What Can Male Sexual Victimization Tell Us About Masculinity?

Starts With Me Journal
Vol. I No. 5 (November 2019)

What Can Male Sexual Victimization Tell Us About Masculinity?

David Zarnett
Director, Research & Strategy

Download a pdf version of this article here.

Every November the male moustache is used to raise awareness of men’s health. For the most part, this awareness raising has focused on physical health, such as the prevention of prostate cancer, heart disease, diabetes, among other chronic conditions. What has tended to get lost in the shuffle is men’s mental health.

Poor mental health and mental illness do not discriminate based on gender. Men are equally susceptible as women, although they do experience poor mental health and mental illness in different ways. While women are more prone to anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, men are more prone to addiction.[1]   While women are far more likely to attempt suicide, men are more likely to do it successfully. In fact, 75% of all suicides involve men.[2] Beyond the gender binary, some studies suggest that transgender individuals are particularly vulnerable to poor mental health and mental illness.[3]

On the topic of men’s mental health, perhaps the most overlooked area of concern has to do with sexual victimization.  When we talk about rape and other forms of sexual assault, the discussion mostly focuses on women. This is for good reason, as women are far more likely to experience sexual victimization of some kind compared to men. In Canada, an estimated 33% of women are victims of sexual violence compared to just under 17% of men.[4]  The trends are similar in the US, where 20% of women and 1.5% of men say they have been sexually victimized. When it comes to rape, 91% of victims are women.[5]

And yet, even though sexual abuse of men is less common than it is for women, male sexual victimization is nevertheless an issue worthy of some attention.  This is for two reasons. First, it draws our attention to common understandings of masculinity, which can be detrimental to men’s mental health.  And second, it shows how more positive (and more species-appropriate) definitions of masculinity can be crucial to the recovery process. 

Sexual Victimization and Common Understandings of Masculinity

Common understandings of masculinity suggest that being a man means being strong, powerful and ready for sex at all times. It can also suggest being stoic or “devoid of emotion.”[6] According to Eldra Jackson, this view of masculinity can be summed up in a few phrases: “Big boys don’t cry. Suck it up. Shut up and rub some dirt on it. Stop crying before I give you something to cry about.”[7]

The logic of this understanding of masculinity suggests that “real men” should not be the targets of sexual abuse. After all, they should be able to ward off the unwanted behaviour.  It also suggests that real men should not struggle emotionally after experiencing an uncomfortable or dangerous sexual encounter. A real man would shrug it off.[8]

The negative mental health effects of this view of masculinity are obvious.  Men are expected to be someone and feel in a way that is not a true reflection of the challenges and complexities of life.  Men are not allowed to be weak, emotional, to cry, to express worry or concern. These feelings must be supressed, kept inside, where they eat away at the subconscious. When they do pop up from time to time, they are seen as reminders of emotional and physical inadequacies, only to be suppressed further.  Manifested in extreme forms, this kind of masculinity can become “toxic” for oneself and for others.[9]

Redefining Masculinity and Recovery

The recovery process of those men who experience sexual abuse can be challenging. This is because the experience can negatively affect the quality of existing relationships as well as the prospects of meaningful relationships in the future. It is also because of social stigmas that can discourage affected individuals from speaking out about their experience, connecting with others who have been through similar experiences, and seeking the help they need. 

The recovery process can be especially difficult because it also requires one to alter how one sees themselves.  It requires an alternative understanding of masculinity that differs from common views. In his study of nineteen men who experienced sexual abuse, Kevin Ralston shows how the recovery process involves a redefining of what it means to be a man. He observed that “for the vast majority of the participants, their revised masculinity was more inclusive and equality focused.”[10]New definitions of masculinity emphasized not power and stoicism, but rather being compassionate, standing up for others, defending those that cannot defend themselves, being authentic, and being the best you can be.[11] 

An Evolutionary-Informed Understanding of Masculinity: Insights from the Alpha Male Chimpanzee

All of this begs an important question: what does it mean to be a “real man?” 

It is important to acknowledge that just because toxic masculinity can be so damaging for mental health does not necessarily mean it is not what men are “designed” to be like. After all, as evolutionary theory suggests, our genes do not care about our happiness, especially when it can get in the way of reproduction or survival.  To the extent that toxic males are more attractive as mates, then it is possible that there may be some kind of evolutionary logic that supports this version of masculinity.

However, research done on the “alpha male” primate suggests that there may be little evolutionary basis for a toxic version of masculinity.  In fact, this research suggests that the new definitions of masculinity that the victims of sexual abuse developed through their recovery process, as described above, are likely more accurate and species-appropriate. 

In his study of chimpanzees, primatologist Frans de Waal shows that alpha males are not necessarily the biggest or strongest in the group, even if such attributes may make achieving alpha status more likely.  Further, they are often not even bullies or all that domineering, even if they may be intimidating.  

In fact, de Waal stresses how alpha males have a whole host of other qualities that are central to their high-status position. These include an ability to make others happy, to keep the right friends, and to secure female support. They are also generous and focus on providing for others.  De Waal emphasizes that alpha males are peace-keepers, supporters of the underdog, and empathetic. As he puts it, alpha males are “consolers in chief.”  These attributes of the alpha male serve important social functions and are designed to benefit the group, but they also serve the interests of the alpha as they help him maintain his leadership position.

Accordingly, toxic versions of masculinity may not only be destructive for all involved, but also inconsistent with more genuine masculine traits.  As de Waal puts it, “you should not call a bully an alpha male. Someone who is big and strong and intimidates and insults everyone is not necessarily an alpha male.”[12] 


The sexual victimization of men is less common than it is for women, but it is still a topic that is important to discuss.  Paying attention to it not only helps to reduce the stigma around the issue but it also draws attention to contemporary views of masculinity and how they can undermine emotional wellbeing. It also fosters greater discussion around what it means to be a “real man,” and to develop understandings of masculinity that are more healthy and consistent with our species.  If more men sought to emulate the alpha-male chimpanzee, as de Waal describes him, we might all be a bit better off. 

[1]“Mental Illness and Addiction: Facts and Statistics.” CAMH. Available at:

[2]“Mental Illness and Addiction: Facts and Statistics.” CAMH.

[3]Cecilia Dhejne et al., “Mental Health and Gender Dysphoria: A Review of the Literature,” International Review of Psychiatry Vol. 28, No. 1 (2016). 

[4]“SACHA: Sexual Assault Centre.” Available at: 

[5]Kevin Ralston, “”If I Was a ‘Real Man’”: The Role of Gender Stereotypes in the Recovery Process for Men Who Experience Sexual Victimization,” Journal of Men’s Studies (2019), pp. 1-22. 

[6]Ralston, “”If I Was a ‘Real Man’”.

[7]Eldra Jackson, “How I Unlearned Dangerous Lessons About Masculinity,” TedWomen 2018. Available at:

[8]Ralston, “”If I Was a ‘Real Man’”, pp. 2-3

[9]Jackson, “How I Unlearned Dangerous Lessons About Masculinity,”

[10]Ralston, “”If I Was a ‘Real Man’”, p. 16

[11]Ralston, “”If I Was a ‘Real Man’”, p. 16

[12]Frans de Waal, “The Surprising Science of Alpha Males,” TEDMED 2017. Available at:

What Criteria Should We Use to Assess Mental Health Advice?

Starts With Me Journal
Vol. I Nos. 3 & 4 (October 2019)

What Criteria Should We Use to Assess Mental Health Advice?

David Zarnett
Director, Research & Strategy

Today, there is an overwhelming amount of information available about how to improve mental health and achieve emotional wellbeing.  If you search “mental health” on Amazon, you get over 100,000 results. If you search for “emotional wellbeing,” you get over 3000 results.  This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are also hundreds, if not thousands, of articles, blog posts, and podcasts on the topic. 

But which of the mental health advice offered is any good? What criteria should we use to assess this mass amount of information? 

Thinking about these questions is important since many different perspectives and opinions can easily lead to decision-paralysis, leaving us no better off.[1]If we have some criteria to guide us, we may be more able to consider the advice that is out there and make more informed decisions.

Below I discuss three perspectives on what constitutes good mental health advice: advice that is based on lived experience, advice based on expertise, and advice based on human evolution. I argue that advice from those with lived experience and expertise is important and can be very valuable, but that they may not be reliable enough indicators of good advice. Instead, a better indicator of good advice is if it is based on who we humans are as a species and our evolutionary past.

Advice Based on Lived Experience

One perspective suggests that the best advice comes from those with lived experience with a mental health issue. These individuals can speak to what they went through and they can describe the strategies they adopted to work through their struggles. 

This kind of advice can be very useful.  It can let us know that we are not alone and can provide us with some optimism that there is a way forward. Further, those who share their stories of struggle and recovery are often positive role models.   

And yet, it is possible that the advice from those with lived experience may not be any good.  Research in psychology suggests that the human mind has a strong propensity to myth telling and delusion. We are prone to a number of cognitive biases and distortions that make authentic truth telling difficult. The stories we tell ourselves, and others, are often fraught with the selective use of evidence.[2]For this reason, the main objective of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is to provide strategies that we can use to correct the cognitive errors we frequently make.[3]

When thinking about mental health advice from someone with lived experience, a few questions come to mind.  Is the advice offered an accurate reflection of what the individual actually did to address and work through their issue? Might they be misremembering things? If so, what are they leaving out?  

Additional questions come up if the individual is offering their experience as part of a mental health consulting practice or trying to sell a book. In these cases, is the advice offered more about sales than long-term efficacy?

While advice from those with lived experience can be quite powerful and helpful, it should not necessarily be taken as gospel. 

Advice Based on Expertise

A second perspective suggests that good mental health advice comes from experts who have spent years studying the issue and have earned advanced degrees in the topic.  By drawing on their own original research or an assessment of a large body of scholarly literature, experts may be able to provide a more informed picture of a particular mental health challenge and a more accurate outline of the steps one needs to take to work through it.

However, like lived experience, expertise alone as a criteria for good mental health advice is also unsatisfying.  This is for two reasons. 

First, there is a large literature that documents the limitations of current scientific knowledge.[4] In the case of psychology, one of the academic disciplines most relevant for understanding and addressing mental health issues and mental illness, some have argued that many published studies report “false positives” – findings that are inadequately supported by the data.[5]   In many cases, false positives are not due to fraud but rather a common practice amongst scholars to play around with their data and use of a variety of statistical techniques in order to get the results they want. This practice is known as “p-hacking,” which some psychology researchers suggest is undermining the credibility of their field.[6]

Second, conflicts of interest also raise questions about the advice offered by some experts.

Conflicts of interests arise when an expert has personal or professional ties that can get in the way of their scientific responsibility to conduct their study and report their findings as objectively as they can. For those in psychology or psychiatry, conflicts of interest often stem from close relationships with pharmaceutical companies who want the research to promote the safety and efficacy of their drugs. According to Jacob Stegenga, author of Medical Nihilism, leading psychiatrists at Harvard, Stanford and Emory University have received significant amounts of money from, or owned stock in, the pharmaceutical companies whose drugs they study.  Stegenga also reports that in 2006 the American Psychiatry Association received 30% of its budget from pharmaceutical companies. These two examples are part of a much larger problem. As Stegenga puts it, “conflicts of interest in medical research are ubiquitous.”[7]

These two concerns – the publication of false positives in psychology and conflicts of interests in psychiatry – should not lead us to discredit all scientific work. On the contrary, they simply remind us that we should view the advice offered by experts with an open-mind and critical eye, in the same way that any good scientist or researcher would. 

Another reason why expertise as a criterion for good advice is unsatisfying is because it does not help us adjudicate between experts who disagree.  In these situations, what additional criteria should we use to assess the advice offered? 

Advice Based on Evolution

A more compelling, and intuitive, way to assess mental health advice involves asking if it has some kind of evolutionary logic to it. That is, is the advice consistent in some way with who we are as humans and how we have evolved over millions of years? Is the advice “species appropriate” and “evolution-based”?

This approach draws on evolutionary psychology, a body of research that dates back to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.  In his book, Darwin argued that species were not designed by a god-like entity but rather were the product of the pressures to survive and reproduce, known as natural and sexual selection.  Darwin’s theory was initially applied to anatomy in order to explain the function of body parts and how they have changed, or evolved, over time. But in the 1980s, psychologists began applying Darwinian principles to explain the patterns and tendencies of human emotions and behaviour.[8]  Since then, evolutionary approaches have become more and more prominent to the study of human psychology as well as in other fields in the social sciences.[9]Today, it is an important part of the psychology mainstream and is said to provide an overarching framework that brings together the various branches of psychology, including cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, social psychology,[10]and most recently positive psychology.[11] 

Despite its growing credibility within academic circles, it has not yet made its way into mental health and mental illness clinical practice. This may be due to the amount of time it takes for new perspectives to influence practioners, who often use the approaches and methods in which they were schooled. It may also reflect concerns that evolutionary approaches do not provide obvious strategies that may offer more immediate relief, such as pharmaceutical interventions or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. And yet, the relative absence of insights from evolutionary psychology may be holding the mental health community back from offering advice to those suffering that is effective over the long term.[12]    

What is Evolutionary Psychology? 

The core premise of evolutionary psychology is that human emotions and behaviours are the product of long evolutionary processes that result in adaptations designed to promote survival and reproduction.  It emphasizes the interaction between long evolutionary processes and one’s current environment. This interaction contributes to a set of emotions and the resulting behaviours.[13] In thinking about evolutionary processes, evolutionary psychologists are not merely referring to a few hundred years of human development. On the contrary, they refer to what David Buss calls “deep time” – hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years of evolution.[14]  In this way, evolutionary psychology differs from other approaches in psychology that emphasize more “proximate” causes of our emotions and behaviours, such as current social norms and pressures, parental strategies, education, amongst other factors.  Instead, evolutionary psychologists focus on the “ultimate” cause that account for general patterns in human behaviour that exist across cultures and across time.[15]  As Glenn Geher puts it:

The evolutionary perspective allows you to think about any and all psychological phenomena in a broader perspective. It allows you to see a map of the entire forest as opposed to only the details of one part of one of the trees. It is a big-picture approach to understanding behavior that is fully inspired by Darwin’s take on the nature of life.[16]

In their work, evolutionary psychologists have made some interesting findings about human behaviour.  These include:

  • We are more likely to remember things associated with survival and reproduction than we are things not associated with them.
  • We are more likely to think things are closer to us when they are approaching compared to when they are moving away. This keeps us on guard in case of an approaching threat.  
  • We are more likely to think a building is taller than it is when viewed from the top than when viewed from the bottom. This protects us from falling to our deaths. 
  • We are less likely to be sexually attracted to those with whom we have grown-up. This helps us avoid inbreeding because the brain interprets co-residence at an early age as an indicator of possible genetic similarities.[17] 
  • We all have a strong preference for sweet or fatty foods. This increases chances of survival in times of scarcity, but obesity in times of abundance.
  • We have a strong preference for landscapes with scattered trees and open grasslands, which resemble tropical Africa where it is said the human species originated. This is seen in preferences for hotels and resorts that have these characteristics.[18]

What Does Evolutionary Psychology Say About Mental Health?

 In addition to providing some important insights on regular day to day emotions and behaviours, evolutionary psychology also offers important insights into poor mental health and mental illness.  Below I outline two, but there are many more. 

Environmental Mismatch as a Cause of the Current Mental Health Crisis

First, evolutionary psychologists suggest that a main cause of the current uptick in poor mental health and mental illness is in large part due to “environmental mismatch” – the disconnect between the environments in which our psychological traits evolved and our modern environment.  Nearly all of the human experience occurred in small-knit groups of a few hundred people that communicated face-to-face, spent most of their time outdoors, ate food they hunted or gathered, and had sex to reproduce.[19]  In such small groups, and with limited technology, each individual fulfilled a necessary function to ensure the continued survival of the group. It is estimated that 95% of the human experience took place under hunter-gatherer conditions.[20]  According to Stephen Ilardi, it is to these ancestral hunter-gatherer conditions that we are quite well adapted.[21] 

Approximately 12,000 years ago, humans began to move away from hunter-gather ways of life, with the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals.[22]  This period began what is known as the Neolithic Revolution in which humans shifted to living in settled agrarian communities.  Over time, agriculture increased the food supply, leading to population growth.  This led to larger and larger settlements, and the creation of states, which first appeared in Mesopotamia (today, Iraq).[23]Agriculture ushered in not only new ways of living but also dramatically altered our relationship with nature. This trend sped up considerably in the 19thcentury with industrialization and mass urbanization, which continues today.  

While these changes have brought about significant material benefits, the pace at which they have occurred posed significant emotional challenges.  This is because evolutionary adaptations occur over tens of thousands of years and simply cannot keep up with humanity’s unprecedented ambition and desire to continually alter its environment.[24]  While some adaptations to agrarian living have likely occurred over the last 12,000 years or so, likely none have occurred over the last 200 with the industrial revolution. It is simply too short of a time period for evolutionary processes to do their thing and select the traits needed to thrive in a new environment that is radically different from what has previously existed.

Evolutionary psychologists have found evidence of our ancestral mindset in a number of areas. For instance, they have found that our most commonly expressed fears are not cars or guns, but rather heights, snakes, spiders and strangers, things our ancestors were also worried about.[25]  In mass societies, our ancestral fear of strangers can be a significant source of stress at the sub-conscious level. In hunter-gatherer societies, there were few strangers and one had a better idea of who to trust. Today, we have to navigate a whole host of new social interactions that we may not yet be fully equipped to handle at a deep, sub-conscious level.  As Sebastian Junger observes:

a person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day – or an entire life – mostly encountering complete strangers.  They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone. The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming.[26]

Beyond strangers, mass societies also pose problems when it comes to sexual competition.  The larger the community, the more competition there may be for mates and status, which is closely linked to perceptions of reproductive fitness. Constant competition can lead to more frequent feelings of envy, failure and rejection, all of which can undermine mental health and contribute to mental illness.[27]

Viewing environmental mismatch as a contributing factor to poor mental health has two important implications for how we might want to improve emotional wellbeing. 

First, it can serve as an important source of compassion. If our current environments do not closely fit out ancestral roots, then it is not all that surprising that we struggle with mental health issues. In fact, it may be perfectly normal, even if undesirable, to struggle, and something not to be ashamed of.   

Second, environmental mismatch also suggests that we think about how we might be able to make our environment a bit more ancestral. A return to hunter-gatherer times is not possible, but small changes to daily life can have a big impact. The changes can involve working on building a more tight knit social group of trustworthy people, spending as much time outside in nature as possible, adjusting our diet, doing more exercise, and limiting the use of technology that can interfere with genuine social connections and natural sleep cycles.[28]  It may also include integrating mindfulness, meditation and other spiritual practices to help our minds address the challenges of a modern environment.[29] 

Emotions, Even Negative Ones, Serve a Function

In addition to drawing attention to environmental mismatch, evolutionary psychology asks us to consider the emotions we associate with poor mental health as serving a certain function.[30] 

Consider Sadness. We often feel this when we lose something we cherish. But the feeling is not just there to reflect loss and cause emotional distress, it also serves a purpose.  It can motivate us to find what we are missing (i.e. a lost dog) or to find a replacement (i.e. a new partner or job). Sadness can also encourage us to take steps to prevent further losses in the future (i.e being a more attentive partner or employee).[31]

Anxiety or fear can also serve an important function as it helps boost our chances of survival. Without it, we may risk our lives needlessly, undermining what evolution suggests is our primary, but not only, purpose – to reproduce our DNA.  The challenge with anxiety today is that what it was selected to do may not be well suited to our modern environment.  For instance, social anxiety among strangers may be normal, given ancestral concerns, but no longer useful in situations in which strangers are a common feature of everyday life and where the overwhelming majority do not pose a threat. Understanding the deep roots of the emotion and viewing it as a normal reaction, however, can be useful in alleviating it. 

Depression or low mood can also be illustrative.  Depression is commonly viewed as a problem, and in extreme cases, a disorder. Evolutionary psychologists offer a slightly different perspective, arguing that depression can serve an important function when properly understood. Depression can serve at least four functions.

First, it can indicate that we need new strategies to pursue our goals. Depression can tell us that the way we are going about trying to find a job, a partner, or meaning, amongst other needs, may not be the right one. This view may explain why work that does not offer an individual meaning can be psychologically damaging in the long run.[32] 

Second, it can also indicate that our goals cannot be achieved and that we need new ones.[33]As Randolph Nesse and Phoebe Ellsworth explain:

Symptoms of depression, by contrast, are aroused when an important goal seems unattainable.  The initial response is to seek new strategies, but if no route to the goal seems possible, motivation fades away, freeing up effort for other more profitable tasks.  If for some reason the goal cannot be abandoned, then ordinary low mood tends to escalate into pathological depression.[34]

The one concern with this view is that it may inadvertently lead to self-coddling, the avoidance of anything that seems difficult or uncomfortable, and a lack of resilience. In these situations, it is important to distinguish between facing difficult challenges in life and feeling depressed, a distinction that may not always be easy to make.  However, the difference between the two should be kept in mind when a decision needs to be made about sticking with a particular relationship, job, project or life goal, or abandoning it in search of alternatives.

Third, evolutionary psychologists also suggest that depression can serve a social function, indicating to others that we need help.[35]  The reverse is also true – it can indicate who we know who may be in need of some support.   

And fourth, depression may be useful when trying to address complex problems.  This is because depression under some conditions can provide certain cognitive advantages, including ruminating on problems, deep analysis and introspection, and greater focus.[36]

Contrary to the view that depression should only be understood as a problem, it may be the case that depression can be a useful emotion that can help us better determine how we ought to be spending our time and resources, identify who is in need of help, and offer us a certain mindset that is useful for solving problems.

Overall, evolutionary psychology may provide us with some important insights into our mental health and what it takes to achieve emotional well-being in a way that is species appropriate and respectful of our evolutionary past. Randolph Nesse outlines the benefits of an evolutionary approach to mental health and mental illness in the following way: 

Far from providing a cold or rigid perspective, an evolutionary view fosters deeper empathy for the challenges we all face and deeper amazement that so many people are able to find loving relationships, meaningful work, and a way to juggle a bevy of responsibilities with good humor and even joy….An evolutionary view of mental disorders does not mean accepting the pains and difficulties of the human condition.  Many can be prevented or eliminated safely, but only when we better understand the functions of negative emotions….[E]very new such major capacity for intervention will be safer and more sensible if developed in a sophisticated evolutionary context.[37]


There are numerous perspectives available on how to improve emotional wellbeing. The challenge is figuring out which perspectives makes sense and are effective in the long-run.  Every individual is different and may require a different set of strategies to overcome the particular challenges they face. But in that search for guidance, thinking about what constitutes good advice is important. It can encourage us to do more research and to learn about the various options out there so we can make informed decisions and feel confident in the choices we make.  As Jo Marchant documents in her book Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, believing that a treatment protocol will work can greatly increase its effectiveness.[38] 

I suggest that some of the best mental health advice may come evolutionary-informed approaches. These approaches provide important insights into why we feel, think and act in the ways that we do. They can also offer us ideas about things we can do each day to reconnect with our ancestral past in a practical way, while benefiting from all that our modern environments have to offer. Mental health advice would be better off it looked more closely at environmental psychology.

Thanks for reading. 


[1]Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005).

[2]Robert Cummins & Helen Nistico, “Maintaining Life Satisfaction: The Role of Cognitive Bias,” Journal of Happiness Studies Vol. 3 (2002), pp. 37-69.

[3]Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic Monthly (September 2015). Available at:

[4]John Ioannidis, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” PLoS Medicine Vol. 2, No. 8 (August 2005), pp. 0696-701. Jacob Stegenga, Medical Nihilism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[5]Joseph Simmons, Leif Nelson & Uri Simonsohn, “False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexiblity in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant,” Psychological Science Vol. 22 No. 11 (2011), pp. 1359-1366. 

[6]Susan Dominus, “When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy,” New York Times Magazine (October 18, 2017). Available at:

[7]Stegenga,Medical Nihilism,p. 161. 

[8]David Buss, “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Psychological Science.” Available at: 

[9]Gad Saad & Tripat Gill, “Application of Evolutionary Psychology in Marketing,” Psychology & Marketing Vol. 17 No. 2 (December 2000), p. 1012.

[10]David Buss, “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Psychological Science.” Available at: 

[11]Scott Barry Kaufman, “Toward a Positive Evolutionary Psychology,” Scientifc American (August 30, 2019). Available at:

[12]Randolph Nesse, “Evolutionary Psychology and Mental Health,” in David Buss (ed.), The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (New Jersey, US: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), p. 903. 

[13]Jaime Confer et al, “Evolutionary Psychology: Controversies, Questions, Prospects and Limitations,” American Psychologist (Feb-March 2010), pp. 116, 120. 

[14]David Buss, “Why Students Love Evolutionary Psychology and How to Teach it.” Available at:

[15]Saad & Gill, “Application of Evolutionary Psychology in Marketing,” p. 1006.

[16]Glenn Geher, “Evolutionary Psychology is a Superpower,” Psychology Today (August 26, 2018). Available at:

[17]Confer, “Evolutionary Psychology,” p. 112-116.

[18]Saad & Gill, “Application of Evolutionary Psychology in Marketing,” p. 1014. 

[19]Confer, “Evolutionary Psychology, p. 119. 

[20]John Lanchester, “The Case Against Civilization,” The New Yorker (September 11, 2017). Available at:

[21]Stephen Ilardi, “Depression is  a Disease of Civilization.” Available at:

[22]Ilardi, “Depression is a Disease of Civilization.” 

[23]James Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

[24]Kaufman, “Toward a Positive Evolutionary Psychology.”

[25]Confer et al, “Evolutionary Psychology,” p. 111.

[26]Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (New York: Twelve, 2016). p. 18. 

[27]Nesse, “Evolutionary Psychology and Mental Health,” p. 905. 

[28]Stephen Ilardi, “Depression is a Disease of Civilization.”

[29]Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (Toronto: Simon & Shuster, 2017). 

[30]Confer, “Evolutionary Psychology,” p. 111. Randolph Nesse & Phoebe Ellsworth, “Evolution, Emotions and Emotional Disorders,” American Psychologist (February-March 2009), p. 129. 

[31]Nesse & Ellsworth, “Evolution, Emotions and Emotional Disorders,” p. 136. 

[32]David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2018)

[33]Nesse, “Evolutionary Psychology and Mental Health,” p. 913.

[34]Nesse & Ellsworth, “Evolution, Emotions & Emotional Disorders,” p. 136. 

[35]Confer, “Evolutionary Psychology,” p. 121. 

[36]Paul Andrews & J. Anderson Thompson, “Depression’s Evolutionary Roots,” Scientific American (August 25, 2019). Available at:

[37]Nesse, “Evolutionary Psychology and Mental Health,” p. 920. 

[38]Jo Marchant, Cure: A Journal Into the Science of Mind Over Body (New York: Crown Publishers, 2016).

Do You Have Role Models? Why We Need Them to Promote Well-Being

Starts With Me Journal
Vol. I No. 2 (September 2019)

Do You Have Role Models? Why We Need Them to Promote Well-Being

David Zarnett, Ph.D.
Director, Research & Strategy

(To download a pdf version of this article, click here.)

Life often throws us challenges and obstacles that can feel insurmountable. This can lead us to think we have no power to change things.  The result is inaction and continued suffering.  

One way to overcome feeling powerless is to keep an eye out for positive role models. The people we admire and whose behaviour we’d like to emulate. According to social learning theory, a lot of our behaviour is learned from observing the actions of others. Positive role models, such as parents, teachers, bosses, peers, or even strangers, can teach us moral behaviour and inspire us to behave in more ethical and productive ways.

In today’s world a lot of attention is given to people with highly questionable behaviour. It seems that negative role models are more common than positive ones. Our tendency to focus on the negative behaviour of others can threaten our sense of wellbeing. 

However, if we look closely, we can find many individuals who can provide us with some ethical direction and motivation.  Looking out for these sources of guidance can help us muster the courage we need to tackle our own problems. Cultivating this courage is especially important when we start to feel as if our own circumstances are overwhelming. Having an example to follow can be very helpful.  

Over the summer, I spent some time reading Leon Uris’ QBVII, a book published in 1970.  It got me thinking about courage and heroism under extremely challenging situations.  

QBVII is about a court case between a Polish-British doctor (Adam Kelno) and an American writer (Abraham Cady).  During the Second World War, Kelno was captured by the Nazis in Poland and was taken to Jadwiga, an extermination camp.  There, Kelno served as one of the camp’s doctors. After the war, Kelno made his way to Britain, served overseas in Borneo (then a British colony, today part of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia), earned a knighthood for his work, and returned to London to continue practicing as a doctor.  Just as Kelno appears to have his life back on track, he receives word that Cady has published a book stating that while at Jadwiga, Kelno worked with the Nazis to conduct brutal experiments on Jewish inmates. Kelno sues Cady for libel, and the two go to court.

In court, Kelno defends himself saying not only was he not complicit in the Nazi experiments but that his work saved lives and met the highest of medical standards, even under very difficult conditions. Any wrongdoing he committed, he and lawyers argued, were because of the severe duress he was under. If he didn’t obey orders, the Nazis would send him to the gas chambers.  

The merits of Kelno’s defense depended on the accuracy of his accounts of his behaviour and the larger question of what we can reasonably expect of someone living under horribly repressive conditions.  In his closing statement, Kelno’s lawyer emphasizes this point:  

We keep returning to a thought of how we in England can really re-create in our minds the nightmare of Jadwiga Concentration Camp. We heard some of the horror, but can we really relate to it? Can we really understand how this would affect the mind of an ordinary man….you or I? How would we have stood up in Jadwiga?

How we answer this question depends in part on the extent to which we believe that our environment determines our behaviour. If we see our environment as posing obstacles that we can’t overcome, then we may be doomed to behave in ways that are unethical and damaging to our mental health.  

But if we believe that we have some power, some ability to make a choice, even in the face of significant challenges, then new possibilities open up.  

During the trial, Cady’s lawyer argued that Kelno had a choice about whether to follow the Nazi orders or resist.  How did they know? They pointed out that other doctors at Jadwiga refused to take part in the Nazi experiments, risking their own lives in the process.  If these doctors disobeyed Nazi orders, why didn’t Kelno? As Cady’s lawyer put it:

I agree that Jadwiga Concentration Camp was as awful as things had ever come to. Yet, members of the jury, the inhumanity of man to man is as old as man itself. Just because one is in Jadwiga or anyplace else where people are inhumane, that does not give him leave to discard his morality, his religion, his philosophy, or all of those things that make him a decent member of the human race.

It’s a thought provoking statement. It makes me think about those individuals who have stepped up in one way or another to promote change in their own lives and for others when so much stood in their way.  

Overcoming great challenges: childhood difficulties, economic collapse and family catastrophe

Think about Glenn Loury, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in a working class neighbourhood in the south side of Chicago, an area described as one of the most violent in the US.  In fact, through the 1960s, when Loury was a teenager, the number of homicides in the city nearly doubled. Loury describes his childhood environment as quite challenging. In a recent interview, he said: “there was a lot of stuff going on that I don’t know that anyone could really credit as productive or helpful to the wellbeing of the micro-society of which I was a part.” Despite all of this, Loury managed to excel at school and became the first African-American Professor of Economics to receive tenure at Harvard.

Loury continued to experience life challenges, including a public scandal, professional and marital difficulties, and a drug addiction.   As he describes it:

“I found myself in a hole, with drug addiction, cocaine, and it almost destroyed my life and I had to go into rehab. I lost about a year in halfway houses, you know, in-patient rehab, and my marriage barely held together”.

Despite all of this, he persevered and worked to get his life back on track. Today, he is a prominent economics professor at Brown University and a popular public intellectual. 

Or think about Michaylee White. In 2008, the collapse of the US housing market and the ensuing financial crisis turned her family’s life upside down.  Rather than diving into the depths of despair, she had the courage to adopt a different perspective.  She described this perspective in an interview with the CBC:

It’s curious to think that the economy was the thing that caused my family to lose so much control.  We lost three jobs and one house. I made six moves and attended three high schools, all in just two years.  And still, all that my family had been through, the hardest thing of all was losing the time together and our connection to each other.  Everyday I remind myself that only I am capable of removing the sadness that life brings and that I need to find happiness rather than waiting around for it.  

Or think about Deborah and David Cooper, who lost their son Eli to suicide in 2010.  After years of therapy and hard work, they channeled their energy towards promoting positive change for others. They are working to establish Eli’s Place – Canada’s first residential treatment centre for those struggling with mental illness. In a recent interview on the State Of Mind Podcast with Mike Stroh, Deborah described their path forward in the following way:  

Almost a year after his first suicide attempt, [Eli] did take his own life on July 2nd, 2010.  And that changed our lives forever and sent us on a new journey…I know it’s a story of such profound loss and why do people want to listen. We at this point really see it as a story of recovery and hope, and this is what we want to transmit because through all the loss and the grief, and that’s a whole journey on its own, we have found a way to memorialize Eli by trying to do something to make things better for others.  

In addition to those who experience significant trauma in their lives and work through it, there are also those who courageously tackle major social problems. 

Community heroes: teaching youth mindfulness and tackling climate change

The founders of the Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, Ali and Atman Smith, and Andres Gonzalez are another example. After graduating from the University of Maryland, they returned home to find their neighbourhood in disarray.  As they describe it:

What these kids experience…it’s like a war zone out there.  The environment in general with crime, drugs and just violence, it’s like all these kids are experiencing PTSD.   This is the war zone.  It’s not like they are going somewhere to war then coming back here and they feel like that. They’re in the midst of it. They are living in it.  

Instead of moving to a different city or giving up hope, they decided to take action and formed a non-profit to teach youth yoga and meditation to better themselves and contribute to their community.  Their mission is to empower individuals to take more control over their lives and to “teach teachers” to facilitate transformative change in their community and beyond.    

Think about the people trying to tackle climate change. There is no shortage of news that bombards us with a sense of despair and hopelessness.  In her recent book, Shut it Down: Stories from a Fierce, Loving Resistance, Lisa Fithian describes the courage that she and others have had in protesting human rights abuse and environmental degradation around the world, while facing threats of imprisonment and violence.  What is notable about her story is how she thinks about the societal problems that can cause so many of us to turn away. In a recent interview, Fithian describes her perspective in the following way:

We can’t let that pain destabilize us. So, again, what I’ve been learning is that when we are feeling afraid, when we are feeling we can’t take it anymore, the most important thing to do is actually reach in and to take action and to do something, because that’s where we begin to get a sense of our power, that we can make a difference. And if history has shown us anything, it’s like, unless we actually organize, we aren’t going to make changes.

What qualities do these people possess?

What is particularly fascinating and inspirational about these individuals is that they defy something that psychology professor Paul Slovic and his colleagues refer to as “psychic numbing” – the cognitive phenomenon of turning away from severe problems that appear to be too big or complex to deal with, resulting in inaction. Rather than allowing a problem to numb them, these individuals engaged with it head-on and are better off for doing so.

These individuals, even the fictitious doctors in Jadwiga refusing Nazi orders, can offer us much inspiration. They serve as a sharp reminder that we can choose to not let our difficult circumstances get in the way of doing what needs to be done to help ourselves and to make positive contributions to the lives of others.

We may live in difficult times, but with some effort we can find a few powerful positive role models that can help us find the path forward.   

Thanks for reading and see you again in two weeks.  

About the Author: David Zarnett is the Undergraduate Advisor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, from where he received a Ph.D in 2017.  His work supports students as they address challenges in school and as they prepare for life after graduation.  Through his work on campus, including as a lecturer and teaching assistant, he has witnessed a deteriorating mental health situation. He is passionate about providing students with the support and guidance they need to reach their potential.  Beyond his work at the University of Toronto, he is also the Executive Director of Every Kid Counts, an advocacy organization that is campaigning to strengthen special education policy in Ontario.  

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