Masculinity ≠ Risky Business

Culture teaches us that men are pre-programmed to enjoy living on the edge. Science presents another story.

The Mandate Letter, by Jason Rogers, focuses on the evolving state of masculinity. Thanks for being here. If you were forwarded this email, get your own:

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I am stoked to share that, on March 5th, a piece I wrote appeared in the NY Times. The article focuses on an up-and-coming generation of young surfers on the North Shore of Oahu that has rethought the importance of wearing helmets at Pipeline — what many call the world’s most dangerous wave. 

The wave itself is infamous for its hollow, tube-like shape, resulting from the shallow lava rock reef that sits only a few feet below the surface. Many have hit their heads on the reef. Not all have survived. 

As with most “extreme sports,” it’s taken a long time for safety to become a priority. Last year, I wrote a Mandate Letter about the macho-led aspects of surfing. Below is an excerpt from the NYT article that builds on those ideas and recaps the primary obstacle that, in the past, stood in the way of a cultural shift.

Wearing helmets pushes against the cultural tide at Pipeline, where surfers have always aimed to display how skilled and stylish they are, not necessarily how safe. The community celebrates bravado and prowess so much that it has a pejorative term — kook — for those who are oblivious, overly cautious, or unskilled. Nobody wants to look like a child out for a bike ride with their mom and dad.

What underlies this resistance to safety in surfing and many other extreme sports is masculinity’s relationship with danger. The lineup at Pipeline is dominated by men (although an increasing number of female surfers like Moana Jones are taking on the dangerous wave).

Many would explain the reason for this with the following assertion: men are simply more comfortable (read: better) at undertaking risk.

That idea is deeply rooted in Western culture, and it stems from the anthro-historical explanation that men hunted while women gathered. The logic goes as follows: The dudes that successfully slayed the biggest mammoth got their pick when it came to mates. Therefore, men are evolutionarily predisposed to roll the dice.

You may recall that I’ve previously noted that inclination toward risk does show up in various forms on measures of masculinity. However, recent academic work has made a strong case that capacity for risk isn’t an inherently masculine trait. 

“There are no essential male or female characteristics—not even when it comes to risk-taking and competitiveness, the traits so often called on to explain why men are more likely to rise to the top,” writes academic psychologist, Cordelia Fine, in her book, Testerone Rex

(The book’s title refers to the nickname she’s assigned the long-standing, wrong-headed “interlinked claims about evolution, brains, hormones, and behavior, [which offer] a neat and compelling account of our societies’ persistent and seemingly intractable sex inequalities.”)

In working to prove that assertion, Fine and others are doing some really ambitious work. I’m only going to scratch the surface in quickly summarizing a few bits of research in reference to the specific domain of risk. But if you want to dig into the details, I highly recommend these two longer articles in Nautilus and the Financial Times, also written by Fine.

First of all, we generally assume that someone that likes to race exotic cars would also be inclined to jump off cliffs—in other words, the all-around daredevil persona. However, according to work done at Columbia University, that’s simply not true. Risk appetite turns out to be domain-specific. That is, a person may love the thrill of speed but also be terrified of heights.

Further, a number of studies have shown that when you broaden the definition of risk outside of stereotypical domains (e.g. from BASE jumping to disagreeing with your father on an important issue), women are just as likely to push their limits.

So, that brings us back to the beginning. Why are more dudes throwing themselves down the faces of treacherous waves at Pipeline?

Fine also points out in the Nautilus piece that “risk researchers have also found that both knowledge and familiarity in a particular domain reduces perceptions of risk.”

Think of all the Pipeline-shredding dads that have specifically groomed their sons to surf the wave (not to mention the hostility that’s often directed toward women in the lineup). And you can begin to see how the permission to dream of surfing the break and the savoir-faire required to do so have become a bros-only generational thing. 

It turns out that what most affects a person’s appetite for the unpredictable is the perceived benefits that come along with taking that risk. So, think of the now-ubiquitous marketing campaigns for the ever-proliferating portfolio of energy drinks (and media culture in general) that bombard us with a disproportionate number of images of guys being rewarded for doing crazy things.

This creates a sort of faux-gold standard of masculinity in which guys begin to believe that they’ll attain higher status, be cooler, and “score more chicks” if they force themselves to get comfortable with the ocean-equivalent of throwing themselves off a cliff. 

So, needless to say, we need to get to work on shifting that narrative. But, in the meantime, dudes, wear a helmet. 

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