Why Men Take Such “Stupid” Risks & Other Mysteries of Manhood

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“Masculinity is not something given to you, something you’re born with, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.” –Norman Mailer

            As a psychotherapist who has worked with men and their families for more than fifty years, one of the things I’ve wondered about is the propensity men have for taking seemingly stupid risks that are harmful to themselves and others. To be fair, men aren’t the only ones who do this, as my wife Carlin will freely admit. Yet, you don’t have to be neuroscientist or even a social scientist to recognize that risk-taking is a predominately male activity.

            Since I am a male, I can tell you I’ve done more than my share of stupid things. To name a few, I’ve…

  • Ridden my bicycle on a busy street with my eyes closed to see how long I could do it.
  • Tried the experiment again when I was old enough to drive a car.
  • Jumped off the roof of my house for kicks when I was a kid.
  • Recently climbed up a tall ladder by myself (why bother asking my wife to hold the ladder?) to clean the leaves from rain gutters (while thinking about my upcoming 80th birthday party).
  • I won’t even mention the truly dangerous things that I did and shared in my book, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Overcoming Romantic and Sexual Addictions.

It didn’t surprise me to learn that nearly 90% of the winners of the Darwin Awards are male. A group of British scientists did a study and found that of the 318 total awardees in the Darwin award’s existence at the time, 282 of them were men — or 88.7%. They wondered why men were intent on doing themselves in and came up with the “Male Idiot Theory” and published the article in the British Medical Journal.

For those who don’t know about these awards, the awards website tells us

“The Darwin Awards salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it in a spectacular manner!”

They include:

  • The terrorist who failed to put enough postage on a letter bomb. When it was returned to him, he unthinkingly opened it, and died from the explosion.
  • The daredevil who decided to ride his jet ski off the Niagara falls and died thinking “so far, so good.”
  • The guy who shot himself in the head with his Spypen weapon to prove to a friend that it was, in fact, real.

Are men just idiots who don’t have enough sense to live full healthy lives?  We may laugh when we read about the idiots who do themselves in, but it is no longer funny  when it gets closer to home, when the idiot is ourselves or someone we love. It would do us well to get some real answers to the questions about why men take risks that harm themselves and others.

Precarious Manhood Impacts Men’s Health Around the World

            A recent headline in the journal, Psychology of Men and Masculinities, caught my attention: Where Manhood is Fragile, Men Die Young. Research has long demonstrated that throughout the world men suffer from nine out of ten major diseases at levels higher than women and die at younger ages. Our Moonshot for Mankind was launched in 2021 to bring together organizations and individuals who want to reverse these trends so that families can enjoy the benefits of having men and women who live fully healthy lives.

            Understanding the underlying causes of men’s poorer health compared to the health of women has been an important priority. The journal article referenced above, “Precarious Manhood and Men’s Physical Health Around the World,” reported on a series of studies that have been conducted by Dr. Joseph Vandello and Dr. Jennifer Bosson at the University of South Florida. The research by Vanello, Bosson, and their colleagues examined the ways people understand manhood and suggests that cross-national variation in men’s health may be at least partly due to how people think about manhood.

            Vandello and Bosson developed a theory that manhood is widely seen as a precarious social status: something that is hard earned and easily lost. Because of this, men often do things to prove their manhood to others, particularly when they feel their manhood is under threat. In a cross-cultural examination of 62 countries, representing over 80% of the global population, they compared responses that endorsed beliefs about precarious manhood and country-wide health outcomes.

            They found a consistent association of country-level precarious manhood beliefs and men’s risky health behaviors and outcomes. The men in countries with stronger beliefs about precarious manhood had much higher rates of risk taking and worse health than countries with weaker beliefs. Men in those countries also suffered significantly shorter lives when their manhood status was questioned, living almost seven years less on average than men in countries with weaker precarious manhood beliefs.

            Not only were precarious manhood beliefs connected to more risk-taking and poorer health, but also to aggression and violence. In an article, “Precarious Manhood and Its Links to Action and Aggression”, Drs. Bosson and Vandello found that

“men link manhood with action and, further, that they perceive aggression and aggressive displays as effective means of restoring manhood.”

            Bosson and Vandello found that endorsing statements like these indications of precarious manhood,

“It is fairly easy for a man to lose his status as a man;”

or

“Manhood is not assured, it can be lost”

—was different in different countries. Countries who ranked the highest in beliefs (Both the men and women in country saw manhood as precarious) include the following:

  • Kosovo
  • Albania
  • Iran
  • Ukraine
  • Japan
  • Russia

Countries who ranked the lowest in believing manhood is precarious include:

  • Finland
  • Spain
  • Germany
  • Sweden
  • Norway
  • Portugal

The U.S. was one of the countries that was intermediate with beliefs about precarious manhood and hence higher levels violence and poorer health outcomes than the healthier countries such as Finland, Spain, and Germany with scores similar to Vietnam, China, and Pakistan.

Interestingly, both Ukraine and Russia, places currently at war, are ranked among countries having the highest beliefs that manhood is something that must be earned and easily lost. I suspect similar issues are at work in Israel and Gaza.

The Moonshot for Mankind: Coming Together to Change Perceptions About Manhood

            The research on Precarious Manhood is important because it helps us understand the underlying causes behind men’s risky behaviors, whether they involve short-term behaviors like road rage or longer-term behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse. What we do to “prove we are real men” can cause problems for individuals, communities, and countries where male leaders go to war to prove that they are more manly than the other guy. Of course, these motivations are subconscious and hidden, yet need addressed and acknowledged.

            With our Moonshot for Mankind I invited a number of colleagues to join me to focus our efforts on changing the underlying beliefs and behaviors that cause men to harm themselves and each other. In my book, Long Live Men! The Moonshot Mission to Heal Men, Close the Lifespan Gap, and Offer Hope to Humanity, I address many of the issues I have come to understand about why men are the way they are and do the things they do.

            I believe that too much attention lately has been focused on what’s wrong with men. In the book Long Live Men! I say, “What’s wrong with men?” may be the wrong question to ask. A better question might be “What has happened to men that make us do the destructive things we do?”

            It took me a long time to honestly confront my own self-destructive behavior. I spent a lot of time denying my actions, feeling ashamed of myself, and asking, “What the hell is wrong with me?” Here’s what I discovered and shared in Long Live Men!

It never occurred to me that my lifelong anger and depression, and later my two broken marriages, had anything to do with my past. All that changed in 1998 when I reached out to a colleague, Dr. Charles Whitfield, because I couldn’t seem to heal my depression despite the fact that I was receiving good therapy and was taking medications. He told me that the missing piece in my healing might be addressing childhood trauma.

Dr. Whitfield introduced me to the (ACEs) studies developed by Vincent Felitti, MD, the head of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, and Dr. Robert Anda, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC. Drs. Felitti and Anda found that the more “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACES, we had, the more physical, mental, and relational problems we experience as adults.

“The information the studies have provided us is not just helpful,” said Dr. Whitfield, “it is astounding.” It offered a whole different approach for understanding, treating, and preventing disease—everything from cancer and heart disease to obesity and depression. All these problems, and more, had roots in our childhood experiences of trauma. Childhood wounds provided a psychosocial basis for a whole range of problems that impact brain function, even those that were assumed to be purely physical.

The ACE studies have been replicated and expanded since they were first published more than twenty-five years ago. We learned that are views of manhood, the risks we take, and the impact they have on our health are connected to the family environments we grow up in.

Most of us develop our views of manhood from our mothers and fathers and they learn them from their own families. We all learn about how secure we are as men from the way we are treated in our families, by our peers, and the beliefs held by those in our collective environment.

In my book, 12 Rules for Good Men, I offer guidance for men and women who want to change the beliefs and behaviors we have about men that limit us. These 12 Rules are a summary of what I have found to be most helpful in my own life as well as in the lives of the thousands of men I have worked with.

  • Join a men’s group.
  • Break free from the man box.
  • Accept the gift of maleness.
  • Embrace your billion-year history of maleness.
  • Recognize your anger and fear toward women.
  • Learn the secrets of real, lasting, love.
  • Undergo meaningful Rites of Passage from youth to adulthood and from adulthood to super-adulthood.
  • Celebrate your true warrior spirit and learn why males duel and females duet.
  • Understand and heal your Adverse Childhood Experiences and Male Attachment Disorder.
  • Heal your father wound and become the father you were meant to be.
  • Treat the Irritable Male Syndrome and Male-Type Depression.
  • Find your mission in life and do your part to save humanity.

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