Why Men Commit Crimes (and Why They Desist)

September 17, 2006 at 4:41 pm Leave a comment

It’s fairly well-known that young men commit the majority of crimes in every society.

Previous explanations for this behavior have been flawed.

“many adolescents find their roles lacking in intrinsic rewards and turn to sensate activities to achieve a sense of self.”

But why would adults not want the same stimulation from crime as adolescents?

Gove and Walsh explain crime among adolescents as a function of the combination of high autonomy and low responsibility during the teenage years”

This only describes teenagers in modern western society, and so doesn’t hold for developing nations or even western nations in the past.

Kanazawa extends evolutionary psychology to explain the relationship between age and crime.

Evolutionary Psychology

The brain of humans evolved over millions of years when they were living in the African savanna during the Pleistocene epoch as hunter-gatherers. The basic premise of evolutionary psychology is that humans adapted psychological behaviors in order to reproduce and survive as a species.

Male sexual jealousy provides us with an example of evolutionary psychology. During the evolutionary years, males could not be certain of the paternity of their mates’ offspring while females were always certain of their maternity, due to the nature of offspring originating from the female body. Hence, males who invested their resources in offspring that wasn’t theirs ended up wasting them and not reproducing. Males would therefore have a strong incentive to prevent other males from having any sexual contact with their mates. This sexually selected men who were not jealous from the gene pool, and so we are descended from those with a psychological mechanism to be jealous.

On the other hand, women become jealous when their mates get emotionally involved with other women, because it diverts their resources from them and their children. Jealousy is not a choice, but a psychological response that was developed over millions of years to increase our reproductive success.

However, in modern developed countries, there are birth control methods which prevent women from having children when having an affair. But no man would say that this reduces the feeling of jealousy since this psychological mechanism was developed when birth control did not exist.

Applied to Criminality

During the evolutionary period, humans were mostly polygynous where some males would monopolize access to the females while others were completely left out. Reproductive success was at stake and this made the system very competitive; hence, there was a lot of violence as a result of this direct competition. Similarly, women tended to mate with men with resources, so acquiring them through stealing would be a means to increase their chances of reproductive success.

Despite the fact that violence and property crimes are looked down upon in modern society, the psychological mechanism to commit crimes in order to reproduce is still very much within us. This happens unconsciously and even those committing crimes are unaware of this logic.

Why is there a sharp decline in crime by men after reaching adulthood? While the benefits of reproductive success are still there, most men would have already had children by adulthood. The risks associated with committing the crime is greater because their children might starve or victims of others. This benefit versus cost analysis has been done through sexual selection, explaining the increase of crime among young adolescents and sharp decline during adulthood.

This theory explains many previous findings, including why men commit crimes overwhelmingly more than women, why married men have less tendency to commit crimes, and why sexual competition increases men’s tendency to commit crimes in every society. This also explains why men with lower status among their peers are more likely to commit crimes — they are less competitive and need more resources to achieve reproductive success.

All of us are descended from men and women who were very successful at reproduction.

Kanazawa, S. & Still, M. C. (2000). Why Men Commit Crimes (and Why They Desist). Sociology Theory, 18(3), 434-447. [PDF]

Entry filed under: Crime, Evolution, Psychology.

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