Of the 50 plus shades of online anger, one fascinates me more than the rest: the anger of the Incel. Beneath the euphemistic portmanteau of “involuntary” and “celibate” lurks a sinister mass of self-loathing men. They know they are unattractive, and in online forums they blame women.
The Incels speak a specialised language. “Stacy” and “Becky” aren’t individuals, but types of women who sleep with attractive “Chads”. Incels obsess over their “beta” status and how to become “alpha”, like the Chads. And occasionally Incels talk of taking arms against their seas of troubles, ending their “#incelnightmare” in an “#incelrebellion.”
In their excited talk about rebellion and revenge, they often venerate Incels who have committed mass murder, even as the rest of the world condemns them as pathetic cowards. The young man who rampaged through Isla Vista, California in 2014, killing six people and then himself, is considered a celebrity. Likewise, since an Incel killed five people in Plymouth, UK, last August, traffic to UK-based Incel forums has increased sixfold.
A long history of Incels
Are Incels an aberration of 21st century Western culture? Do they arise because the Internet breeds misogyny and radicalises men against feminism? Or do local circumstances, in the places where they live their offline lives, prod some men toward Inceldom when they go online.
While the term “Incel” has only been around since the early ‘90s, misogyny and male anger have been around far longer. History suggests that today’s Incels are just the most recent expression of an ancient problem so widespread that psychologists have given it a name: “young male syndrome.” Young men whose circumstances furnish few prospects of finding a partner will risk their lives and futures to improve those prospects by jostling with others for status and respect.
These behaviours are more common in men because, as genetic studies show, for millions of years far more men than women died without ever having children. Your ancestors—and mine—were among those who escaped the Incel fate by outcompeting their contemporaries.
Young men, especially ones not born to status, have the least to offer a potential mate. Their vulnerability to remaining involuntarily celibate makes them especially prone to frustration and anger. They have much to gain and little to lose in risky competition for status.
How men seek to avoid the Incel fate depends on the avenues open for them to gain status and respect. Some show off with crazy stunts, dangerous driving, or fighting. Others throw themselves into sports or risky jobs. A few gravitate to crime and gangs. And, in the 21st century, some fulminate on social media.
Political leaders have long channelled men’s desperation to avoid incelibacy by enlisting them to fight. A man who survives the army emerges with more social and economic capital which improve his mating prospects. From Republican Rome to Napoleon’s conscription machine, military leaders understood the deep incentives that attract new soldiers. Today, Boko Haram and ISIS recruit foot soldiers by promising them the wives they could never otherwise afford to marry.
War and conquest tend to keep a lid on a society’s Incel problem. When young men fall in battle, the survivors find it easier to attract mates. In cold economic terms, the supply of potential brides begins to exceed the demand from potential grooms.
Other factors feed into this supply-demand scenario. When societies allow some men to marry multiple wives, each wealthy man who marries a second, third, or subsequent bride ensures a poor man won’t get a chance to marry his first. This kind of “polygynous” (from the Greek for “many women”) marriage compounds a society’s Incel problem, especially because the shortage of potential wives means families ask exorbitant bride price payments, taxing poorer young men out of the marriage market. As a result, societies that allow polygynous marriage experience more violence. Young men in those societies are also at greater risk of radicalisation and recruitment to forces like Boko Haram.
Economic inequalities affect mating markets, too. Big disparities in the distribution of wealth leave large numbers of poorer, usually younger men, with little to bring, economically, to a relationship. The alienation of poverty gets amplified by the fact that men who offer little prospect of economic mobility, or even stability, tend to become invisible to women. On top of that, increasing women’s employment and diminishing gaps between the incomes of women and men mean that more women can live an economically secure life without having to partner with a man.
Testing the market
Thinking of marriage and gender relations in such stark market terms leaves a sour taste in many mouths. It cuts across the cultural grain that romantic love is blind and ineffably magical. If you believe in that kind of magic, then you should know that it’s a special kind of magic that rarely attracts people of dramatically different status or wealth. When it does, serendipity seems inordinately fond of women pairing with men of greater status than themselves.
Despite its unpalatability, thinking in market terms leads to testable predictions. And testing predictions remains the surest way to sort ideas that may be true from those that definitely aren’t. In a paper just published in Psychological Science, Drs Khandis Blake, Daniel Russo-Batterham, and I ask whether online Incel activity reflects the real-world demographic and economic conditions that influence mating.
Khandis built a marvellous database of tweets as well as a sophisticated algorithm to infer where each tweet was posted. The result is a goldmine for behavioural research: a searchable database of six billion tweets, geolocated to cities in over 200 countries. We then extracted tweets—from the mainland USA—that use Incel-specific terms like “himtoo,” “blackpill,” and “incelrebellion.”
Turns out Incel tweets come mainly from places with high income inequality, low gender inequality, and where men outnumber women. The findings make sense because big income disparities leave poorer men with less to offer a mate, small gaps between women’s and men’s incomes mean fewer women need to marry for economic security, and relative scarcity of women means fewer men can find a mate. All of these conditions lead to more Incels.
Incels left behind
The overall picture from our results is that places where local conditions make it harder than usual for young men to establish themselves as attractive mating prospects tend also to be places where online Incel action is more common. The economic and demographic conditions that predicted Incel activity chime with some of the things Incels themselves say online: that women’s gains in education and earnings, and the presence of a minority of rich, super-attractive men have cut them adrift from the mating market.
Beware falling into the trap of thinking that some consistency between Incel claims and a correlational study like ours constitutes support for the broader Incel agenda. Our results should not be taken as an endorsement of misogynist and antifeminist Incel ideology. Societal shifts toward gender equality and a freer sexuality have achieved immense social good for women, children, and many men. Incels, and people concerned about them, would do well to recognise the value of gender equality and the deep societal burden that misogyny and violence impose, and then to find better outlets for their frustration.
Indeed, our study suggests one such outlet: the battle against rising income inequality. The evidence that large gaps between rich and poor are toxic not only to the poor, but to the vast majority of people in a society, can no longer be ignored. Incels would do well to swallow their wounded masculine pride and to work alongside social and economic justice groups to reverse inequality. Such an approach would demand considerable maturity, but it would likely win Incels some of the sympathy and understanding they crave.
Rather than dismissing Incels as pathetic and entitled, we should pay close attention to the suffering of lonely, alienated people of all genders. In my new book Artificial Intimacy, I consider not only political solutions but some technological fixes involving virtual reality, robots, and a new generation of matchmaking algorithms. I hope that Incels and the societies that house them have the maturity to try them out.