Masculine Virtues

by Jacob Falkovich12 min read30th Jan 201931 comments


Sex & GenderVirtuesSports
Personal Blog

Cross-posted from Putanumonit (where there's already a good discussion going).

Boys Will Be Boys

Have you seen the Gillette ad? Everyone’s seen the Gillette ad. And after my last post on masculinity, everyone’s been asking me what I think of the Gillette ad.

Well, I used to shave with Gillette and I’ve dumped them… back in 2014 when I realized that Dollar Shave Club sells basically the same razors for $1 each.

And the ad? Eh, it’s fine.

Cringeworthy at times, but fine.

Gillette is a division of a consumer products company selling bathroom items. No one is forced to watch their ads or use their razors. Clay Routledge put it brilliantly: we are living in an era of woke capitalism in which companies pretend to care about social justice to sell products to people who pretend to hate capitalism. Woke capitalism is silly but it gives Gillette customers what they want, which all you can expect of a corporation.

In contrast, APA is a professional organization of health care providers, writing guidelines for practicing therapists who deal with vulnerable men who come to them for help. The standards are quite different.

The content is quite different also.

Here is a list of things APA considers “harmful”, under the umbrella term of “traditional masculinity”:

  • Stoicism.
  • Competitiveness.
  • Aggression.
  • Dominance.
  • Anti-femininity.
  • Achievement.
  • Adventure and risk.
  • Violence.
  • Providing for loved ones (if you’re a black man).

Here’s a list of things the Gillette ad is against:

  • A mob chasing a teenager.
  • Texting someone “FREAK!!!”
  • Old TV shows.
  • Catcalling and butt-grabbing.
  • Patronizing your employees.
  • Six-year-olds fighting.
  • Chanting “boys will be boys” in unison.
  • Sexual assault and sexual harassment.

What do the two lists have in common? Violence, which is never the answer, is the only answer. Find the traditional man closest to you and ask them how many things on Gillette’s list they approve of; it’s not going to be many. “Traditional” men tend to complain they it’s no longer OK to hold doors open for women or take their kids hunting, not that in good ol’ days you could bully people over text or grope ladies on the street.

Here are the things Gillette is in favor of:

  • Terry Crews.
  • Accountability.
  • Demonstratively protecting women from other men.
  • Fatherhood.
  • Using your superior strength to break up fights between smaller males.
  • Teaching all of the above to your son.

Those are remarkably traditional male traits and behaviors, in the sense that they are present and praised among men in almost every modern and pre-modern society. With the exception of Mr. Crews, all of those predate the human species.

Gillette’s ad is in no way against traditional masculinity. The list of behaviors they come out against is referred to as toxic masculinity, including by Gillette themselves.

Those who hate men or who gain status from pretending to do so will continue to conflate masculinity with the terrible (and not particularly masculine) behaviors portrayed in the first half of the ad. Toxic/traditional is a perfect setup for motte-and-bailey: “I like extreme sports. – Ah, a traditional male. I bet you grope women on the subway.” But it’s equally toxic to conflate Gillette with APA’s attack on traditional manhood.

Gillette’s Best Man

If I had to pick a role model of masculinity I would name Roger Federer. Federer is the best tennis player ever among men, the best gentleman among tennis players, philanthropist, father of four and husband to one.

Federer is also the best exemplar of the not-so-subtle distinction between toxic masculinity and traditional masculinity. Roger has been Gillette spokesperson for more than a decade, and he also makes an absolute mockery of the APA list.

Stoicism? Federer won tournaments playing through injury, on sweltering Melbourne days and chilly London nights. While the best female tennis player in history garnered a reputation for furious outbursts at umpires and fans, Federer is legendary for never losing his cool.

Violence? Ok, even Roger has broken a racket or two in his career (so have I).

Competitiveness? Among the multitude of tennis records held by Federer are the 10 times he came back from two sets down to win a match. I was in the stands for #9 in New York when Federer outlasted Gael Monfils playing one of the best matches of his life. Even after Roger lost the first two sets while hitting 26 unforced errors and being outworked by the athletic Frenchman, not a single person in the crowd doubted Federer’s ability to raise his game and ultimately triumph.

Providing for loved ones? Yes, even for black boys.

Aggression and dominance? When I was young and Federer always won, I used to root against him (because he always won). The same pattern would play out in dozens of Federer matches: the game would proceed evenly until something minor would happen that would shake the confidence of Federer’s opponent a tiny bit. Perhaps the opponent would lose a break point opportunity, or miss an easy shot. And then Roger would transform into Darth Federer: a ruthless predator who would pounce on an opponent’s single moment of weakness, breaking his serve and destroying his will to compete in the space of 5 or 10 minutes.

And yet, the other players on tour would revere Roger, much more than they did the equally talented Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. The only tennis award voted on by the players themselves is the ATP sportsmanship award, Federer has won it 13 times.

What is it that Federer does so well and masculinity-haters resent? Climbing Hierarchies. When Federer was #1, he wasn’t just first per the arcane schema of ATP ranking points. He was the best tennis players in the eyes of fans, journalists, sponsors, and, importantly, his opponents. #1 takes tennis skill, but it also takes stoicism, competitiveness, aggression, and dominance.

And I suspect that it’s hierarchies that those who take issue with the above-listed traits are really against.

If you say “hierarchy” three times in front of a mirror you summon the spirit of Jordan Peterson.

Who Hates Hierarchies?

There’s a lot of bitching online about “the war on men”, most of it tedious. Group X thinks that men should have lower status, some guy says ‘no, fuck you!’, more at 10. Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt often get lumped in with that, but they are saying something entirely distinct. Peterson and Haidt are saying that there is a war on certain traits which are commonly coded as masculine: self-reliance, resilience, self-improvement through facing adversity, competence. They describe how parents, schools, and society as a whole discourage those traits, particularly in young people, particularly in young boys.

When I first encountered their writings, I found it too alarmist. But after reading the APA guidelines I remembered that Peterson and Haidt are both psychologists, the former practicing clinical psychology for twenty years. They saw this coming before everyone else.

What does a “war on competence” look like? Think of someone trying to get better at their work to get promoted, working on their writing to build an audience for their blog, or practicing a sport to rise in the rankings. Building competence doesn’t happen by itself. It requires focusing on a goal, taking on challenges, dealing with discomfort, risking failure, and overcoming problems on your own. Building competence (and getting recognized for it) is a crucial component of well being for all humans.

Of course, APA doesn’t mention this. All they have to say on the behaviors that build competence is:

Research suggests that socialization practices that teach boys from an early age to be self-reliant, strong, and to minimize and manage their problems on their own (Pollack, 1995) yield adult men who are less willing to seek mental health treatment.

If society values a particular skill or achievement (like work, blogging, or tennis) a competence hierarchy will form around it. That’s what it means for society to value a skill: those who display it get social rewards and status. But of course, not every hierarchy is a competence hierarchy. Those who got the rewards have a strong interest in removing the competence aspect, making sure that the goodies keep coming to them and not to more competent challengers.

This is why, according to Jordan Peterson, societies need both conservatives and progressives:

There’s space and necessity for a constant dialogue between the left and right. […]
You have to move forward towards valued things, so you have to have a value hierarchy. There has to be hierarchy because one thing has to be more important than another, or you can’t do anything. […]
No matter what you’re acting out, some people are way better at it than others. Doesn’t matter if it’s basketball or hockey or plumbing or law, as soon as there’s something valuable and you’re doing it collectively there’s a hierarchy.
So then what happens is the hierarchy can get corrupt and rigid and then it stops rewarding competence and it starts rewarding criminality and power. The right-wingers say that we really need to abide by the hierarchies and the left-wingers say: wait a second, your hierarchy can get corrupt and also puts a lot of dispossessed people at the bottom. And that’s not only bad for the dispossessed people, it actually threatens the whole hierarchy.

The progressive project is often about disrupting corrupt hierarchies, and it has done so successfully many times. But times change, and so do the requirements for identifying which hierarchies are broken.

In 1942, the New York Times staff was composed entirely of goofy white dudes. It’s clear that being a goofy white dude is not commensurate with journalistic merit, and the composition of the staff changed. Today, the New York Times staff is a multi-ethnic and gender-diverse group of graduates from a small handful of elite colleges who share a political ideology and worldview. Is this a corrupt hierarchy of journalism or a meritorious one? This is a much harder question to answer.

Instead of dealing with hard questions, it’s easier to reuse the tricks that worked in the past like saying that any majority-male hierarchy is nefarious and privileged. The APA was quick to point out that 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs are men. So are 80% of Google engineers and 80% of top-grossing actors. Also 99% of HVAC mechanics, but only 2% of dental hygienists. Are those examples of privilege or of competence?

The answers to all of the above are “almost certainly both, it’s complicated”. But this answer doesn’t help you climb the hierarchy of progressive politics. To maintain that those are all examples of pure male privilege, one has to completely deny the role of competence. As people on the left compete to demonstrate their commitment to dismantling privilege, the entire concept of competence gets wholly ignored and the pursuit of it is seen as pathological. I think that this impulse is at the root of the “war on competence”.

(The opposite happens to conservatives, who call every blatant example of privilege a meritocracy. Consider the belief that multimillion-heir Donald Trump is a self-made man.)

The traditionally masculine [1] traits are those required to climb hierarchies of competence: competitiveness, physical and emotional resilience, adventurous risk-taking, perseverance, the drive to achieve and overcome. Like all traits, they become vices when pushed too far. The most competitive basketball player of all time was a notorious jerk. People “kill themselves” in demanding careers or literally kill themselves running triathlons while ignoring signs of pain and danger. Entrepreneurs bet big on themselves and lose, or sacrifice what they can’t afford to in order to win.

But ascending hierarchies of competence is vital even for the 99% of us who will not become elite athletes, CEOs, or superstars. Improving at a valuable skill is meaningful, and rising through the ranks provides validation of that meaning. It brings self-confidence and fulfillment. It demonstrates your worth to others and to yourself. When developed well, the masculine traits are virtues independent of any competition. They enable people to simply livebetter in the world, enjoying success as a well-deserved reward rather than a fleeting stroke of luck, and seeing setbacks as challenges rather than tragedies.

How do young people learn to develop masculine traits into masculine virtues? Schools and media are two of the institutions that are tasked with teaching young people, but those two institutions are among the most deeply entrenched in the progressive ideology that rejects competence and sees masculine traits as negative. You can turn to parents or friends, but not everyone has good role models around them. You can listen to a Jordan Peterson lecture, but he’s liable to ramble about Jesus for hours on end.

Or, you can turn on the TV and watch some sports, and then sign up for a local rec league.

There’s nothing anti-feminine about masculine virtues.

What Sports Taught Me

I hold a lot of opinions that are hugely controversial outside the rationalist community but are well subscribed within it. That self-improving AI is an existential threat, that status seeking drives most of social behavior, that you should correct for multiple hypothesis testing. I hold one opinion that is hugely controversial among rationalists and is unremarkable everywhere else: that the three hours I spent watching soccer last Saturday were time well spent.

I want to write one day about the beauty of sports as a deep and complex art form and on the link between watching professional athletes and one’s own physical development. But sports are not just entertainment, they’re a human activity built on the values of sportsmanship, and those values are worth paying attention to.

1. Protecting the game is more important than winning

There’s a big difference between fans of competing political parties and of competing NBA teams. The former see only conflict in everything they care about. But the latter have something in common: their love of basketball. For this reason, almost all fans want their team to win fairly, and not by sabotaging opponents or bribing referees. Winning an NBA game is pointless if you destroy the NBA by cheating.

Sports fans recognize that the rules of the game are paramount. Not all the rules are written, of course, and there’s room to push the boundary. But ultimately the participants in the game establish collectively what is cheating and what is fair play, and they’re quick to punish cheaters.

Contrast this with journalists cannibalizing their own industry by replacing objective reporting with clickbait and scandal. Companies like Gawker Media took pride in destroying journalism norms for page views. And for a while, Gawker “won” the competition for eyeballs and attention. Now Gawker is gone, and the entire industry is in a death spiral.

2. Opponents are not enemies

A corollary to #1: the goal of sports is to outperform your opponent, not to destroy them. Even MMA fighters (for the most part) look to outfight their opponent in the cage, not to harm or humiliate them. At the end of the match, they are colleagues again.

The opposite is true in culture war and politics. People spend all their effort sticking it to the outgroup: getting someone silenced, banished, fired, ridiculed. Whether this actually helps your own cause or the groups you claim to fight for is an afterthought. The 35-day government shutdown harmed both Republican and Democrat voters, while both Trump and the House Democrats seemed to care more about making sure the other loses than helping their constituents.

Sports fandom is a channel for tribal impulses, but largely a benign one at that. Few fans and even fewer athletes forget the humanity of the person they compete against and the respect they’re owed. Outside of sports, few seem to remember that.

3. It matters how good you are today, not what you did yesterday

Many people react to accolades and achievements by lowering their own standards. Think of an academic wasting their tenure on prestige squabbles instead of exploring bold ideas, or anyone on Twitter with a blue check next to their name.

In sports, the opposite is true. Winning a title grants you accolades, but it makes the road tougher in the future. Opponents will learn your strengths and weaknesses, fans will expect more of you. Roger Federer’s past success doesn’t earn him a pass, it just guarantees that every young opponent tries to play the game of their life against him.

An achievement can be a temptation to rest on your laurels or an opportunity to raise your game further. Our instincts push us toward the former, sports teach us the latter.

4. You will get hurt. That’s OK

In a lifetime of playing soccer, I suffered bruised shins, twisted ankles, balls to the face, balls to the balls, elbows to the ribs, and a torn calf muscle. I also learned that none of the above is a big deal, certainly nothing worth sacrificing something as enjoyable as playing soccer over. If you watch sports you see athletes get hurt and recover all the time, but you almost never hear them wish they hadn’t started in the sport in the first place.

There are many fun things we can do with our bodies. The most fun involve some risk of pain and harm: snowboarding, getting tattoos, climbing trees, having kids, lifting, BDSM, soccer, cliff jumping, punch bug. Sports provides exposure to physical risks, letting you decide which activities are worth the bruises.

It’s possible to live life bruise-free, but I’m not sure you can call that “living”.

5. You will lose a lot. That’s OK

I noticed a strange thing recently: almost all my rationalist friends who are into sports also play competitive card games like Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone, and Artifact. After much cajoling, I decided to jump in. And then it took me a while to get used to all the losing.

Most single-player video games, which are what I played before, are balanced to let the player “win” 80-90% of the time. Dark Souls aside, when a single-player game presents you with a challenge you can confidently expect to deal with it. Movies, adventure books, and single-player games often rely on the trope of “succeeding against all odds”, and yet the odds are very much stacked in the protagonist’s favor.

But in competitive games, you get pwned. A lot [2]. In fact, in games like Hearthstone, you will win exactly 45-50% of your games no matter how good you are. If you work hard at it, you will win 55% of your games for a short while before going back down to 45%, but with a higher rank number next to your name.

In sports, the odds are even tougher. Each year 32 NFL teams compete for a single trophy, which means that fans of 97% of football teams will not celebrate at the end of the year. Sometimes, a team’s season ends through no fault of its own: a bounce of the ball, a coin flip, a blown call.

But that’s how life is. Achieving anything meaningful is hard and entails a lot of failure on the way. As for NFL fans, as for everyone, it is important to take joy and pride in small achievements and marginal improvements along the way. And as for losses:

I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship.
Justice John Roberts (h/t Slarphen for the quote attribution)

6. In the end, it’s all up to you

Chance, bad calls and all the rest play an important role in deciding the outcomes of sports events, but sports fans ultimately have little patience for those who shift blame and responsibility. No one wants to litigate old grievances once the name is engraved on the trophy and a new season starts.

While sports teaches us that luck plays a role in outcomes, it also trains us to behave as if that is not the case. The team that benefitted from a lucky bounce was good enough to be in the position of a single bounce from victory, the team that lost weren’t good enough to ensure a margin for victory. Winners rarely apologize for luck, and losers are mocked if they complain about it.

Many institutions send the opposite message. They say: if you failed, it’s not your fault. It was done to you, taken from you. The system will make it right and fix the injustice, all you must do is to surrender your life to the system.

Assigning responsibility for outcomes to your own actions is called “internal locus of control” in psychology. It is associated with a need for achievement, and also with a lower incidence of depression. The latter result is from a study published by APA in 1988 before it was trying to cure men of manliness.

The lessons of sports are useful and important, but it’s not enough to read about them. Like all virtues, they require time to internalize by observing them in role models and practicing them in your own life. Sports are full of role models, both men and women, who have honed those traits to virtues. They are also full of cautionary examples of athletes who took them too far.

When one side of the culture war spectrum rejects all masculine traits and the other side uncritically glorifies them, watching Federer play a tennis match is the balanced meal that your soul needs.


[1] I am basically using “masculine traits” to mean “traits for climbing competitive hierarchies”.

This is not an arbitrary definition. Males of many species have a much higher tendency than women to measure themselves against other man and arrange themselves in a hierarchy. The root cause of this is that the reproductive prospects of females are more equal, while those of males are highly varied – men need to prove their worth in a hierarchy to get to mate.

If you don’t buy the evolutionary argument, it’s not important to the main point I’m making. Consider my use of “masculine traits” a simple shorthand for “hierarchy-climbing traits”.

[2] Artifact is particularly brutal for starting players. It’s hugely complex with barely a tutorial, the feedback loops are long which makes it harder to learn quickly, and the matchmaking will pit you against 14-year-olds from Slovakia who will drink your blood.

It does become very rewarding after you spend the time learning the game. There’s nothing quite like edging the opponent by one lane with a brilliant combination of cards and being cursed at in Slovak. You can improve via phantom drafts, or by finding me on Steam for a casual match; my username is “Putanumonit”.


31 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:31 PM
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I've never played or watched any competitive sport, and I haven't played a lot of competitive games either. I did play NetHack quite a bit though. Maybe that's a good substitute?

More seriously, these days I think of competition as more of a problem than a solution. Some of the most important x-risks (e.g., advanced AI) are x-risks mainly because of competitive dynamics. If people weren't competing for the prestige/power/money of being first to create AGI or to make advances in AI in general, we'd be able to solve AI safety problems at leisure.

It's also not clear that it's a good idea to push people to be more competitive or to try to climb hierarchies, on the current margin. I attribute my ability to recognize important problems earlier than most people in part to a distaste for competition and climbing hierarchies. I feel like both myself and the world would be worse off if I had just been someone trying to climb the standard hierarchies in academia or industry. The world seems to have plenty of people trying to compete in the traditional arenas. Don't we actually want more people to look for important problems that don't have any established competitive hierarchies built around them yet?

This is a good point. In fact, I wrote an essay for Ribbonfarm about avoiding competition where you can, such as in education, careers, and dating.

This is not a contradiction. This post is about building *traits* that let you be competitive. That's why sports is the best place to learn them: it's a very benign and rule-bound form of competition, very unlike cutthroat politics, academia, AI startups etc. Building skills that allow you to compete doesn't mean you have to seek out zero-sum contests to grind your life away at, but it does mean that you won't get scared away from a field if it becomes competitive and starts forming a hierarchy. It lets you choose where to compete.

Example: MIRI can work on AI safety at its leisure because it successfully competed for a high rank in the hierarchy of EA organizations. MIRI has to compete for donations and employees, and sportsmanship values let it do so without destroying other EA orgs along the way.

I am currently getting a Page Not Found response from Putanumonit through that link. It seems that the link includes " avoiding competition where you can" in the address, but shortening it back to winning-is-for-losers works.

I have a counter-question.

Where are we going to learn coordination from? It won't be from our community; no one has those any more. It won't be from academics or employment, both of which only serve to drive home how much working in groups really sucks and how much better it would be if we never had to do that.

The list of things which involve working on a team and are not straight misery is very short. At the moment I can come up with nothing that isn't competitive.

This is bothering me. I'm going to have to give it a full five minutes somewhere over the weekend.

The list of things which involve working on a team and are not straight misery is very short. At the moment I can come up with nothing that isn't competitive.

Marriage and a family, if you do it right. Spouses have very aligned incentives, along with the added bonus of sexual attraction and outside expectations of working together. It's tragic when couples turn marriage from cooperation to competition, but it's not at all inevitable.

I agree that marriage and a family are great cooperative endeavors, but I am deeply skeptical it is a good idea to learn coordination after getting married. My marriage is great, and my wife and I both put down the lion's share of the difference between our experience and that of others to being specific about coordinating and being on the same team about everything. It really helps to have these concepts ready to work with before jumping in.

I would be interested to hear more about this. Can you perhaps describe the most important concepts/skills for cooperation/coordination in a post, as well as the benefits that come from having learned them? E.g., what does a family that has mastered them look like, compared to one that hasn't? I understand that reading about the concepts/skills isn't a substitute for having some place to practice them but it would be better than nothing?

Yes, I can do that. I estimate ~1 week or so; could I send you a draft then to see if I'm going in a useful direction?

+1 to being interested in reading this :)

Where are we going to learn coordination from?

This is an interesting question. It makes me wonder if I missed something important by not playing a team sport or something of that nature, but at the same time I'm somewhat skeptical that the coordination skills you learn from those places would transfer to more productive activities. Do you have anything further to say about this, or want to suggest some articles or blog posts on the topic?

I’m going to have to give it a full five minutes somewhere over the weekend.

Did you come up with anything?

Disclaimer: did not do 5 minutes by the clock. Did do 10-15 minutes of discussion and intermittent thinking since.


  • Learn how to work with other people towards a goal
  • Requires skills which can be improved
  • Short feedback loops
  • Clear outcomes
  • Minimally competitive

The best candidate I have come up with is FIRST, the robotics team. This is still a national competition, but the competition is effectively just a show and the competitive activity is tiny compared to the cooperative activity. The goal is to build a robot as a team, so it lends itself instantly to improvable skills, short feedback loops, and clear metrics. It is cooperative mostly in the division-of-labor sense - you can't expect one or two kids to be able to do all the work. It also strongly incentivizes skill transfer, because the less skilled kids want to succeed and the more skilled kids need them to succeed for the robot to work.

I first considered things that were not sports, like drama or dance. These turn out to be extremely competitive, but at the front end; you need to win the role or a position on the team before the coordination even begins.

I considered intellectual activities, like Math Olympiad or Chess, but these tend to be highly individual and so entail minimal coordination - even team events are mostly just aggregations of individual performance. They largely consist of people just being measured against one another.

There are explicitly social, group activities like Model U.N, but these are plagued by being unclear about the skills involved, have unclear outcomes and no short feedback loops. Even stuff like the Boy Scouts really only do coordination by teaching that being cooperative is a virtue.

Lastly there are clubs of various kinds, which often relax the competitive aspect but usually also abandon any specific notion of skill development or feedback; they are just people hanging out who all enjoy the same thing.

On the flip side of the coin, this is a really good point:

I'm somewhat skeptical that the coordination skills you learn from those places would transfer to more productive activities.

I noticed while thinking about this that the things I think are the most valuable about sports - apart from the exercise and the concept of the team - were either not emphasized or not articulated at all. Stuff like how to think about working with someone else and how to beat something that is thinking about beating you weren't really a factor. This makes me wonder if there is an entirely different way to present sports that would improve their transfer-ability. Sports is still about hierarchy; it's only transferable value is that it shifts the perspective from hierarchy-among-individuals to hierarchy-among-groups.

There seems to be an opportunity to add value here, but it is not clear how.

I do think there exist work teams that don't suck (and/or if they are framed properly they're a lot more reasonable. When I worked at a large corporation and had to interface both with my team and with HR in order to build an automated-HR-system, I had an initial period of being frustrated by my boss and and the HR contacts I worked with. But I enjoyed working with my coworkers, I eventually got a different boss, and I built a better relationship with the HR person which resulted in a much smoother experience.

And that seemed fine.

I learned coordination at various other jobs over time, and (admittedly less generalizable) group houses full of rationalists.

Re: “4. You will get hurt. That’s OK”:

In a lifetime of playing soccer, I suffered bruised shins, twisted ankles, balls to the face, balls to the balls, elbows to the ribs, and a torn calf muscle. I also learned that none of the above is a big deal, certainly nothing worth sacrificing something as enjoyable as playing soccer over. If you watch sports you see athletes get hurt and recover all the time, but you almost never hear them wish they hadn’t started in the sport in the first place.

There are many fun things we can do with our bodies. The most fun involve some risk of pain and harm: snowboarding, getting tattoos, climbing trees, having kids, lifting, BDSM, soccer, cliff jumping, punch bug. Sports provides exposure to physical risks, letting you decide which activities are worth the bruises.

It’s possible to live life bruise-free, but I’m not sure you can call that “living”.

Yes, this is true…

… unless the way you get hurt is by sustaining a traumatic brain injury.

Then you can look forward to such exciting consequences as are listed in the “Prognosis” and “Complications” sections of the Wikipedia page I linked (do read them in their entirety—don’t take my word for it; it’s worth being fully aware of the reality of head injuries, so that you can be properly horrified).

Note that unlike bruised shins, twisted ankles, or even broken bones, the effects of a TBI are almost invariably irreversible (and multiple TBIs have a compounding effect).

Also unlike bruised shins or broken bones, brain damage doesn’t just cause some pain, inconvenience, or even loss of physical function—it irreversibly damages (or, in more severe cases, destroys) who you are.

I’ve seen the effects of severe TBI up close and personal. If avoiding a large increase in my risk for such a fate means that I’m “not living”, then maybe “living” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

How large an increase? Well, here are some citations:

An estimated 300,000 sport-related traumatic brain injuries, predominantly concussions, occur annually in the United States. Sports are second only to motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of traumatic brain injury among people aged 15 to 24 years.

(From the Journal of Athletic Training)

Although death from a sports injury is rare, the leading cause of death from a sports-related injury is a brain injury.

Sports and recreational activities contribute to approximately 21 percent of all traumatic brain injuries among American children.

(From the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library)

According to CPSC data, there were an estimated 446,788 sports-related head injuries treated at U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2009. This number represents an increase of nearly 95,000 sports-related injuries from the prior year. … The actual incidence of head injuries may potentially be much higher for two primary reasons. In the 2009 report, the CPSC excluded estimates for product categories that yielded 1,200 injuries or less, those that had very small sample counts and those that were limited to a small geographic area of the country. Additionally, many less severe head injuries are treated at physicians' offices, immediate care centers or are self-treated.

The following 20 sports/recreational activities represent the categories contributing to the highest number of estimated head injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2009.

[full list omitted; soccer is 7th, being responsible for 24,184 cases —SA]

The top 10 sports-related head injury categories among children ages 14 and younger:

[full list omitted; soccer is 7th again, being responsible for 8,392 cases —SA]

Protection against head injuries in soccer is complicated by the fact that heading is an established part of the game, and any attempt to protect against head injuries must allow the game to be played without modification. Several head guards have been developed to reduce the risk of head injuries in soccer. One independent research study found that none of the products on the market provided substantial benefits against minor impacts, such as heading with a soccer ball.

A McGill University study found that more than 60 percent of college-level soccer players reported symptoms of concussion during a single season. Although the percentage at other levels of play may be different, these data indicate that head injuries in soccer are more frequent than most presume.

(From the American Association of Neurological Surgeons; emphasis mine)

In summary: for anyone who values their personal survival, and the retention of their mental faculties (which, I think, describes most people on Less Wrong), participating in sports—especially sports like soccer—is an exceptionally bad idea.

I wanted to get a better sense of the risk, so here is some arithmetic.

Putting together one of the quotes above:

An estimated 300,000 sport-related traumatic brain injuries, predominantly concussions, occur annually in the United States.

And this bit from the recommended Prognosis section:

Most TBIs are mild and do not cause permanent or long-term disability; however, all severity levels of TBI have the potential to cause significant, long-lasting disability. Permanent disability is thought to occur in 10% of mild injuries, 66% of moderate injuries, and 100% of severe injuries.

And this bit from the Epidemiology section:

a US study found that moderate and severe injuries each account for 10% of TBIs, with the rest mild.

We get that there are 300k sport-related TBI's per year in the US, and of those, 240k are mild, 30k are moderate, and 30k are severe. Those severity levels together result in 24k + 20k + 30k ~= 75k cases of permanent disability per year.

To put that in perspective, we can compare to another common activity that has potential to cause harm:

In 2010, there were an estimated 5,419,000 crashes, 30,296 of with fatalities, killing 32,999, and injuring 2,239,000.

If we say that a fatality and a permanent disability due to brain injury are the same order of magnitude of badness, this suggests that sports and traveling by car expose the average (as in mean, not median) American to roughly the same level of risk.

Would be interesting to dig deeper to see how much time Americans spend in cars vs playing sports on average (and then you'd also want to look at the benefits you get from each), but I'll stop here for now.

While I agree with this, the consequences of a largely sedentary lifestyle on cognitive performance are also pretty significant, and human motivation is fickle. I am not sure how the calculus turns out, but if you find that the only thing that makes you exercise is playing soccer, then I would probably recommend that you keep playing soccer (while also trying to minimize your use of heading in your soccer strategy).

The scenario you describe is not, of course, literally impossible. However, it seems to me that the number of people for whom the only feasible choices are either “play soccer” or “be a couch potato” must be so small that even considering this point as a meaningful concern is epistemically unwise. (There are, after all, so many ways in which to avoid a “largely sedentary lifestyle”, starting with “get up, go outside, and walk around the block a few times” and going all the way to “play other team sports, selected specially for their unusually low incidence of head injuries”, with many stops along the way at places like “go swimming”, “go hiking”, “go to a gym”, “purchase and use basic exercise equipment”, etc., etc., etc.)

I think the situation where you are currently playing soccer, because it's a common sport, and if you would stop doing that you would revert to a sedentary lifestyle, isn't that rare. I've multiple times had the experience that most of my exercise was coming from some kind of hobby, or a constraint of my work-environment (such as being able to walk to work), and that I've reverted to being almost fully sedentary when that hobby or constraint went away, despite attempts at doing plain-exercise or picking up different hobbies.

I do agree, that on the macro-scale, over the course of multiple years, one should be able to find a stable source of exercise that doesn't come with potential head injuries. My comment was more directed at avoiding negative short-term changes in people's lifestyles.

My comment was more directed at avoiding negative short-term changes in people’s lifestyles.

Agreed, this is good advice.

It is lazy and irresponsible for them not to provide those injuries on a per-capita basis. From the American Association of Neurological Surgeons paper:

  • Football: 21,878 <----- played almost exclusively by boys, extensive protection
  • Soccer: 8,392 <----- played by both genders, no head protection

Weirdly, combatives like wrestling and full-contact martial arts come off very good in this analysis; there are comparatively few damaging headstrikes, largely because they are so debilitating. Despite its lack of emphasis - because the raw numbers are so low - avoid boxing.

Do the responsible thing: train in MMA.

By “per capita” do you mean “what percentage of people who engage in each activity sustain head injuries”? If so, yes, I agree that this would be useful to know.

I’m somewhat confused by your notes about the gender distribution of sports. Could you elaborate on that?

I was not specific there, but the point is that the population of soccer players and potential soccer players is much higher because nearly all kids play. By contrast, football is usually only available to boys, and overwhelmingly lopsided even if girls teams are available. Soccer is also much cheaper, owing to the lack of equipment costs, so we should expect it to be available virtually everywhere.

Fundamentally my expectation is that soccer only appears as a risk because so many people do it. It would be the same category of bad idea as living someplace with stairs.

I see. This seems like a fairly poor approach to estimation, though. It doesn’t actually matter how many potential soccer (or football) players there are, when it comes to calculating risk, except insofar as it helps us estimate how many actual soccer (or football) players there are. But we can just get those numbers directly:


Number of people who play soccer at some level in the U.S. — second only to China. (Source: FIFA World Football Big Count)


Youth players officially registered with U.S. Soccer programs in 2014 — up by 89 percent since 1990, the first year the U.S. qualified for the World Cup final round since 1950.


The largest category of soccer in the United States in terms of participation is boys' and girls' youth soccer. Soccer is one of the most played sports by children in the United States. In 2012, soccer was the #4 most played team sport by high school boys, and soccer overtook softball to become the #3 most played team sport by high school girls.[117] As of 2006, the U.S. was the #1 country in the world for participation in youth soccer, with 3.9 million American youths (2.3 million boys and 1.6 million girls) registered with U.S. Soccer.[118] Among girls, the U.S. has more registered players than all other countries combined.[119] The number of high school soccer players more than doubled from 1990 to 2010, giving soccer the fastest growth rate among all major U.S. sports.[120]

(From Wikipedia)

Even leaving aside the 1,531 girls who played high school football in the 2012-2013 school year, the 1,086,627 high school boys who played football exceeded the number of boys and girls combined who participated in any other sport.

Here are the Top Ten high school sports by the number of students who participated in them in the 2012-2013 school year:

  1. Football, 1,088,158 (1,086,627 boys; 1,531 girls)

  1. Soccer, 782,514 (410,982 boys; 371,532 girls)

In 2012-2013, a record 7,713,577 students participated in a high school sports, up from 7,692,520 in 2011-2012.


A total of 1.23 million youth ages 6-12 played tackle football in 2015, up from 1.216 million the year before, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which commissions an annual survey of participation rates in United States households across a range of sports.

A record 4.3 million children were born in the U.S. in 2007 -- they are now around age 8, when communities begin to offer tackle football. As a share of the age 6-12 population, the total participation rate remained the same as the past year, 4.2 percent.

Across the board, in the 6-12 and 13-17 age groups, participation in football on a regular and casual basis is down since 2009, before the risks of youth playing the game began to grow, partly due to research findings and a number of former NFL players saying they would keep their kids from football or delay their entry into tackle until adolescence.

In 2009, 3.96 million youth ages 6-17 played tackle football. Last year, that number fell to 3.21 million, down from 3.25 million in 2014.


The numbers aren’t clear-cut, but from what I can see, your prediction does not seem to be borne out.

Oops! It appears you are right.

Putting the numbers into a more common format for comparing risks via back of the envelope, this means football players get head injuries of about 20 per 1000, and soccer players about 10 per 1000, making a season of football only twice as dangerous. That is surprising to me.

Moving that one to the bottom of the list for my daughter, I suppose.

According to Statista, 10-11% of Americans below the age of 50 have played soccer in the last 12 months. Wikipedia puts that number at 24 million and rising in 2006. There are 4 million players registered with official US Soccer Association, but I play every week and have no idea what that is.

So there are somewhere between 5 million and 30 million people who play soccer *regularly* in the US, and 25,000 were admitted to a hospital for head injuries for a rate of 1/200-1/1200.

I play every week but I don't go flying into the sort of aerial tackles that end up with two players banging heads, as well as being cautious about my cranium in general. If my chance of head injury given this is 1/1000 each year, playing soccer is still worth it.

You don't need to estimate this.

A McGill University study found that more than 60 percent of college-level soccer players reported symptoms of concussion during a single season. Although the percentage at other levels of play may be different, these data indicate that head injuries in soccer are more frequent than most presume.

A 60% chance of concussion is more than enough for me to stay far away.

Here is a series of comments by gwern with many citations of research into head trauma and brain injury.

This comment in particular cites a paper called…

“Long-Term Outcomes Associated with Traumatic Brain Injury in Childhood and Adolescence: A Nationwide Swedish Cohort Study of a Wide Range of Medical and Social Outcomes”, Sariaslan et al 2016, is a population registry study which reports within-family correlations adjust for education about various negative outcomes with 1 or more diagnosed TBIs …

TBI is common enough that the effects are large on a population-wide basis:

We found that the crude population contributions of TBI explained approximately...2%–6% of the population differences in the outcomes. The strongest population attributable risks were found for the severe outcomes, including psychiatric inpatient hospitalisation (PAF = 5.5%; 4.9%–6.1%), premature mortality (PAF = 4.7%; 2.9%–6.5%), and disability pension (PAF = 4.6%; 3.8%–5.3%).

The comment goes on to list statistics on various long-term effects of TBIs—worth reading, IMO.

I do not know the Gillette ad, but your posting's title caught my attention and so I read the first section ("Boys Will Be Boys"). I stopped reading there because it gets confusing.

1. You seem to find categories like "traditional male" quite important. But then you seem to reserve the word "traditional male" for things that you like. But equating "traditional" with "of the things that have, for at least some decades, been seen as characteristics of what men should do, those that we still like today and don't find toxic" kind of needs a redefition of the word "traditional". This seems to me a bit like a true-scotsman definition.

2. You list some "traits and behaviors" that you consider "remarkably traditional male traits and behaviors". But:

a) Not all are only "present and praised among men". So why should I call them male? Is accountability "male"? Why should be more "male" than "female"?

b) Nor are they the only "traditional male traits and behaviors". (see above)

c) Nor can all men comply with this list. If you have no superior strength, then you cannot "Using your superior strength to break up fights between smaller males." It will be hard to "demonstratively protect women from other men", or from anybody.

d) Fatherhood without any qualifiers sure is "behavior" if it only means "men having children". It is by definition only "male", but you can just replace it by writing "parenthood" and then it's not even gender-specific: The praiseworthy behavior then would be praiseworthy for both men and women. (See a) above) Similarly, you can just rephrase "Using your superior strength to break up fights between smaller males." into "Using your superior strength to break up fights", and rephrase "demonstratively protect women from other men" to "demonstratively protect weak people". (This is more a superhero trait than a male trait, and even if it has been traditionally been identified with being men, I don't know why to defend this identification.)

f) "Teaching all of the above to your son." is also unnecessarily narrowly defined. If we rephrase the terms as I did, I can also teach it to my daughter.

3. Summarizing, I see why your selective categorization is useful if you like to promote the concept of masculinity (and I can imagine that this is also useful for a company that needs customer loyalty of a target group, and collective identity helps in getting there). But if we want to use words like "traditional" with their... traditional meaning, then I don't find your categorization particularly convincing. On the other hand, if this helps people to behave better because they identify as "traditional males" and search for lists of traits and behaviors for that, that's ok.

4. Nonetheless, in the last paragraph in that section you talk about an "APA’s attack on traditional manhood", referring to your other list:

Here is a list of things APA considers “harmful”, under the umbrella term of “traditional masculinity”:
Adventure and risk.
Providing for loved ones (if you’re a black man).

That made me curious, so I googled to find the document ( where the APA does that. I searched for "stoicism". It appears in the following contexts:

"Psychologists strive to use a variety of methods to promote the development of male-to-male relationships. Toward addressing this goal, psychologists recognize and challenge socialization pressures on boys and men to be hypercompetitive and hyper aggressive with one another to help boys and men develop healthy same-sex friendships. Interactive all-male groups, (Levant, 1996; Mortola, Hiton, & Grant, 2007), self-help books (Garfield, 2015 Smiler, 2016), and educational videos (Hurt & Gordon, 2007; Katz & Earp, 2013) may be helpful or utilized. Psychologists also strive to create psychoeducational classes and workshops designed to promote gender empathy, respectful behavior, and communication skills that enhance cross-sex friendships, and to raise awareness about, and solutions for, problematic behaviors such as sexual harassment that deter cross-sex friendships (Wilson, 2006). Psychologists can discuss with boys and men the messages they have received about withholding affection from other males to help them understand how components of traditional masculinity such as emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance, and competitiveness might deter them from forming close relationships with male peers (Brooks, 1998; Smiler, 2016). In that vein, psychologists strive to develop in boys and men a greater understanding of the diverse and healthy ways that they can demonstrate their masculinities in relationships." (p. 11)


"Psychologists also strive to reduce mental health stigma for men by acknowledging and challenging socialized messages related to men’s mental health stigma (e.g., male stoicism, self-reliance)." (p. 18)

So in both contexts, that does not say whether stoicism is good or bad in itself. It says there may be problems caused by it (in particular, in the context of people who have mental-health problems). First, stoicism may be a problem when men would like to form "close relationships with male peers", and it may increase the perceived stigma of mental-health problems, and both things may need to be addressed.

Competitiveness? See the p.-11 paragraph above. "Hypercompetitive" behavior is seen as a potential cause of problems, "and competitiveness might deter them from forming close relationships with male peers", and neither statement implies that you should drop all competitiveness (and not even that competitiveness should not be seen as a positive value in general). The word also appears on page 13:

"Psychologists can promote strengths of father involvement. For instance, active play and physical exercise with their children have been linked to higher levels of father involvement and better child health (Berg, 2010; Fletcher, Morgan, May, Lubans, & St. George, 2011; Garfield & Isacco, 2012). According to Bogels and Phares (2008), active play between fathers and children has a functional element correlated with several positive child outcomes, such as competitiveness without aggression, cooperation that buffers anxiety, healthy experimentation, social competence, peer acceptance and popularity, and a sense of autonomy."

To me this sounds a lot like the behavior that your own lists imply.

So up to here it seems a bit like the APA describes problems that may be caused by some parts of what is traditionally part of the umbrella term "masculinity", and then you say: "Naming such traits and kinds of behavior is bad, because I like the term 'masculinity' and want to fill it with my own values." (But that would imply the opposite meaning of the word "traditional" compared to parts of the definition in ). So if you state there is an "attack on traditional manhood", which meaning of the word "traditional" you use here, and where I can see this attack. (But maybe you are referring to a different document by the APA?)

It gives consumers what they'll pay for, not what they want.

What is "it"?

Woke capitalism is silly but it gives Gillette customers what they want, which all you can expect of a corporation.