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The male self-destruct button

Why men take risks...

The male self-destruct button
30 June 2011

What is it that drives men to make alarming life decisions, even at the risk of losing it all? Andrew Hankinson investigates

Anthony Weiner was born and brought up in New York. He fought his way into local politics and eventually on to a seat in Congress. He worked long hours, pushed his staff hard and campaigned to improve social housing and healthcare. He’d married a high-achieving Hillary Clinton aide in 2010 — Bill had officiated at the wedding. The polls had him as a leading candidate to become mayor of New York in the 2013 election.

But such lives are always held together by string. Rather than steer a steady ship, he sent a picture of his bulging briefs to a 21-year-old woman on Twitter. The media found out. He said he’d had similar erotic exchanges with other women. His pregnant wife was devastated. President Obama told him to resign. He did so, last month, but not before releasing a statement in which he admitted his decision-making had been “very dumb”.

Weiner, 46, is only the latest very dumb man. Already this year we’ve seen other calamities, including Ryan Giggs and his alleged extramarital affair with a reality TV contestant and his brother’s wife; Arnold Schwarzenegger not telling his wife of 25 years that he got the maid pregnant; John Galliano getting drunk and offensive and losing his job at Dior; Charlie Sheen drinking himself into insanity and out of a hit show.

Further back, the list of screw-ups is long and (occasionally) distinguished: Wayne Rooney, Tiger Woods, Ashley Cole, Boris Johnson, Jude Law, Bill Clinton, John Major, John Profumo, Emperor Nero… And although the list appears on Twitter these days, it started on cave walls, because men seem to be programmed to seek a path of catastrophe.


Men are moths to the flame of risky behaviour. A 2006 BBC survey found that one in five men admit to an extramarital affair, compared to one in 10 women; big-money gamblers are 77 per cent male, according to the Gambling Commission; and 33 per cent of us use illicit drugs, compared with 21 per cent of women, if the 2008 Observer Drug Poll is to be believed. Why are men so prone to kamikaze plans?

“There are evolutionary reasons,” says psychologist Dr Colin Gill. “For most men, the behaviour comes down to wanting to be reproductively successful, and this is a way of confirming their status, by having as many sexual partners as possible.”

Several studies back up this theory that our risk-taking is all about underlining our masculinity to achieve reproductive success. Scientists in Australia found that skateboarders performed tougher tricks in front of beautiful women, and a study at Florida State University found that men took greater risks at blackjack if they noticed an attractive female watching.

The author of that study, social psychologist Michael Baker, says, “Risk- taking can be a tool that men use to show potential mates that they have desirable qualities, such as confidence or ambition.”

Though in agreement, Dr Gill thinks it’s a poor excuse. “It’s a purely biological impulse,” he says. “Surely the whole point of being human is to be able to transcend your biology, rather than live your life like a bearded goat which is why not all men do it. Those that do should realise that most of life’s great joys revolve around mutually fulfilling relationships.

”You’re probably thinking what I’m thinking: like these famous guys care. They’re on top of their game, they’ve found the real meaning of life, and it’s all about ‘me’. But we shouldn’t try to separate ourselves from the rich, famous and socially suicidal too much, because there is the danger of hypocrisy. One day the chips may be stacked differently and all of a sudden we’ll find ourselves engaging in self-destruction.

Like a friend of mine who’s a regular dabbler. He has a big house, a wife and kid and a good job, but he sleeps with prostitutes. A few weeks ago he didn’t go home for days and told his wife he was away on a business trip. He spent the time with three women in an apartment in one of London’s poshest residential squares.

I’m continually shocked by his chutzpah. His life could crumble at any moment, but he just grins, sneaking around hotel bars, never fearing that his wife’s friends might spot him in London when he’s supposed to be abroad. He loves his dallying in self-destruction, particularly the duplicity.


“There’s an element of that with all these behaviours,” says psychologist Dr Michael Sinclair. “It becomes about living on the edge, and a sense of empowerment from getting away with it. It produces anxiety, which is an innate survival mechanism. It’s comforting, because we’re on top of things.”

Dr Sinclair is the clinical director at City Psychological Group and author of Fear And Self-Loathing In The City. He spends his days providing psychological therapy to chief executives and other high-flyers, as well as professional sportsmen and politicians. He’s found that exceptionally successful men are more prone to this self destructive behaviour because of the pressures of being at the top.

“There is a part of them that is unconsciously doing it on purpose,” he says. “This is delicate stuff, because it’s unconscious, but it’s scary at the top. They may feel insecure about their ability to remain there and to manage the demands.

“To feel less scared, they dabble in feelings of low self-worth, to get used to it, to avoid the trauma of these feelings happening later when they aren’t in control of them. We try to adjust their dysfunctional thoughts, so they feel differently about themselves. But I wouldn’t treat someone until they were motivated to be treated.”

But that motivation never seems to come until the self-destructors have been found out — when they’ve failed a drugs test or moved into The Priory (or a bedsit). Until that point they’re still flying, doing what most of us would never dare. And they don’t understand how it could go wrong.

“A lot of these people are so narcissistic that they start to believe that they’re invincible,” says Dr Gill. “They believe they can get away with whatever they want.”

They’re what journalist Tom Wolfe described as Masters Of The Universe. And they’re having a wonderful time, with the world at their feet, obeying their own rules. Until they get caught, at least…

(Main image: Rex Features)