It is now well established that young males are more prone to actions that harm their health and put them at risk of death. Given this, why don’t we take measures to counter their self-destructive propensities? Over time, I think we will, more and more. But we still live in a barbaric age, when those in power cling to outdated notions of how societies operate. Powerful people still believe that might makes right. In America we often give risky behavior and aggression a pass. “Boys will be boys.”
As I have said before, America is a young country, with a recent frontier. This has everything to do with our approach to society and especially competition. We still have a high tolerance for cheating, aggression, sexism, racism, and a lot of other -isms. We cling to the notion that what has made America great is aggressive, even pathological competition between a few powerful white men. But this is changing and will continue to do so.