“Boys will be Boys”: An Overview of Evolutionary Psychology Theories of Gender
Updated: Oct 29, 2022
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The fifth inclusion in our new monthly series: Men & Masculinities 101. These brief posts are designed to provide an overview of a variety of entry-level topics in the field of men and masculinities.
In the psychology of men and masculinities and other gender studies, investigators draw a distinction between biological sex and gender. Sex refers to the biological differences between males and females in terms of anatomy, hormones, and other biological characteristics. By contrast, gender refers to the social and cultural norms regarding what it means to be male or female in a given society (World Health Organization, 2022). The majority of research in our field focuses on men’s gender roles (i.e., what constitutes “appropriate” behavior for men and boys in our culture). Such gender role research is the backbone of the psychology of men and masculinities, and it has led to many important discoveries over the last five decades (American Psychological Association, 2018). At the same time, psychology has long understood the importance of both culture and biology, and it is important to consider the extent to which to which biological sex differences impact behavioral differences between men and women.
Evolutionary psychology perspectives, including those on gender differences in sexuality and violence, focus on behavior’s adaptive value, and are grounded in Darwin’s (1871) concept of “survival of the fittest.” Evolutionary psychology posits that reproductive strategies differ between men and women in part because of their differing reproductive investment; according to Sexual Strategies Theory, because sperm are an abundant and renewable resource and eggs are relatively scarce, females are incentivized to be more choosey when selecting sexual partners, while males are driven to adopt a more short-term strategy (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Research indicates that while the majority of men today have longer-term partners (Smiler, 2013), males who have multiple short-term partners have been found to have higher levels of testosterone (Archer, 2006). Likewise, men have historically reported a greater number of desired (Schmitt et al., 2003) and actual (Oliver & Hyde, 1993) sexual partners than women. Evolutionary psychology also theorizes that male violence, aggression, competitiveness, and risk-taking can be partially explained by drives to gain status, win the favor of females, and pass on their genes. Research has indeed suggested that men (as a group) are more violent than women (Kruger & Nesse, 2004). Thus, there is evidence to support an evolutionary psychology perspective.
At the same time, evolutionary psychology has faced heavy criticism within the scientific community. A common argument points to evolutionary psychology’s difficulty to explain behavior that seemingly contradicts the sociobiological perspective, such as homosexuality, sexual behaviors other than genital intercourse, and men who are family-oriented or passive (Kilmartin & Smiler, 2015). Likewise, we have much evidence to suggest that environmental events change physiology, making it difficult to determine the circumstances in which increased testosterone leads to aggression or where aggressive behavior increases testosterone (Archer, 2006). Indeed, for each of the aforementioned sex differences used to support evolutionary psychology, researchers have not adequately ruled out sociocultural explanations. For example, men are more physically aggressive than women, but it is well documented that women are more relationally aggressive than men (Archer & Coyne, 2005; Björkqvist et al., 1994; Österman et al., 1998). In other words, men may use physical violence at greater rates than women, but women are equally aggressive as men when it comes to verbal attacks. Both forms of aggression can be devastating. While biology may play some role in this equation, it is equally plausible that men and women are taught to express aggression in ways consistent with socialized gender roles. Moreover, numerous studies suggest that sex differences in psychological traits are very small in magnitude. The gender similarities hypothesis, for example, has received considerable research support (Hyde, 2005).
Further, Angier (1999) challenged the claim of Sexual Strategies Theory that men are incentivized to have many short-term partners by indicating that it takes women an average of 120 days of regular sexual intercourse to become pregnant, roughly equal to the number of one-time sexual partners a male would need to result in a baby. Likewise, evolutionary psychology’s focus on violence and promiscuity as the basis of sex differences in humans has also been critiqued because of the relative rarity of these behaviors; even within samples of college-aged men, only about a quarter report wanting multiple sexual partners within the next month (Hazan & Diamond, 2000; Smiler, 2011). Despite that only six percent of women report wanting multiple sexual partners in the next month, it is highly plausible that such differences are potentially due to gendered differences in socialization and cultural acceptance of “deviant” sexual behavior.
In light of these criticisms, it may be tempting to discount evolutionary perspectives. There are also legitimate concerns that an evolutionary or biological perspective of men’s behaviors may excuse inexcusable behavior (e.g., “boys will be boys”). However, researchers emphasize the importance of “not throw[ing] the baby out with the bath water,” (Kilmartin & Smiler, 2015, p. 54). While biology does not completely dictate behavior, uncovering the relative influences of biology and socialization is an important continued area of research for the study of men and masculinities. A small but growing body of researchers is beginning to take on this important task. For example, investigators have begun examining how men’s testosterone levels may interact with how susceptible they are to threats to their masculinity (Caswell et al., 2014). In other words, there is much yet to be discovered.
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