Inside the Minds of the Incels
Incel psychology appears to be much different than media portrays.
Posted August 25, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Involuntarily celibate men, or incels, have risen to prominence within social discourse in recent years.
- Far from the male supremacists that media portrays, incels appear to demonstrate a sense of victimhood and inferiority.
- The mental health of incels tends to be poor, with many reporting high levels of loneliness.
Online message boards and communities comprised of incels—men who are "involuntarily celibate"—have gained notoriety in recent years due to mass killing events that were reported as being inspired by a misogynistic ideology that emerges from this group. However, there has never been a systematic psychological investigation of this population.
What Does It Mean to Be Involuntarily Celibate?
In a fundamental sense, incels are characterized by their identity being framed around a perceived lack of ability to form and maintain sexual and/or romantic relationships. In the media, they are often portrayed as hating women, harmful online, and misogynistic in their attitudes and behaviors.
It must be noted that public attitudes about incels are driven in large part by high-profile acts of violence that become attached to the community. In the most famous example of this, mass killer Elliot Rodger wrote a long manifesto detailing his sexual frustrations and linked these to his violence, while Alek Minassian attributed his killing of 10 people in Toronto to his hatred of "Chads" (sexually successful men) and "Stacys" (attractive, but choosy, women). However, in his closing statements, the judge presiding over Minassian's case stated:
He told lies deliberately to depict the killings as being connected to the incel movement and get more media attention...He piggybacked on the incel movement to ratchet up his own notoriety...His story to the police about the attack being an "incel rebellion" was a lie.
Despite these social conceptions of incels and their alleged antisocial or aggressive outlook, little is known about their psychology. A new study led by William Costello—a Ph.D. candidate based at the University of Texas at Austin—aims to shed light on this population.
The Mindset and Mental Health of Incels
Costello and his colleagues set out to explore how incels think about themselves and others, and what they look like from a mental health perspective. Speaking of the team's motivations, he said,
When it came to my literature review, I realised that most studies consisted of linguistic analyses of online incel rhetoric. It’s unclear how much of incel online rhetoric is performatively antagonistic, so I thought it would be good to produce some of the earliest work containing primary responses from self-identified incels as a novel contribution to the literature.
Incels often misappropriate a hyperbolic interpretation of some of evolutionary psychology’s findings, so I thought it is appropriate that someone from our field takes the responsibility of trying to understand the phenomenon, rather than shying away and washing our hands of the topic.
The researchers collected anonymous responses from 151 incels and 378 non-incels as a comparison group. They found that incels scored higher than non-incels on all four components of a tendency for interpersonal victimhood:
- A need for recognition (i.e., a striving to be noticed and appreciated)
- Moral elitism (i.e., the feeling that the ingroup is more virtuous or righteous than members of outgroups)
- A lack of empathy (i.e., a poor ability to identify and feel the emotions of others)
- Rumination (i.e., a tendency to fixate on negative internal thought patterns)
Relatedly, incels were much more likely to report feelings related to depression and anxiety. Specifically, just over 70 percent of incels met the criteria for moderate or severe depression (compared to one-third of non-incels), while just under 70 percent of incels were moderately or severely anxious (with just under 40 percent of non-incels meeting this threshold). Explaining these data, Costello added:
To put the levels of wellbeing in this group into context, our study used the PHQ-9 and GAD-7 measures used by the NHS to clinically diagnose depression and anxiety.
Previous in-house surveys from incel forums reveal that 82% of incels had strongly considered suicide. In my view, extreme inceldom looks more like suicidality than terrorism or violence.
Incels' Political Lives
Costello and colleagues also explored the political views of incels in their work. This is important, as from a social stereotyping perspective incels are perceived as being relatively right-wing, and a fundamental part of the online trolling community that supported (and, in some ways, propped up) Donald Trump's American presidency.
However, the data did not support this stereotype. Around 39 percent of incels reported being right-leaning, politically, around 45 percent were left-leaning, and around 18 percent were political centrists—almost exactly the same as the proportions reported among non-incels.
These data are particularly interesting due to the stark contrasts that they draw with social beliefs about incels. Far from being the aggressive and overtly hostile provocateurs that they are characterized as being online, incels appear to be remarkably sad, with comparably poor mental health.
How these issues play out in the mating market is still an area that Costello and colleagues will be exploring in future papers. However, at the time of writing, the mental health research is available as a preprint and is in press at Evolutionary Psychological Science.
Costello, W., Rolón, V., Thomas, A. G., & Schmitt, D. (2022). Levels of well-being among men who are incels (involuntary celibates). Evolutionary Psychological Science. https://osf.io/tnf7b/