Culture and Risky Behavior
Written by: David F. Lancy
In contemporary western society, risky behavior by male adolescents is seen as maladaptive for the individual and a serious social problem. It may lead to injury or death, delinquent and/or illegal behavior, bullying, rape, STDs, substance abuse and, conflict with authority including parents and poor academic outcomes.
“The prevailing conceptual framework for thinking about these behaviors considers them to be negative or disturbed developmental outcomes arising from stressful life experiences…According to this framework, children raised in supportive and well-resourced environments…tend to develop normally and exhibit healthy behavior and values. By contrast, children raised in high-stress environments…often develop abnormally and exhibit problem behaviors that are destructive to themselves and others .”
Anthropologists who take an interest in the phenomenon of risky behavior on the part of adolescent males are more likely to see it as an evolved adaptation. The fact that risky behavior is so commonplace cross-culturally suggests that it may have some payoff that justifies the risk.
A very well known bit of exotica gleaned from studies of non-western cultures is the requirement that Maasai (East African pastoralists) males must kill a lion single-handedly before submitting to the ordeal of an initiation rite which opens the way to becoming a Moran. The Moran form an elite group of young warriors and defenders of the community and its livestock . The pay-off for this risky behavior is, ultimately, to be held worthy of marriage. The lion hunter is, in effect, trying to “woo the hearts of young Maasai girls.”
In the village or camp, those who take risks signal their capabilities as a provider, a successful hunter and gatherer able to provision a potential mate and her offspring. The “brave” young man also conveys an ability to protect his family and community and lead the family through times of stress. Studies show that the willingness to engage in risky behavior may increase one’s ability to survive in unstable or dangerous environments (e.g. urban slum). A successful risk taker enjoys elevated status among peers and in the community thereby gaining social capital that can be spent on behalf of one’s mate. Indeed, high ranking males can expect to pair with multiple mates over a lifetime as humans are not naturally monogamous. In our species, there can be a large disparity between the most successful male breeders and the least successful. In any given traditional village one may find men with several wives/offspring and men with none. The former are “successful” in evolutionary terms, their genes will proliferate while the latter are failures. Throughout human evolution, timidity or excess caution would not have been rational as it would lead to failure in evolutionary terms.
Contrary to seeing risky behavior as inevitably anti-social and unwelcome, pre-modern societies may encourage and reward risky behavior For example, a community that engages in periodic conflicts with its neighbors—this is particularly true of pastoralist societies, such as the Maasai, where conflict over access to grazing lands and water and mutual cattle rustling are the norm—may actually create a warrior class composed of brave adolescents. The enormous Inca empire expanded rapidly from a rather small, obscure society through almost continuous warfare against near and distant neighbors. To this end, the empire was determined to turn boys into fearless warriors. After years of rigorous training, they were put through grueling and dangerous tests during the great capac raymi festival. Those who persisted to the end had their earlobes perforated in the tocochicoy rite and received the large ear–plugs characteristic of Incan warriors. “The last test was a footrace down from the mountain which usually resulted in a few crippling injuries as all sought to become the ﬁrst boy to reach the bottom and drink the chicha proffered by the girls .”
Adolescent males may pursue or be assigned tasks which capitalize on their unique attributes, including their willingness to engage in risky behavior. These “chores” are often carried out in public for all to see and admire. So too, the bounty of the risky behavior such as meat from hunting or gathered honey may be shared out widely thereby calling attention to the successful risk-taker.
- Batek (Borneo) adolescents climb high in the clerestory (50m) to gather fruits and honey (at night!).
- Kpelle (Liberia) youth climb palm trees to harvest palm nuts (used for oil) and palm “wine” They also tend the trees, removing dead branches. This is very dangerous work but the young males are much admired.
- [Bedamuni-PNG] 16-18 year-olds begin hunting the very dangerous Cassowary and wild boar after they have mastered all the other hunting strategies.
- Harvesting honey from the Apis dorsata hive is a risky endeavor for Jenu Koruba (India) adolescents as the hives are high in the canopy and the bee’s sting is extremely painful.
- Adolescent male roles among Aka hunter-gatherers may entail great risk and lead to greater frequency of death. Young men undertake risky work to build their reputation as hard workers, good hunters, strong and able men, and future providers. They may climb large trees looking for honey or fruit or take risks on hunting large mammals, including elephant where they volunteer to run underneath the elephant to spear it.
Women and girls do compete among themselves for the “best” mates but engaging in risky behavior does not enhance their standing among peers nor make them more attractive to males. Females are at an advantage in being sought by multiple suitors and can afford to be selective.
While the debate between those who see risk-taking as maladaptive and the result of psychopathological development and those who see it as offering potential pay-offs to the risk-taker and his society may seem purely academic but, as Ellis and colleagues show, the two theories offer very different approaches to amelioration. As I have written recently, parents who endeavor to remove all risk from their child’s path are doing them a disservice. Taking risks is not in itself harmful, on the contrary.
“There is a deepening conflict between protecting our children and smothering them. It is apparent to me that in acting on our increasing and unjustified paranoia about our children’s safety from an array of extremely improbable perils, we are ignoring the far, far more probable harm we may be doing to their development as competent, self-sufficient, and successful adults. We are no longer protecting; we are preventing them from taking advantage of a plethora of opportunities to learn through challenging experiences .”
Still, there’s no question that among contemporary adolescents, the costs of risky endeavors may be more evident than the beneﬁts. Society has an interest and a moral obligation to reduce the incidence of behavior that either has no redeeming value for the individual or that exerts a negative impact on others (wealthy drug dealers and their clients). The evolutionary model can make a contribution to this effort. We might first to consider organized sports. Most sports place the player in some degree of risk, if only of physical injury, allow the player to demonstrate his derring-do before an audience, including young women and strive for higher standing among peers/teammates. Most early sports grew out of violent martial conflicts. Xhosa (South Africa) informants suggested that, while cudgel games are now “just a sport,” earlier they were considered central to a warrior’s training—true for the Zulu as well. In West Africa, wrestling seems to have transitioned smoothly from its role in warrior training to become a popular sport . In East Asia the “martial arts” have also evolved from warrior training into competitive sports. The great advantage of modern competitive sports over their historical antecedents, is that steps can be taken to reduce the downside of risk-taking. rules, referees, safety equipment and rapid medical attention all serve this end.
An evolutionary perspective can also warn us of what not to do in terms of reducing risky behavior. For example, anti-smoking and drug abuse prevention ads that emphasize their dangers and health consequences may backfire. If adolescent males are determined to engage in public displays of risky behavior, the ads may increase the social impact and attention of conspicuous smoking and drug use.
To reiterate a theme that permeates my writing—western views of child and youth development make us an outlier. The assumptions we make about what is normal or natural are usually belied but what we can discover from the study of non-western cultures.
Find out more about David Lancy’s Raising Children here
 Ellis, B. J. et al 2012. The evolutionary basis of risky adolescent behavior:
implications for science, policy, and practice. Developmental Psychology. 48: 598-623.
 Spencer, P. 1970. The function of ritual in the socialization of the Samburu Moran. In Philip Mayer (Ed.), Socialization: The Approach from Social Anthropology. pp. 127–157. London: Tavistock Publications.
 Lancy, D. F. 2015. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Shein, M. 1992. The Precolumbian Child. Culver City, CA: Labyrinthos
 Lancy, D. F. 2017. Raising Children: Surprising Insights from Other Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Ottenberg, S. 1989. Boyhood Rituals in an African Society: An Interpretation. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.