Madmen: An Evolutionary Perspective on Anger and Men’s Violent Responses to Transgression


Though often described as leading to costly and irrational decisions, anger’s effects on behavior are understandable when anger is viewed as an adaptation favored by natural selection. Anger motivates responses to transgression despite our propensity to discount the future, truncating ongoing transgressions and deterring additional transgressions. An evolutionary perspective sheds light on differences in anger’s effects on male and female behavior. Due to differences in the variance of reproductive success between men and women, men can be viewed as playing a higher stakes game than women, one in which the fitness consequences of transgression are generally greater. Selection has therefore favored more risky aggressive responses to transgressions in men, with corresponding differences in the propensity to engage in other forms of risky behavior. This explains both robust sex differences in rates of violence and parallel patterns in other forms of risk taking. Similarly, the cost/benefit ratio of aggression and other forms of risk taking changes both across the lifecycle and as a function of reproductive status; involvement in violence and other risky behavior directly tracks such changes. Matching the physical architecture to the tasks at hand, changes in both male musculature and underlying neurophysiology likewise correspond to changes in the payoffs of aggressive responses to transgression.


Risk Taking Aggressive Response Serotonergic Activity Moral Outrage Impulsive Aggression 



This essay owes much to the pioneering and authoritative work of Martin Daly and Margo Wilson. I am grateful to Mike Potegal for useful comments and the opportunity to contribute to this volume, and to Rob Boyd, Joe Manson, Nick Blurton-Jones, Eric A. Smith, and Margo Wilson for productive discussions.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and Center for Behavior, Evolution, and CultureUniversity of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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