I'm no daredevil. I don't fantasize about being a racecar driver; couldn't care less about bungee jumping; and find that new cadre of adventurers jockeying to skydive wearing flying-squirrel-like "wing suits" instead of parachutes borderline crazy. But, put me atop my bike in heavy traffic and I aggressively dodge city buses, weave between lines of cars snarled in gridlock, and refuse to give an inch to the drivers of SUVs and taxis who sometimes seem to think they own the road. And if it's raining, or dark, or snowing...well, let's just say that makes the ride more exciting.
Upon reading this, there's a good chance that my girlfriend and my mother will call me a stupid, thoughtless, selfish male. They're right, perhaps. But it turns out I probably can't help myself: Evolutionary psychologists say that men may crave a certain level of risk because of the millions of years during which physical valor—say fending off a wild predator or swimming across a raging river for food, or foiling a rival clan with a sneak attack—has yielded major payoffs in terms of status, power, and ultimately mates. "Women tend to be more cautious partly because they are not competing as intensely for reproductive access to men," says Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan.
But, in the modern world, the consequences are sobering. Unintentional injury is the third-leading cause of death among American men, after heart disease and cancer, according to 2004 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And up to age 44, it is the leading cause of death for men. Women get injured too, of course. But about twice as many men die each year because of accidents as do women. Motor vehicle crashes are the most common type; they killed about 29,648 men and 13,748 women in 2004, the most recent data available. About four times as many men as women drown. And some eight times as many die mishandling firearms. Researchers have calculated that if men below the age of 50 could simply get their accident mortality rates down to that of women, they would, in one fell swoop, eliminate a third of deaths in that age group. And they'd save 10 million years of life—a number that dwarfs the 3 million male years of life lost each year to cancer and the 4 million lost to cardiovascular disease.
One theory on why rates are so high is that modern technology has made men's risk-taking impulses into an Achilles heel. "People don't easily learn to fear cars, escalators, or electrical outlets, although they quickly learn to be afraid of snakes and spiders," says William Farthing, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Maine. It makes sense, he says, because wild animals have existed as threats for much of humanity's evolutionary history. Motorcycles and jet skis, in contrast, are brand new from an evolutionary perspective.
If men's propensity for risky behavior—or perhaps in the modern era "stupidity" is the better term—has its roots deep in human evolution, is reducing the high accident rate a futile cause? Not at all, says Kruger. It's a matter of consciousness-raising. He thinks a Men's Health Initiative—modeled on the successful Women's Health Initiative—would help get men thinking about risk and devise interventions to keep us from driving drunk, say, or engaging in other Neanderthal-like behavior. And we can choose sports that channel our competitive drive, Farthing suggests, but don't put our—or others'—lives at risk. Every man out there, if he's anything like me, has an internal gauge of danger. We need to listen to it—especially if it's true that we easily underestimate modern-day risks. Just one millisecond of a screw-up on my part or that of a driver and I'll be one of the 180 male cyclists killed this year. I certainly don't plan to stop biking entirely but, after looking at the stats, you can bet I'll think twice about weaving through traffic at night in the middle of a snowstorm again. I'll be on the subway instead.