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

Young Male Syndrome

It’s no secret that most people fear violent behavior by young men more than violent behavior by older men. There’s a sound basis for this fear.

In fact, the tendency of young men to engage in risky, aggressive behavior prompted the Canadian psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly to give it a name: Young Male Syndrome.
The duo studied the relationship among age, sex and homicide victimization in the United States in 1975. They found that the likelihood of a woman being a murder victim doesn’t change dramatically throughout the course of her life. The pattern for the males, on the other hand, is striking. At age 10, males and females have an equal probability of being murdered. But by the time men are into their 20’s, they become six times more likely to be murdered.

Consistent with Wilson and Daly’s data, 87% of the 598 homicide victims in the city of Chicago in 2003 were males, and 64% of the victims were between the ages of 17 and 30. The likelihood of being the victim of lethal violence peaks for men between the late teens and late 20’s, before steadily declining for the rest of their lives.

Nature fuels the fires of male violence by equipping young men with the high levels of testosterone necessary to get the job done.

Squaring off. 'Chimpanzees' via www.shutterstock.com

Studies on chimpanzees – our closest primate relative – have shown that high-ranking male chimpanzees exhibit the highest levels of aggression and the highest levels of testosterone. Furthermore, all adult male chimpanzees experience their highest testosterone levels when they’re in the presence of females who are ovulating. This is associated only with higher levels of aggression – not significant increases in actual sexual activity.

Researchers such as myself who study the relationship between testosterone and aggression in humans have concluded that testosterone-fueled violence is more likely to occur when males are competing with other males, or when the social status of a male is challenged in some way. The increased testosterone facilitates whatever competitive behaviors are needed to meet the challenge, which could mean physical violence.

Many studies have shown that testosterone levels in males rise and fall according to whether the individual wins or loses in competitive sports, like tennis and wrestling – even chess.

Sports fans experience the same spike watching sports, which helps explain the violence and destructive rioting that can take place after big games (win or lose).

Red Sox fans riot after winning the 2004 World Series. Reuters

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