The "Precarious Manhood" of the Santa Barbara Shooter

Why is it almost always young men who go on violent rampages?

Posted Feb 02, 2015

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I never met Elliot Rodger, the now infamously disturbed college student whose violent rampage through Santa Barbara, California, was foretold in a chillingly creepy YouTube video. However, I have been reading a lot about him since it happened, and commentators have not been shy about trotting out the usual suspects to explain the tragedy: the lack of attention paid to mental illness, the easy availability of guns, and the misogyny and sense of male entitlement that is thought to pervade our society.

These explanations dance around the big question that comes up every time something like this happens, which is why it is always a man who does this and why it is almost always a young man?

Surely, Rodger was mentally ill, and this vulnerability made him ill-equipped to handle the forces operating on him. However, to smugly dismiss this horrific episode as a temper tantrum by an unstable, spoiled brat misses the much larger backstory about the violent psychology of men.

I will first provide the scientific background for my argument, and I will then return to Rodger as the poster child for why male violence goes down as it does.

Precarious Manhood

Psychologists Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson at the University of South Florida have coined the term “precarious manhood” to describe a male dilemma that does not seem to have a counterpart in women. In a nutshell, their position is that manhood is a status that must be continually earned by proving one’s self worthy of being thought of as a “real man.”

What makes it “precarious” is the fact that it can be so easily lost again if the man fails to measure up to the relentless challenges that life will continue to throw at him.

When I introduce this concept to my students, there is an immediate understanding of exactly what I am talking about, especially by the males in the class. When I ask the women if there is a similar thing that is of concern to their own senses of themselves as women, there are usually a lot of confused looks and a vague grasping at possible ways in which this might occur, with the inability to have a child being the only thing that ever comes up on a regular basis.

The differences in the nature of the conversations among the males versus the conversations among the females quickly drives home the point that “manhood” is indeed more precarious than “womanhood.”

The Role of Evolution

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. Thus, sexual competition for mates has always been more intense for males than for females, especially in the polygamous societies that appear to have been typical in our ancestral social world.

Most people reflexively think of polygamy as being a better deal for men than it is for women, but think about this more carefully. The stakes are very high for men under this arrangement, as the winners of this mating competition come away with the greatest number of women (and the most desirable women). The losers run the risk of genetic annihilation by their failure to successfully win the status and resources necessary to attract mates. When the high-status guys hog up all of the women, the low status guys get shut out of the game completely.

A woman in a polygamous society, on the other hand, will always have opportunities due to the large number of desperate men who are available. And even if the woman is choosy and is in a position to bargain, she is probably better off being the third wife of a man with a lot of resources and great genes as opposed to being the only wife of a total loser.

Why Violence Sometimes Pays Off - If You are a Man

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Historically, powerful men have always enjoyed greater sexual access to women than men lower in the pecking order, and violence can often be traced to this grim struggle for status among men.

By all indications, a man’s social standing and status in a group was often dependent upon how believable his threats of physical violence were and men who could maintain a reputation for being tough customers were better able to hang onto their status. Thus, it came to be that a quest for dominance is a strongly motivated behavior among males, and the achievement of dominance is a highly satisfying, rewarding state of affairs for those who attain it.

In the words of Jonathan Gottschall (p. 205 - Professor in the Cage: Why men fight, and why we like to watch), "To physically dominate another man is intoxicating." 

Research by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon among the Yanomamo people of South America confirmed that men who had killed other men acquired significantly more wives than men who had not yet killed anyone.

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

Why is it Almost Always a Young Man?

What is it that makes this especially critical for younger men?

In the world in which we evolved, competitive success or failure in early adulthood would have determined a man’s standing in the social group for the rest of his life. It was simply not possible to move away and start over in another group, so what happened during the teen years mattered a lot. 

High-risk competition between young males provided an opportunity for “showing off” the abilities needed to acquire resources and to meet challenges to one’s status. Therefore, a predisposition to engage in this type of behavior at that age would have been strongly selected for.

The attention paid to the athletic performance of young men in modern societies has undoubtedly developed as a constructive alternative for dealing with the proclivities of young males that evolved in a very different time. This legally sanctioned gladiatorial arena allows young males to exhibit the same skills (throwing, clubbing, running, wrestling, tackling, eye/hand coordination) that would have spelled success in combat or hunting in the ancestral environment.

It is no secret that most people fear violent behavior by young men more than violent behavior by older men, and there is a sound basis for this fear. In fact, the universality of risky, aggressive behavior by young males prompted the Canadian psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly to label this behavioral tendency the Young Male Syndrome. Data from one of their studies on the relationship among age, sex, and homicide victimization in the U.S. for the year 1975 clearly show that the likelihood of a woman being the victim of a murder does not change dramatically throughout her life, although there is a slightly greater chance of this occurring between the late teens and about the age of 40, primarily through her association with young men during this time.

The pattern for the males, on the other hand, is striking. Males jump from an equal probability of being murdered at the age of 10 (relative to females) to about a six times greater risk in the 20s. Consistent with Wilson and Daly’s data, 87 percent of the 598 homicide victims in the city of Chicago in 2003 were males, and 64 percent of the victims were between the ages of 17 and 30. Thus, the likelihood of being the victim of lethal violence peaks for men between the late teens and late 20s and then declines steadily throughout the rest of the life span.

Testosterone Matters!

Nature fuels the fires of male violence by equipping young men with the high levels of testosterone necessary to get the job done. A look at our closest primate cousin reveals that socially high-ranking male chimpanzees exhibit the highest levels of aggression and the highest levels of testosterone. Furthermore, all adult male chimpanzees show their highest levels of testosterone when in the presence of females who are ovulating, but this is associated only with higher levels of aggression and not significant increases in actual sexual activity (for details, see an article by Muller & Wrangham in Animal Behaviour, 2004).

Researchers such as myself who study the relationship between testosterone and aggression in humans have concluded that a strong relationship between testosterone and aggression occurs primarily in situations in which males are competing with other males or when the social status of a male is challenged in some way.

Basically, testosterone rises in response to threats to a male’s status or to signals that competition with other males is imminent. The increased testosterone facilitates whatever competitive behaviors are necessary for meeting the challenge, which in some cases means violence.

Many studies have shown that testosterone levels in males rise and fall according to whether the individual wins or loses in competition in sports as diverse as tennis, wrestling, and chess. This can also occur among spectators who watch their teams win and lose, often resulting in the violent and destructive rioting that can take place after competition in cities with teams involved in major sporting events. One study even found that British soccer players’ testosterone levels were higher for home games and for games against traditional rivals!

On the flip side of the coin, there is often a pronounced drop in the testosterone levels of men who lose in face-to-face competition, and animal studies have confirmed that a decrement of testosterone in male rodents is associated with low dominance behaviors such as “freezing.” Along these same lines, it has been demonstrated that males respond to insults with elevated levels of testosterone.

How Do Guns Figure Into the Mix?

In 2006 I co-authored a study in the journal Psychological Science with my Knox College colleague and friend Tim Kasser and one of our students, Jennifer Klinsemith. We demonstrated that males who interacted with a handgun, historically a powerful cue associated with violent interpersonal confrontations with other males, showed a greater increase in testosterone levels and more aggressive behavior than did males who interacted with a “Mouse Trap” board game.

The male participants in these experiments dismantled either a gun or the mousetrap, handled its components and then wrote instructions for how to assemble the objects. Then, when given the opportunity to put hot sauce into water that was to be consumed by another person, the participants who handled the gun put in significantly more hot sauce and frequently expressed disappointment upon learning that no one else was actually going to drink the concoction. Further analysis suggested that the primary reason guns increased aggression is because they caused increases in testosterone levels.

So, What was Going on with Elliot Rodger?

Thus, cues related to threat do not result in aggressive responses unless testosterone is involved. Rodger was clearly experiencing just such a testosterone rush when he purchased his first handgun. In his “manifesto” he described the experience as follows:

After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. ‘Who’s the alpha male now, bitches!

This returns us to the case of the Santa Barbara shootings. Rodger was clearly a disturbed young man, and he lacked the psychological and social skills necessary for dealing with the stress of his precarious manhood. Nevertheless, much can be learned about male violence by examining the triggers that set him off, as these are undoubtedly the same triggers that are waiting to be pulled in other desperate young men. I will be relying on his own words from the YouTube video and from his written manifesto to illustrate the collision between his caveman psychology and the way male competition plays out in the modern world.

You Tube (Elliot Rodger's Retribution)/Fair Use
Source: You Tube (Elliot Rodger's Retribution)/Fair Use

At first glance, his social isolation does seem odd.

He was not a bad looking guy, and he had money, so one might have expected more success for him in the mating marketplace. He believed that girls were regularly showering attention, love, and sex on other men, and the elusiveness of sexual experiences for him was haunting and mystifying.

The one thing that never seemed to occur to him is that the creepiness detectors of the women in Santa Barbara appeared to be functioning quite well. In any case, Elliot Rodger was obsessed with the lack of attention paid to him by others, especially by attractive young women. He spoke of being forced to “rot in loneliness” as he passed unnoticed among his peers at the Santa Barbara Community College that he attended.

Why We Crave Attention from Others

A lack of attention from other people in our lives can be devastating. British clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert has developed something he calls Social Attention Holding Theory. According to Gilbert, we compete with each other to have other people pay attention to us (witness the popularity of shows such as American Idol, The Voice, etc), and it is because other people pay attention to us that we acquire status.

If people do NOT pay attention to you, you are by definition a loser, or at least only a B-List celebrity. According to Gilbert’s theory, the increased status that comes from having others attend to us leads to all kinds of positive emotions, but persistently being ignored by others produces much darker emotions, especially envy and anger.

According to evolutionary psychologists David Buss (UT-Austin) and Sarah Hill (Texas Christian University), the rivals that men envy the most are other men who are having more sex and who keep company with attractive women.

The envy and rage felt by Elliot Rodger was palpable, and his words reflect exactly the concerns predicted by the science I have been discussing. He hates, hates, hates “sexually active men” who are nothing more than “obnoxious brutes” that women inexplicably throw themselves at.

He is deeply concerned about his status in the eyes of others. He spends a great deal of time cultivating the outward trappings of a high status male as he proudly displays his $300 sunglasses and his BMW automobile, but he is profoundly puzzled by the lack of enthusiasm he generates among women. After all, he is a self-proclaimed “perfect guy—the supreme gentleman.” The cognitive dissonance he experiences results in a wounded sense of being a victim. He whines about the unfairness of it all and channels his rage toward violent actions that he believes will finally elevate his status. In his own words, “You will see that I am the true Alpha male,” and “I’ll be a god.” He is out to restore justice by punishing people for their “crimes” against him. He goes to great lengths to find the most dramatic words possible to describe the carnage that he fantasizes about, with “annihilation,” “slaughter,” and “destroyed” being among his favorites.

In short, a lack of attention from others results in a lack of status, resulting in a lack of access to women, and combined with a young man’s testosterone, creates a toxic, combustible mix. There may not be much we can do to change the structure of the young male mind that took literally millions of years to build. However, ignoring or denying its existence does us no favors either. Only by understanding the problem can we hope to effectively deal with it.