I Have Sympathy for Alienated White Men
As a behavioral scientist I’ve spent over 30 years conducting research on the development and prevention of child and adolescent problem behavior. So, when the FBI released their first set of photos of the rioters who stormed the Capitol, I was not surprised that over 90% of them were white men.
Over the last forty years many men have become alienated. That has given rise to groups like the Proud Boys and other domestic terrorists. But I have some sympathy for these young men, because my study of male socialization shows that antisocial boys are simply doing the best they can to achieve what every human being needs — acceptance and approval from others.
For the most part, young men become alienated as the result of rejection. As early as 17 months, boys are five times as likely to behave aggressively as girls. Not every aggressive little boy becomes alienated. But if their family and school respond to aggression with anger and punishment, they get on a pathway to rejection.
Antisocial boys mostly come from families that use aversive behavior to cope with each other. Mom tells Johnny to go to bed; Johnny starts screaming “NO!” Mom backs off. What just happened? Johnny’s tantrum was reinforced; he is not going to bed. Mom’s backing off is reinforced; she will not have to deal with a tantrum.
Boys who develop these coercive repertoires do badly when they get to school. They don’t cooperate with teachers and are aversive to peers. As a result, they fall behind academically and are rejected by peers.
By middle school, rejected boys meet other rejected boys and it’s magic. Finally, they have a friend! However, those friendships are a training ground for antisocial behavior. Tom Dishion and colleagues observed pairs of adolescent boys talking about topics like problems with parents or peers. The ones who laughed at each other’s talk about deviant behavior were more likely to engage in delinquent behavior over the next two years. Subsequently, Deborah Capaldi and Dishion found that pairs of 17-year-old boys who endorsed aggression toward women were more likely to be aggressive to a female partner at age 20.
The biological and cultural forces that result in antisocial masculinity are products of evolution. Male-typical traits such as strength, risk taking, and aggressiveness have been valuable in ensuring that human groups survived in a dangerous world.
Unfortunately, these traits are less valuable in the modern world. We identified the ten occupations that have the highest rate of fatalities and found that 94.8% of workers were men. The number of jobs in these occupations has been dwindling. The manufacturing sector lost 7.5 million jobs between 1980 and 2017. Meanwhile, there has been an increase in jobs that call for social skills such as listening to others and compromising.
Our failure to socialize men contributes to their diminishing involvement in education. Women earned 57.34% of bachelor’s degrees in 2016, continuing a trend that has been going on for 35 years. Slightly more women than men are in Medical schools (50.5%) and law schools (52.4%). You may justly celebrate the progress women are making. But you also need to worry about the disaffected men who are showing up at our capitols with long guns.
The good news is that we can steer boys away from antisocial behavior. Prevention scientists have developed programs that help families and schools replace punitive practices with positive reinforcement for all kinds of prosocial behavior. A recent report from the National Academy of Medicine documents how these programs prevent antisocial behavior.
I am not calling for affirmative action for boys. The same programs that prevent antisocial boys, benefit the smaller number of girls who also are on a pathway to antisocial behavior.
But what do we do about the current crop of antisocial men?
Men who join these groups find affirmation they aren’t getting in school, work, or family. We will not pry them from their extremist affiliations by attacking them. Yes, we need to enforce the law when it is broken. But more important, we need to draw alienated men toward more prosocial activities. Creating good paying jobs that enable them to feel pride in what they do would be a good place to start.
President Biden’s vision of a compassionate society can be achieved if we nurture the development of every child. Through prevention science, we can reduce the number of aggrieved, antisocial men and raise our boys to be compassionate contributors to everyone’s wellbeing.
Anthony Biglan is President of Values to Action, a former president of the Society for Prevention Research and author of The Nurture Effect and Rebooting Capitalism: How We Can Forge a Society That Works for Everyone. Values to Action creates action circles to address the many reforms that are needed in society.