Are Men More Likely Than Women to Become Heroes and Villains?

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

The world recently observed the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster in which 1,514 people died after the ship struck an iceberg.  Much has been said about the “women and children first” rule that determined who would be the lucky ones to board the limited number of lifeboats.  Editorial cartoons of the day honored the heroic men who sacrificed their lives to allow others to live.  While gender roles have certainly changed since 1912, studies show that there is still considerable pressure on males to protect women from danger and to place their own well-being behind that of women.

Psychologist Roy Baumeister at Florida State University thinks he knows why men seem so self-sacrificing.  In nearly all human societies “men are expendable,” he proclaims.  And with expendability comes the kind of heroism shown by the men of the Titanic who drowned so that others would live.

Understanding Baumeister’s argument requires an examination of his larger thesis, namely, that evolution has endowed men and women with different motivations and priorities.  In his recent book, Is There Anything Good About Men, Baumeister first examines our patriarchal society — the inescapable fact that men have long dominated the political and economic spheres of our culture.  Men are more likely than women to be presidents, prime ministers, and members of Congress and Parliament.  Men are also more likely to be CEOs of major corporations and wielders of power on Wall Street.  We also see more men discovering cures for diseases, exploring space, and creating great works of art.

Feminists have argued that this gender gap in power, success, and wealth is due to men’s deliberate attempt to oppress women.  Baumeister does not disagree with this assertion.  He does, however, challenge us to understand culture (e.g., a country, a religion) as an abstract system that competes against rival systems and that uses both men and women, often in different ways, to advance its cause.

Baumeister’s first observation is that while there are no doubt more men than women at the top of society, there are also more men at the bottom.  Men are far more likely than women to commit crimes and to serve time in prison.  Men are also more likely to suffer from severe mental disabilities; they are more likely to die in wars; they are more likely to be homeless; and they are more likely to have the worst and most dangerous jobs in society.

In short, Baumeister argues that men go to extremes more than women.  “In an important sense,” he writes, “men really are better AND worse than women.”

Why is this the case?  Baumeister points to biology and evolution.  Recent research using DNA analysis reveals that today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men.  Throughout all of human history, it is estimated that perhaps about 80% of women but only 40% of men have been able to reproduce.  “It would be shocking,” writes Baumeister, “if these vastly different reproductive odds for men and women failed to produce some personality differences.”

Because men have faced a more daunting challenge in reproducing, they may have evolved to be more risk-taking than women.  Nature may have designed men to take chances, try new things, be creative, and explore bold possibilities.  Becoming a hero who succeeded in these risky endeavors may have given men a better chance to attract a woman with whom to reproduce.

Baumeister believes that because women are able only to bear a few children in their lifetime, their priority is to “play it safe” and invest time in developing close intimate relationships.  Women have done best by minimizing risks.

The key to understanding why women have evolved to avoid physical risk lies in understanding what drives population growth.  Baumeister argues that population growth depends much more upon there being plenty of women than upon there being plenty of men.  “To maximize reproduction,” says Baumeister, “a culture needs all the wombs it can get, but only a few penises can do the job.”  If a society loses half its men, the next generation can still be full-sized.  But if it loses half its women, the size of the next generation will be significantly smaller.  As a result, most cultures keep their women out of harm’s way while using men to do the risky work.

In short, men were designed by nature to take chances, risk their lives, and strive — mostly unsuccessfully — for greatness.

According to Baumeister, the emergence of gender inequality may have little to do with men pushing women down in a patriarchal conspiracy.  Rather, it came from naturally evolving forces that drove expendable men to seek out wealth, knowledge, and power at great risk to themselves and with the goal of improving their reproductive chances.

This brings us back to the Titanic and the men who heroically died so that women and children would live.  While nature may have designed men for this type of bold heroic sacrifice, this same brazenness sends many men spiraling downward toward a life of crime and other villainous activities.  Men are thus hard-wired for both greatness and wretchedness.  It’s a provocative idea, and it’s not without its detractors.  But it is also an idea well-worth thinking about.

References

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What They Do & Why We Need Them.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Baumeister, R. (2010). Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men. New York: Oxford University Press.

15 Responses to “Are Men More Likely Than Women to Become Heroes and Villains?”


  • I had never thought about this concept in depth until reading this blog and this article for class, and it definitely is an intriguing one that raises a lot of questions. Men really do dominate the two extreme levels in society and linking this to evolution is compelling. Also, the Titanic disaster is a perfect example. It is interesting to think that society almost forces men to be heroes in certain situations.

  • Ah, every day I wake up expecting to see the 21st century and every day I’m reminded that it’s still 1912. ;) Actually, Scotty, you provided the answer to this apparent disparity right in your first paragraph: “There is still considerable pressure on males to protect women from danger and to place their own well-being behind that of women.” That pressure comes from societies that are painfully slow to change, not from internal psychological differences.

    There is one difference between men and women: Women bear children. This is trivial in the overall scheme of things– men have nipples and women have orgasms because our bodies are virtually identical– but it has had far-reaching repercussions because, a) It is a very obvious difference (and one that many people stake their identity on) and b) In primitive cultures it resulted in a social division that remains with us to this day. One thing that Mr Baumeister is correct about is that societies evolved to protect the women and children– but it was societies that evolved, not people.

    This division of labor (and class) has resulted in the gender stereotyping that we still struggle to cure in the 21st century. There is still widespread belief that there are girl things and guy things; that women can’t do math, that they are emotionally fragile, that women trade sex for intimacy while men trade intimacy for sex, that all women have a maternal instinct to reproduce that makes them a bad risk for a career, that women are untrustworthy because their menstrual cycle makes them erratic, that women are just a big damn mystery. People are raised with these beliefs, identify with them to their own detriment, and perpetuate them; this is why we can still turn on the TV and find lame comedians who make jokes about a women’s compulsion to shop or a man’s inability to ask directions.

    But it’s all nonsense. Every person, man or woman, has two aspects to their identity: Their common humanity and their individuality. That’s it. (Of course, the fact that most people succumb to the pressure to conform only muddies the waters.)

    When you state that Feminists attribute the gender gap to deliberate oppression, you quote an extremist view that misrepresents true Feminism. Real Feminists are not stupid, and they recognize the historical, technological and biological factors that resulted in sexual classism. They also know that women, like anyone else, can be their own worst enemies and are equally responsible for perpetuating chauvinism. By the same token, all Feminists are not women. There are many people of both sexes who want not only equal opportunity and social liberation for women, but for men as well– for these stereotypes can be just as crippling to the male gender, thus those crime and mental illness statistics that were cited (and, as a further consequence, has spawned the additional chauvinism of homophobia).

    Mr Baumeister’s attempt at validating these ancient stereotypes is science at the level of Creationism. These kinds of beliefs marginalize not only the overall contributions of women to the arts and sciences throughout history, but also trivialize their heroism as well. Countless women, from those at the dawn of time who placed themselves between their children and the wild animals who hunted them, to the women who today serve us in Iraq or Afghanistan, have proven that there is no such thing as the weaker sex. Any apparent disparity in numbers is the result of opportunity, not a sign of deficiency in the female character.

  • This was a very interesting and intriguing post. I have never really thought about the power of men versus women until we had a class on it and after i read this great post. I wouldn’t say i could take any side, only parts from either side. But i really did think this was a great thing for people to take note of.

  • I really enjoyed reading Baumeister’s article. Issues such as the gender wage gap and gender inequality in the professional world are very prevalent in today’s society. I think many people try to make excuses for the inequalities and are quick to assign blame to both genders. I appreciated Baumeister’s argument because he made perfect sense to this issue that usually is very confusing. This is one reason why I love psychology and enjoy your Heroes class so much!

  • I think this topic, and Baumeister’s article are fascinating. I don’t know if I completely buy into it, but it was interesting to realize that there is truth in the idea that men are at both extremes of the spectrum. I realize that there are some gender issues and differences in things like pay in America that people are quick to point to when discussing inequality; but compared to issues facing women in other countries this seems trivial at best. I say we work on bringing the rest of the world up to the level of equality we are at before we work on petty details.

  • This is an interesting argument based on biological roles, however I tend to disagree with Baumeister’s assertions. I feel that more men than women are able to become heroes or villains not due to their “expendable” roles in reproducing, but due to societal pressures and expectations for each gender. Also, I feel that Baumeister is dismissing what makes many women heroes, like being great mothers and teachers, and also ignores the fact that many women have indeed accomplished great deeds and become heroes. I don’t believe that the reason women are not becoming heroes or villains as often has much to do with the fact that they are needed to reproduce more so than men.

  • .I had never thought about this topic in depth, and I feel that Baumeister does a great job delving into gender roles. One aspect of this blog that I found particularly interesting was how men are both on the top and bottom of society

  • Mary Elizabeth Lovelace

    I really enjoyed exploring Baumeister’s arguments in our class discussion and in reading his article and this blog post. Typically when thinking about gender issues, we are quick to look at the history of men as superiors. I had never thought about the idea of men being on both ends of the spectrum, the best and the worst, and found this aspect of Baumeister’s argument to be fascinating. While I’m not sure if I completely buy into his argument, I think Baumeister raises several good points, and he supports them well.

  • After discussing Baumeister and his theory in class, I was intrigued. I had never thought about the possibility that men could represent both the best and worst of human society. Though I definitely feel that Baumeister’s ideas have some validity to them, I am conflicted, because I also think that by seeing society in the way that he has suggested, it allows for us to accept that women will always remain in the middle of society, never fully able to achieve the greatness of “risk taking” men.

  • I’ve never really thought about this topic in depth before our discussion and this blog. I don’t necessarily agree that women are less risk taking and that we play it safe but it is an interesting way to look at this.

  • I think this post is very relevant to the current debate of women in combat positions in the military. If Baumeister believes men are more expendable, and that woman have evolved to avoid physical risk, wouldn’t that make women who choose jobs that put them in the front lines more heroic than their male counterparts? Women must overcome these evolutionary drives, as well as socialized and physical disadvantages.

  • This article is so dividing for me. If I were a woman reading this, it would hard to not see this as an assault on my ego. However I would say to them it’s not about what they can’t do but what evolution has done to us, that we are now undoing in a new era of social evolution. Our technology has removed so many pressures.. and we’ve been challenged to use it for good. It falls on both today’s men and women to use it for equity and become tomorrow’s heroes.

  • This part of the blog stood out to me the most because it has to deal with men and women and who is usually the hero. I liked the Titanic reference because it shows that men are always looking to protect the women and children, which is how I think it should be.

  • It is interesting to read RJDiogenes take on this blog. Obviously he’s a smart person able to make a sound argument, yet he has a constant blindspot for evidence contradicting his/her point of view. This is what ideology does.

  • ^To be fair you could be a bit more specific. What blindspot do you refer to?

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