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When Men Behave Badly: How Evolutionary Psychology Can Help

Part 3 of 3: Evolutionary psychology suggests how to change men's bad behavior.

Key points

  • Buss explains how changing environments that evoke evolved traits can reduce problematic behavior.
  • Educating men and women about evolved traits can reduce conflict between men and women.
  • Dark Triad personality traits contribute to men's bad behavior. Buss suggests what can be done about that.

[This is Part 3 of a three-part review of David Buss's new book When Men Behave Badly. The first part of the review can be accessed at this link.]

How does evolutionary theory add to our understanding of well-known bad male behaviors that have also been documented in detail with scientific studies? Anti-evolutionists claim that it does not, that evolutionary accounts are just-so story-telling. Even worse, some anti-evolutionists might claim that evolutionary accounts of bad male behavior somehow justify and excuse such behavior because "evolutionary" and "genetic" imply that such behaviors are inevitable. Such complaints demonstrate a poor understanding of evolved traits and evolutionary explanations, and Buss strives to correct these misunderstandings. He points out that evolved psychological traits do not manifest themselves constantly in every situation. All men do not rape women all the time. Identifying exactly the conditions under which men are most likely to deceive, have an affair, become suspicious and controlling, force women to have sex, and engage in stalking, revenge, and physical abuse—along with an evolutionary understanding of what men are trying to accomplish with these bad behaviors—can suggest to us how to change policies, laws, and the social environment, and how to educate men and women to reduce the likelihood of these bad behaviors in the future.

Personally, I favor evolutionary education as a partial antidote to the problem of bad male behavior. To use one example from Buss's book, most people figure out on their own that everyone has a "mate value" (all the things that make you desirable as a mate) and that you are most likely to successfully attract someone with the same mate value as you. That is, if you are a man whose mate value is a 6 on a scale from 1 to 10, you are much more likely to attract a woman who is a 6 than a woman with a higher mate value. But what most men probably do not know is that men tend to overestimate their mate value. A 6 might think of himself as an 8 or even a 9 and therefore pursue women who are higher on the mate value scale. When the 6 man's advances are resisted by an 8 woman, the over-confident man might feel justified in applying what is really unwarranted pressure on the 8 woman. That is, he engages in bad behavior. If all men could take a course in evolutionary psychology and learn about mate value and how to realistically assess their own value, this might reduce the amount of inappropriate mate pursuit.

Education can also help women to recognize when and why men are trying to control them and what kind of counter-strategies they can use to break free from such attempts to control. Men who are insecure about their mate value and do not know how to attract women with the things that women really want often resort to tactics such as threats and violence to keep their mates from leaving them. In the distant past, women usually had male relatives (brothers, fathers, uncles) to help protect them from this kind of control. But in modern, industrial societies, members of a family often live so far apart that members of a family cannot directly protect each other. An insecure man may attempt to increase his control over his mate by preventing her from even talking to members of her family or other friends who might help. With proper education, women can recognize such a scenario and take steps to get help from others before her mate's efforts to control her escalate to physical abuse.

Buss also suggests that women can empower themselves by reconsidering their priorities while looking for a mate. At the top of the list of valuable traits in a mate for many women is the ability of a man to provide economic resources to her and any children she might have. A man's ability to provide resources is generally linked to his social status. Unfortunately, many men who are successful at achieving status, power, and money are ruthless. They also tend to be unfaithful because there are many other women who will be attracted to their economic position. So many of our female ancestors were attracted to powerful, high-status men, that sexual selection has created a horde of status-hungry men and women who are still attracted primarily to status in modern times. But there are many other traits that contribute to a man's mate value, and a woman does have choices today about which traits to use in selecting a mate. Although she might hear the allure of status whispering in her ear, she can still focus on other traits such as kindness, reliability, and empathy that would make a man a good mate.

Of course, downplaying the ability of a man to provide for her and her children will depend on whether a woman can manage without a lot of resources from her mate. This, in turn, will depend on the economic and social structure of the culture in which women live. Buss does talk about changing social structures to help reduce bad male behaviors. I agree that this is desirable, but it is more time-consuming than education, so this is more of a long-term project. Buss notes that one characteristic of societies where women suffer less physical abuse are societies such as those in the Scandinavian countries where there is greater economic equality between men and women. Women without economic means are more vulnerable to control and abuse by their mates, so economic gender parity reduces bad male behavior.

Another characteristic of societies that exacerbates the problem of bad male behavior is unequal sex ratios where the number of males is far greater than the number of females. When there are not enough women for everyone, men are more likely to engage in violence against each other as well as against women. Sadly, there has been a historical bias toward having sons rather than daughters, in some societies girls were actually killed or left to die as babies. That is obviously bad in itself, but it also produces a sex ratio that is likely to cause problems when the boys reach adulthood and have difficulty finding a mate. A surplus of males does not help anyone except maybe warlords who send the surplus men into battle.

Whereas David Buss clearly spells out how economic parity between the sexes helps to reduce bad male behavior, he only hints at the impact of economic inequality within the male population. I would like to spell out what I think Buss is suggesting. For better or worse, women today are still more attracted to men who are rich than men who are poor. Being poor not only drastically and directly reduces a man's attractiveness to women; being poor is also associated with an inferior education (you are unlikely to attend college and take a course in evolutionary psychology), greater susceptibility to drug and alcohol addiction, involvement in crime, and a host of other factors that reduce a man's mate value. What recourse does a man in such a position have except violence against women? There will always be some economic inequality in modern societies, but the degree of such inequality has grown to obscene proportions in the U.S. I am not suggesting a Robin Hood scenario, take from the rich and give to the poor to reduce economic inequality. I am not an economist and don't have a specific solution for increasing economic parity among men as well as between men and women. But I am saying that if we can somehow manage to reduce economic inequality both within and between sexes, money and status will become less important factors in intra- and intersexual conflict.

When Men Behave Badly continues to follow the successful formula found in David Buss's earlier books. Buss identifies a number of sex differences that ordinary people already know about. In fact, he has already analyzed many of the sex differences mentioned in his previous writings: deception, short-term and long-term mating strategies, jealousy, infidelity, mate-guarding, and so forth. These concepts do appear in this current book, as well. There were really only a couple of behaviors I don't recall him writing about earlier. But then he produces whole new sets of data that document, scientifically, the specifics of these sex differences. He then explains why bad behaviors that tend to be uniquely male are a product of evolution and suggests what we can change to make these bad behaviors less likely to occur. Although much of the material in this book will sound familiar to someone who has read Buss's previous books and scientific publications, the focus on bad male behavior and what we can do about it certainly makes this book worth reading.

A final observation about When Men Behave Badly is that it includes a new wrinkle not seen much in his other books but hearkens back to his roots as a personality psychologist, namely, an appeal to personality traits to explain some bad male behaviors. Specifically, Buss invokes the Dark Triad—narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy—to argue for the role of individual difference in bad male behavior. Whereas all men, under certain conditions, are likely to exhibit the bad behaviors he describes in the book, men who score high on the Dark Triad seem to make bad behavior a consistent lifestyle, regardless of environmental conditions. Their sense of entitlement, ruthlessness, and lack of empathy, often accompanied by a shallow but convincing charm, makes them far more likely than men not high on the Dark Triad to behave badly.

Their focus is on as many short-term matings without commitment as possible. Ironically and sometimes tragically, many women are attracted to these "bad boys." [One explanation for this: any sons produced from such a union will grow up to be bad boys themselves, helping to spread the mother's genes.] This is a problem that can be addressed at both a social and individual level. Socially, we need to have ways of identifying Dark Triad individuals and prosecuting them to the fullest extent when they the break law, to get them out of circulation. On an individual level, women need to learn about the Dark Triad and resist the temptation to get involved with men who exhibit those traits.


Buss, D. M. (1984). Evolutionary biology and personality psychology: Toward a conception of human nature and individual differences. American Psychologist, 39(10), 1135–1147.

Buss, D. M. (2021). When men behave badly: The hidden roots of sexual deception, harassment, and assault. NY: Little Brown Spark.

Hogan, R. (1983). A socioanalytic theory of personality. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 55–89.

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