by Dr Rebecca Owens & Dr Helen Driscoll, University of Sunderland, UK.
On August 30th 2018, there was a revolutionary step forward in psychology: 71.5% of voters supported the creation of a Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society (BPS). It is now one of 19 Sections of the BPS (as well as lots of Divisions, Groups etc), alongside the Psychology of Women and Equalities Section, established 30 years ago as the Psychology of Women Section.
In this article we discuss why the new Male Psychology section is so important, and explain the relevance of Male Psychology from an evolutionary perspective.
Why a Male Psychology Section matters
We hear a lot about male privilege – how men supposedly have a status in society which benefits them. Of course there are ways in which this is true, although there are also numerous ways in which society arguably favours women. Both sexes however face particular challenges, which require a gendered approach to effectively understand and address, and which necessitate investment in research. Some of the big issues facing men were discussed at the male psychology conference, and include high suicide rates, mental health issues, and domestic abuse. There is a lack of awareness of the extent to which these issues affect men, and this means that often men have no one who will listen to them and relatively little help or support.
Lack of awareness also means research and understanding is limited, impairing our ability to tackle these issues; the development of a Male Psychology Section is crucial to furthering our understanding of issues facing men.
We believe ‘toxic masculinity’ is an unfair and unhelpful term. Whilst there are men who behave in ways that are harmful and some of these behaviours can be linked to some aspects of masculinity, to imply that masculinity is toxic is unfair to men, and deflects us from recognising the many positive aspects of masculinity. We hope that the development of a Male Psychology Section will facilitate research and understanding of the positive aspects of masculinity.
How evolutionary psychology can provide a framework for the study of male psychology
Evolutionary psychologists examine how the brain and behaviours of modern humans have been shaped by our evolutionary history. The environment in which we evolved was largely very stable, which is why we are adapted to it. Since the agricultural revolution, c10,000 years ago, the environment has been very unstable, changing rapidly. But physically and psychologically we have not changed a great deal because human reproduction is a slow process, and evolution is therefore slow too.
Many of the psychological differences between men and women are due to sex-specific selection pressures in our evolutionary history. This is because the keys to successful reproduction (and therefore passing on genes) were different for men and women. Men had the potential to successfully reproduce by acquiring multiple partners and offspring, whereas women, constrained by pregnancy and lactation, reproduced successfully by investing heavily in a smaller number of offspring. This fundamental difference between men and women has profound implications for psychological sex differences.
It is important to note that these evolved sex differences are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – there is no moral judgment on this, it just is.
To fully understand male psychology, we need to understand how the male brain and behaviour have been shaped by sex-specific selection pressures in the human ancestral environment. This does not need to be the focus of all research, but if all research is informed by this understanding, it will result in a more complete and accurate understanding of male psychology.
Many of the issues that affect men more than women are rooted in our evolutionary past – men are more inclined to take risks than women, which often have negative repercussions, such as substance abuse, homelessness and suicide (in contemporary environments). This is not to say that women cannot be affected by these issues – they are – but on average, more men are affected by such issues than women.
We will blog more about the relevance of evolutionary psychology to Male Psychology in the next few weeks.
About the authors
Dr Helen Driscoll is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland. She gained her BSc (Hons) Psychology degree from Newcastle University and PhD in Psychology from Durham University. Helen is a Chartered Psychologist and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her PhD examined sex differences in intrasexual aggression and intimate partner violence from an evolutionary perspective. Helen’s current research interests include sexual behaviour and sexuality, male psychology, dark personality and adult play.