The Evolutionary Psychology Of Mass Shootings

A longing for power and social status mixed with hormones and fear can have deadly consequences. 'Man' via www.shutterstock.com

The roots of this male dilemma reside deep in our prehistoric past. Throughout the animal kingdom, the sex that invests the least in the reproduction of offspring (almost always males) competes among themselves for sexual access to mates.

Historically, powerful men have always enjoyed greater sexual access to women than than men lower in the pecking order, and violence can often be traced to this grim struggle for status. Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon spent years studying the Yanomamo people of South America. He discovered that men who had killed other men acquired significantly more wives than men who hadn’t killed anyone. And by all indications, a man’s status in the group was often dependent upon how believable his threats of physical violence were.

In different cultures, the male “quest for dominance” may play out in different ways. Regardless, it is clearly a universal motivating principle among males, with the achievement of dominance satisfying and rewarding for those who attain it. As scholar Jonathan Gottschall put it:

To physically dominate another man is intoxicating.

And so, violence committed against the right people at the right time became a ticket to social success.

Competitive Drives

For sound evolutionary reasons, younger men find themselves especially concerned with status and dominance.

In early human societies, competitive success or failure in early adulthood determined a man’s standing in a 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 lot.

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, heroic or even recklessly daredevil behavior was rewarded with status and respect – assuming, of course, that the young man survived the ordeal.

Today, the widespread promotion of sport in our culture undoubtedly developed as a constructive alternative for dealing with the proclivities of young males that evolved in a very different time. In a legally sanctioned gladiatorial arena, young men are able to exhibit the same skills – throwing, clubbing, running, wrestling, tackling, hand-eye coordination – that would have made them successful fighters or hunters in the ancestral environment.

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