Your Firework Accident Is Evolution’s Fault

Each year, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) puts out a report that gives fairly close estimates about how many Americans were injured or killed using fireworks in the two weeks before and after July 4th. The stats don’t include professional pyrotechnicians injured on the job, but focus on normal, non-occupational incidents of people getting injured or killed shooting off fireworks privately.

Though it fluctuates from year to year, the total number of Americans that wind up in the emergency room during that month-long stretch is usually roughly 10,000, or about three injuries per 100,000 people. That isn’t a ton, but it still seems like a lot, given the fact that we don’t seem to learn from the mistakes of others in previous years. But that’s a soapbox for a different day.

What caught my eye about the stats wasn’t how many people this was happening to year after year, but to whom. Last year, 64% of all injuries were to males. The year before that, it was 70%. Prior to that, it was 61%, and in the two years before that, male victims made up 61 and 74% of those treated, respectively. This isn’t a badge of honor anyone wants to wear, and I can’t say I’m surprised about who’s wearing it, but these numbers do pique my curiosity. If women outnumber men in the US (even if only slightly), and shooting off fireworks is something that anyone–male or female–can do, why is it that males of all ages are consistently nearly twice as likely to end up in the emergency room as women? I needed an answer other than “BeCaUsE mEn R dUmB!!”

Perhaps the most straightforward answer to our question is that males end up in the emergency room because the act of shooting off fireworks when you don’t know what you’re doing is risky. There’s an allure to that. Males, particularly those in their teens and early 20s, are way more prone than females in the same age range to take risks (extreme sports, driving too fast, having unprotected sex, etc.) and suffer higher mortality rates because of it. I think the better question to ask is: “Why are males so drawn to risk?” I submit to you: evolution.

In 2006, institutes in the US and Germany conducted identical psych studies. The idea behind the research was to test the hypothesis that men take risks as an evolutionary default setting to attract females, and come across as worthy adversaries to rival males. The argument is that risks are less dangerous for males that can afford to take them than for those that can’t. This gives women a clear idea about who they should pick as their mates.

Take, for example, someone who bets a lot of money in a casino. You might think that anyone who throws down big bucks on something as risky as craps or blackjack is rich because someone who’s poor couldn’t afford to do so. The prospect of losing that money would be way too dangerous. On the other hand, the seemingly rich guy making big bets might be a degenerate gambler, which wouldn’t be an ideal trait for a potential mate.

The study took this into account and sub-divided risky behaviors into categories. The only category relevant to this article was ‘recreation,’ which covers the kind of Bear Grylls physical prowess that would be useful in survival situations, and potentially appealing in a mate. Examples include:

  • Dangerous sports (e.g. mountain climbing or skydiving);
  • Bungee jumping;
  • Piloting your own small plane; and
  • Chasing a tornado or hurricane by car to take dramatic photos.

Taking these as examples, the researchers asked male and female participants to rate how attractive it would be (1=very unattractive; 5= very attractive) if they were dating someone who did these things. Then they asked them to rate how attractive someone they were dating would find it if they did those things themselves.

It’s important to point out here that even if the men’s predictions were wrong, their responses alone could provide valuable insights into why they were taking risks in the first place. As it turned out, the men hit the nail right on the head.

For just about every recreation scenario, US male predictions mirrored the ratings given by women. On average, scores from this subsection were roughly 3.5 out of 5 (slightly attractive) among females assessing males. This was important for two reasons. First, it confirmed that women actually were attracted to men that took those kinds of risks–if only moderately. Second, it confirmed that men knew that women were attracted to guys that took those kinds of risks, which encouraged the males to take them, if only in moderation.

Female participants, on the other hand, recognized that recreational risk was attractive to males, but predicted an average attractiveness score that was lower than the one males did. They didn’t think they’d get as much attention from risk as males thought they would. As a result, in real life recreational risk situations–say, setting off private fireworks–males take risks in higher numbers than do females, a thing they often end up paying for.

There’s a ton of evidence that guys like to show off for girls when risk is involved. But even when potential mates aren’t around, there’s still an incentive to take risks. Let’s say there’s a July 4th cookout with fireworks present, but everyone in attendance is male and part of the same friend group. Potentially risky situations provide an excellent opportunity for men to establish an alpha, almost like a game of chicken, which pits them against one another until one emerges as the most daring. This can help males establish a hierarchy in their friend group, which they can use for reference informally later on.

On a less extreme level, guys within the friend group can also use the risk opportunity to form bonds with others that share their level of risk tolerance. When they see other people that are comfortable with the same level of risk as they are, they naturally gravitate towards them and collectively do stuff that fits the risk level that they’re comfortable with. In the case of fireworks-related injuries, males with a lower appetite for risk generally walk away unharmed, while those that are more daring typically push one another until an accident occurs.

It doesn’t seem to make much sense for us to take the kinds of risks we do year after year around this time, but that, in a nutshell, is evolution. Over thousands of years, humans have been programmed to do stuff that’s often perplexing, often never fully understanding the purpose it serves. Males throughout the animal kingdom have made a habit of taking risks when it seems unnecessary, and I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that humans are no different. My fingers are crossed that this year will be safer, but I’m not getting my hopes up. After all, boys will be boys.

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