Blame It on Rio Part 1

Ryan Lochte and the evolutionary psychology of being a young male

Posted Aug 19, 2016

Kazan / Wikimedia
Source: Kazan / Wikimedia

While some of the details of the situation are still a bit unclear, it looks like, along with three fellow US swimmers, multi-gold-medalist Ryan Lochte has gotten himself and his crew “into deep water” so to speak. What was initially reported by these men as an incident in which they were the victims of an armed robbery is looking now like a case of what evolutionary psychologists would call “young male syndrome” (see Wilson & Daly, 1985).

The US Swimmer Debacle of 2016 in Brief

In short, Lochte and his crew, out drunk one night during the Olympic Games, caused something of a scuffle at a gas station in Rio (including petty vandalism and what may be described as generally drunken behavior). They were approached by security guards and, after an apparently minor interaction, were then sent on their way in a taxi that was waiting for them.

And that’s not even the dumb part. The dumb part is that their report of the situation to authorities was, apparently, largely fabricated—described as an armed robbery by a group of thugs masquerading as police officers. Once the authorities came to realize that the stories of the individual athletes did not add up, a judge ordered that they come in for questioning. By the time this ruling was made, Lochte was already on US soil. So it’s something of an international mess.

(CNN reporting of the incident is found here)

Young Male Syndrome

Across time and space, young human males, compared to members of other demographic groups, have been more likely to be involved in such activities as robbery (Wilson & Daly, 1985), murder (see Duntley & Buss, 2005), violence (see Geher & Wedberg, in press), and premature mortality and injury caused by taking physical risks (see Kruger & Nesse, 2006). From an evolutionary perspective (see Geher 2014 ; Geher & Kaufman, 2013), we can understand these phenomena as tied to a common theme—which is the fact that, across the evolutionary history of hominids, males were more likely than females to benefit from physical violence and risk-taking - particularly in the domain of courtship. Inter-sexual competition in males has included physical risk-taking in our species for millennia. And a by-product of this fact in our modern world is seen in the often-stupid behavior of young adult males.

While many explanations of the drunken exploits of Lochte and co. in Rio will be offered, as an evolutionary psychologist, it’s my contention that Young Male Syndrome sits near the core of what happened on the evening of August 14 in vibrant Rio De Janeiro—the host city of a spectacular set of Olympic Games. (note: Yes, Lochte is now 32 years old and I admit to being liberal with the term young!)

Young Male Syndrome Does Not Excuse Unethical Behavior

Evolutionary psychological principles are famous for powerfully explaining a variety of human behaviors. This said, it’s important to note that an explanation of a behavior is not a justification of said behavior. Simply saying “yeah, I did it, but it wasn’t my fault because I’m a young male” simply can never stand. And laws, policies, and procedures designed to ensure public safety need to follow this basic maxim. Concepts from the evolutionary perspective, such as young male syndrome, however, shed important light on helping us understand the origins and nature of criminal behavior. And, of course, understanding some problem is critical in helping solve it.

Should Lochte be Forgiven?

Lochte, who apparently concocted the armed-robbery story, has now formally apologized. In a recent Instagram post, he writes:

“I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend—for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning and for my role in taking the focus away from the many athletes fulfilling their dreams of participating in the Olympics …”

Pretty much, he comes forward saying that he was a knucklehead and is asking the world for forgiveness.

Should the people of the world forgive this guy? After all, he indirectly but essentially defamed the nation of Brazil, clearly blemished the US Swim Team program, Blemished the US in a broader sense, and he pretty much admits to having lied publicly.

Well, if you’ve read my work on the evolutionary psychology of forgiveness (see my blog “I Forgive You”), you may know that I’m a huge advocate of forgiveness as a social strategy when at all possible.

For thoughts on the evolutionary psychology of whether Lochte should be forgiven, you’ll have to read the sister post to this one, titled “Blame it on Rio Part 2: Should the World Forgive Ryan Lochte?”


Duntley, J. D., & Buss, D. M.  (2005).  The plausibility of adaptations for homicide.  In P. Carruthers, S. Laurence and S. Stich (Eds.), The Structure of the Innate Mind (pp. 291-304). New York : Oxford University Press.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Geher, G., & Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Mating intelligence unleashed: The role of the mind in sex, dating, and love. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press.

Geher, G., & Wedberg, N. A. (in press). Evolutionary Psychology and Warfare. In P. Joseph (Ed.). SAGE Encyclopedia of War: Social Science Perspectives. Los Angeles: Sage.

Kruger DJ, Nesse RM: An evolutionary life history understanding of sex differences in human mortality rates. Human Nature,74 (1): 74-97, 2006.

Wilson, M. and Daly, M. (1985). Competitiveness, risk taking, and violence: the young male syndrome, Ethology and Sociobiology, 6, 1, 59-73.