Book cover for The Survival of the Sexes: Warriors and Worriers. Warrios.jpg
  • If I have to, I can do anything
  • I am strong
  • I am invincible
  • I am woman
  • —Helen Reddy, “I Am Woman”
Helen Reddy’s 1971 anthem captured the spirit of feminism in that era. The mood was optimistic, proud, and spirited. “Nothing can stop me,” the song seemed to say. Once doors were open to women, they would charge through and never look back.

Today, the mood of feminists seems much darker. On college campuses, some seethe with resentment. They look to university administrators to fend off “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture.” They allege that free speech causes harm. They insist that schools ban words and speakers. They want “safe spaces.” It seems as though “I am strong, I am invincible” has been replaced by “I am anxious, I am vulnerable.”

Joyce Benenson’s Warriors and Worriers,1 published in 2014, might explain today’s campus culture as the result of women reverting to their natural behavior, even as they have become the majority at many colleges and universities. Benenson writes that,

  • … human males are programmed to develop traits that are associated with becoming a warrior, and that human females are programmed to develop characteristics that are related to becoming a worrier. (p. 13)

I would suggest that higher education, once dominated by men, used to cater to men’s warrior nature. Today, with female students the majority, colleges and universities cater much more to women’s worrier culture.

In her book, Benenson presents extensive empirical evidence for general differences in behavior and temperament between human males and females. These are differences that she and others have found in infants, toddlers, children, and adolescence. They are found in primitive cultures as well as in modern Western cultures. They are similar to traits found in other primates, including our chimpanzee relatives. In this review, I find it hard to do justice to the range of observations that Benenson makes about gender differences and the variety of sources for those observations.

Taken as a whole, the empirical research that she cites seems solid. She grounds her explanation for male-female differences in evolutionary psychology. That approach always risks telling a “just-so” story, but I found it persuasive here. It is my idea to examine contemporary campus culture in terms of her warrior/worrier framework, and in doing so I certainly risk telling a “just-so” story as well.

Benenson holds a Ph.D in psychology from Harvard University, and currently lectures there in the Department of Evolutionary Biology. As a developmental psychologist who has studied young boys and girls, she has found sex differences shared across many cultures, suggesting that these differences are not unique to western society.

  • Over the past 30 years, I have come to believe that boys and girls differ in some of their basic interests and accordingly behave in different ways… boys enjoy physical fighting, find enemies captivating, and cannot beat competition for pure entertainment. Most important of all, boys want to engage in these behaviors with other boys. (p. vii)
  • … When I see a behavior exhibited by virtually all members of one sex, but rarely by members of the other sex, it suggests that that behavior solves some basic problem for the sex that practices it. It’s not that the other sex could not learn to practice it, but they usually don’t without a lot of encouragement and learning. (p. viii)
  • … I study children, because children allow me to observe human nature before society has exerted too much of an influence. The earlier a behavior appears in children, the more likely this behavior has some biological basis. What I have found is that girls and boys behave very differently beginning in infancy and early childhood, long before girls bear children and boys become the physically stronger sex. (p. 2)

Benenson catalogues numerous differences in temperament and behavior between males and females. These include:

  • • Boys are drawn to fight one another, and girls are not.
  • • Boys are eager to play on their own, without the authority of teachers, and girls are not.
  • • Girls enjoy play that involves acting out scenes of caring for a baby or a person in distress, and boys do not.
  • • Women show higher levels of fear and anxiety and lower propensity to take risks than men do.
  • • When evaluating same-sex individuals as potential friends or allies, men look for strength, courage, and useful skills. Women look for vulnerability and the absence of overt conflict.
  • • Boys tend to have large groups of friends, with loose ties and shifting alliances. Girls tend to form tight cliques.
  • • At recess, boys enjoy competitive team sports. They are concerned with formal rules and spend time negotiating such rules. I think of pickup softball games where there are only six players on a team. The rules might be “anything hit to right field is a foul ball,” or “batting team supplies pitcher, catcher, and first baseman” or some other ad hoc modification of normal baseball rules.
  • • At recess, girls are less likely to choose competitive team sports, and they lose interest in team games relatively quickly.
  • • Men value competition with prizes for those who demonstrate the most skill. Women prefer that no one stand out.

It could be that some of these differences are small, with the 55th percentile for a female would align with the 45th percentile for a male. (If the trait were height, this would mean that a woman who is taller than 55 percent of other women would be as tall as a male who is taller than 45 percent of other males.) Or they could be large, meaning that the 95th percentile for a female would align with the 5th percentile for a male. Benenson never quantifies differences in this way, but the words she uses suggest that the differences that she observes are large.

Benenson claims that what underlies these differences is that women pay more attention to their survival as individuals, while men pay more attention to survival in group competition. In terms of evolutionary psychology, a female needs to protect her own health in order to be able to bear children and to enable them to survive to adulthood. Benenson notes that until recently in human history, 40 percent of children died before the age of two. Increasing the chances of her baby’s survival had to be a major concern for women.

Men always had the option of trying to impregnate many women, so that the death of one of his babies would be less significant. Once a baby has been created, the man need not remain healthy or even alive for that baby to survive.

For men, the ability to pass their genes along is relatively less dependent on their individual survival. It is relatively more dependent on the ability of their group to out-compete other groups, especially in war.

  • Behaviors, such as paying close attention to the state of one’s body, avoiding conflicts, finding a reliable mate while excluding competitors, and investing a lot in children likely have been specifically useful in keeping women alive.
  • Behaviors that likely have been particularly useful in keeping men alive include physical fighting, selecting friends who are strong and skilled, and competing in groups. These patterns of sex differences appear across diverse cultures and are found even in young children. (p. 7)

Benenson argues that men developed behaviors and temperaments to enable them to manage large coalitions in warfare. Women developed behaviors and temperaments to enable them to ensure the survival of their children.

  • Many of the traits that accompany interest in war, such as enjoyment of fighting, pleasure in competition, preference for allies who are strong and competent, and undying loyalty to one’s own group, are useful in government, business, and other peacetime institutions.
  • The traits that accompany caring for vulnerable individuals over the long haul, including staying healthy and avoiding risks, maintaining relationships with families and a mate, getting rid of interfering competitors, and investing in close kin and others who can help a mother raise her children, can be used in other helping professions as well. (p. 14)

For a female, every other female is a potential competitor. Women eliminate a competitor by ganging up on the unwanted woman and excluding her. The excluded woman may not have violated a formal rule, but she seems threatening for some reason.

For a male, every other male is a potential ally. You may fight a man one day, and the next day you may join with him to fight a common enemy. Men want to see non-cooperators punished, but subsequently the rule-breaker might be rehabilitated. Permanent exclusion would be a bad practice.

“Reading Warriors and Worriers, it struck me that males would want to establish institutions in which competition reveals and rewards people for their skills. They would not be egalitarian.”

Reading Warriors and Worriers, it struck me that males would want to establish institutions in which competition reveals and rewards people for their skills. They would not be egalitarian. If college were set up that way, ability and effort would play a big role in admission and grading. Females would seek a more egalitarian culture.

In contests, Benenson writes,

  • Girls don’t want any conflict, so they try to make everyone equal. They forget who won or lost. (p. 47)

Men would be less likely to feel threatened, or “triggered,” by exposure to novel or troubling ideas. They would be less inclined to want to use exclusion (“canceling”) as an interpersonal strategy.

Men would be relatively inclined to see conflict as something that can be negotiated. Women would want to see conflict eliminated, and they would appeal to administrators for protection.

Benenson writes,

  • When speaking to one another, young boys issue directives, command others, insult them, tell jokes at others’ expense, ignore what someone else just said, disagree with another’s point, call one another names, brag, tell stories highlighting their own accomplishments, curse, threaten others, use direct statements, and generally behave in a domineering fashion toward one another. (p. 45)

On campus these days, such behaviors are looked down on as “toxic masculinity.”

The contemporary emphasis on social justice seems to me to fit with Benenson’s remark that

  • Men feel particularly good about themselves in domains such as athletic ability, appraisal of their personality, and overall satisfaction or happiness with themselves. Women in contrast rate their behavioral and moral conduct as more socially acceptable to their societies than men do. In other words, men just feel good about who they are, whereas women feel good about being moral. (p. 76)

For more on these topics, see

Overall, it seems to me that the culture of higher education has become increasingly feminized. This coincides with, and seems to me to be caused by, the increase in the proportion of female students.

Benenson writes,

  • For thousands of years, males have constructed the rules that underlie religions, governments, economic systems, businesses, educational structures, and of course judicial courts and the military. Since ancient times, games with rules created by boys and men have predominated all over the world. (p. 78)
Podcast followup: From the Shelf with Curator Arnold Kling:

As a more feminized culture spreads outward from college campuses, we may be engaged in an experiment to do without the institutional approaches that have persisted “for thousands of years.”


[1] Joyce F. Benenson, Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes, with Henry Markowits. Oxford University Press, 2014.

*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

Read more of what Arnold Kling’s been reading. For more book reviews and articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.

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