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Taking Chances is a Guy’s Only Hope (The Male Advantage–part 2)

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 18, 2012

Over the past 25 years, the social sciences “have done a really good job of cataloging things men do badly–men and depression, men and violence, men and drugs—and very little on the other side,” says Matt Englar-Carlson, PhD., a counseling professor at California State University-Fullerton.  “Would this research describe me? Would it describe my friends?  Are we doing a disservice if all we educate people about is this dark side of masculinity?  Does it create a bias against men?”  The University of Connecticut’s James O’Neil, PhD, says there is no question about it:  “Sexism is as bad against men as it was against women.”  O’Neil started out in the 1970s struggling to get men to admit that they have problems.  But these days, together with a handful of other mental health providers, he tries to show patients that positive masculinity is not a contradiction in terms.

So let’s go back to that question I put to my friends:  Is there anything men do well?  Or as Florida State University psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., phrased it in the title of his recent book, Is There Anything Good about Men?  Baumeister argues that the major differences between men and women have to do with motivation rather than ability, and the motivation comes from a highly sensitive arena in which women have traditionally succeeded far more consistently than men:  Reproduction.

Ask yourself a simple question:  What percentage of your ancestors were men?  Since everybody who ever lived had a mother and a father, you might reasonably think it’s half.   But recent DNA analysis indicates that we are in fact descended from about twice as many women as men.  That’s because, for much of our evolutionary history, simply being a woman was almost a sure ticket to reproduction; perhaps 80 percent of all women who ever lived became mothers.   But a man had to acquire power and status to attract a woman and father her children.  So a much smaller share of all men—perhaps 40 percent—managed to win the race, often becoming not just serial monogamists, but serial polygamists.  These Big Daddies turn up repeatedly in the family tree (meaning fewer total male ancestors).  Meanwhile, the majority of men died childless, evolutionary dead ends.

So far this doesn’t sound so good for men.  But Baumeister calls it “the single most underappreciated fact about gender.”  The message to women was “Play it safe, be like everyone else, don’t blow a sure thing.”  And to men?   “Take chances, play hard, stand out:  It’s your only hope.”

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