What is “Male Idiot Theory”?

A scientific study supports the idea that men are, well, idiots. What is less clear is why.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

I have witnessed male friends do many stupid things. Snorting chilli powder. Drinking a glass full of poolwater (and then vomiting all afternoon). Shaving off one eyebrow (the weekend before a big job interview). Having a chilli eating competition. Jumping over a fire (which, inevitably, ended up becoming jumping in to a fire). All of these feats were done as dares, or just randomly, out of nowhere, as some strange competition that cropped up between friends.

Scientists have a name for this: the “Male Idiot Theory.” In a tongue-in-cheek, but scientifically rigorous, article published in the prestigious British Medical Journal in 2014, researchers led by Ben Lendrem showed that men are more likely than women to engage in high-risk activities for which the payoff is negligible, or non-existent.

Evidence for this was found by examining the winners of the Darwin awards, prizes that are handed out at random times for people who have died (or sterilised themselves) through a very stupid activity. “The Darwin Awards salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it in a spectacular manner!” writes the website, cheerily.

Amongst the winners of the Darwin awards are such unlucky candidates as a terrorist who failed to put enough postage on a letter bomb. When it was returned to him, he unthinkingly opened it, and died from the explosion (What I find particularly interesting here is that he was conscientious enough to put a return address on his letter bomb).

Then there was Robert, the daredevil who decided to ride his jetski off the Niagra falls. He’d fitted his jetski with a rocket booster, and was carrying a parachute. The plan was to fire the booster before hitting the falls, and open the parachute at the apex of his flight before drifting safely down to the water below. But he forgot that in waterfalls, there is water, and neither his rocket booster nor his parachute worked while wet. The booster failed to ignite, the parachute failed to open, and Robert plummeted to his death.

Other notable examples include the guy who went kite surfing in a hurricane and slammed against several buildings, and a guy with a homemade bungee jump who ended up just crashing into the ground. Then there is the guy who shot himself in the head with his Spypen weapon to prove to a friend that it was in fact real.

What the authors of the study showed was that out of 318 total awardees in the Darwin award’s existence, 282 of them were men — or 88.7%. If men and women were equally prone to risk-taking idiocy, such a disparity could never happen, it was a statistical improbability, they concluded. QED: Men are idiots.

“It is puzzling that males are willing to take such unnecessary risks — simply as a rite of passage, in pursuit of male social esteem, or solely in exchange for ‘bragging rights’.” the authors mused in writing, “presumably, idiotic behaviour confers some, as yet unidentified, selective advantage on those who do not become its casualties.”

Hospital emergency department admissions, as well as mortality stats, show that men are far more likely to die from accidents, sporting injuries and traffic collisions. So this male “idiocy” is costing many lives, and most don’t get a Darwin award for their troubles.

It is true that there is social prestige in being ballsy. It’s why we love watching motorcycle stunts or parkour. The fact that men are more likely to be taking the risks, however, is due to social conditioning: from a very young age, boys are encouraged to take risks and be brave. It is seen as a “male” trait to display courage, or at least bravado. Men then tend to compete with each other as a way of asserting their own personality, as well as connecting with the men around them.

As pointed out in Britain’s QI show, men often don’t act like idiots until they congregate. When one man goes to the curry house, he will get a very normal curry. If he goes with his friends, he will get the spiciest one. It is a shame that many of men’s interactions happen on the level of competitions, oftentimes pointless and rewardless rivalries. And even more heartbreaking when you think of how many lives are lost on such pointless recklessness.

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