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David Epstein

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What do you get when you mix an anthropologist, a population scientist, and a management professor, all in Salt Lake City? If you answered, “a half-court intramural basketball team at the University of Utah,” you may be right. But that’s not what I was looking for. The preferred answer is: Some rather unusual research on patterns of violence that doesn’t reflect well on men (does research ever?), but in a counterintuitive way. Your Five W’s:


For this new paper in the journal Human Nature, the three Utah researchers analyzed Census Bureau data alongside crime stats. When they examined data on violent crimes (murders and assaults) as well as sex-based crimes (rape and sexual assault, but also prostitution), they found that — even accounting for effects of poverty — a rising proportion of men in a given county correlated with a decline in all of the above criminal offenses. Huh?


To restate, the relatively more women in a given county, the more of the types of crimes in which men are both innovators and world leaders.

Why is that?

Good question, and this is where the research could be controversial, because it requires the authors of the new paper to speculate on how their finding fits with other relevant scientific findings. When that happens in a new paper about a fungus, no biggie; when it’s about sex and crime, sometimes biggie. In any case, the researchers suggest that their findings might be explained by “mating-market theory.” That is, if we put our pre-Kahneman/Tversky economist hats on and think of humans like pixels that behave according to rational rules, then we might expect men to “behave more promiscuously” amid a surfeit of women, as the researchers put it in the paper. And that in turn leads the men into more violent conflicts with other men, and makes them more likely to commit sex crimes. Conversely, the authors write: “when women are in short supply, men’s mating orientation will turn to behavior necessary to secure long-term relationship commitment from a relatively rare partner.” i.e. Less aggression, often a check in the “pro” column for long-term bonding.

What should we make of this?

I don’t know, but Ryan Schact — the anthropologist in the research group — noted to New Scientist that “work in animals also shows quite similar findings to ours, that when females are abundant and males rare, males are more violently competitive, more promiscuous and less likely to invest in offspring.” Additionally, University of Texas psychologist David Buss told New Scientist that his previous work has found that, when women outnumber men, short-term relationships and divorce are more common. … We must always be cautious of “just so” stories that impose an evolutionary veneer on current findings, but it’s also worth considering that dudes are always screwing stuff up, so — whatever the cause — the findings maybe aren’t that hard to believe.

Why should I care?

So, that’s the important question, right? And the authors have an interesting answer. They note that “tough on crime” policies often result in an increased ratio of women to men in an affected area, as more men spend protracted stretches in jail. Thus, the researchers suggest, some anti-crime policies may “only exacerbate the very types of criminal and violent behavior they are attempting to alleviate.”

SRSLY Shortstack

If you’ve been checking out election forecast pages, you may have noticed that the USC/LATimes poll is frequently an orbit apart from all the other polls. For example, the poll has at times had Trump winning when other national polls have Clinton up by double digits. Thanks to the USC/LAT poll being transparent and sharing data, though, the New York Times’ Upshot got to the bottom of the bizarre results. It turns out, because of the way the poll is weighted — and its use of the same respondents over time — one 19-year-old African-American male in Illinois has been exerting undue influence. Now watch this guy not even vote.

Tweet of the Week

Smoking kills.

Additional research by Kate Brown.

Tips are appreciated. The paper kind, or the green paper kind.

ProPublica does not vouch for the accuracy of stories appearing on SRSLY. We select, review and summarize key points from accountability stories that may not have gotten wide exposure. But we are not able to independently vet or vouch for the accuracy of stories produced by others. We will inform readers if we learn that stories have been challenged publicly or corrected.