To date, little research has studied incels – involuntary celibates – which describes men who identify around their inability to form sexual or romantic relationships. A study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science provides some of the earliest data, based on primary responses from self-identified incels, reporting that this community represents an “at risk” group for mental health interventions.
“Many people wrongfully assume that culture and evolution are conflicting explanations for human behavior – the wrongful assumption that a behavior is either innate or it is learned,” explained William Costello (@CostelloWilliam), a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin.
“The incel phenomenon revolves around how our evolved psychological mate preferences are interacting with aspects of modern culture to create a mating market that leaves more and more men disenfranchised. I have presented theoretical work on how the modern mating market is returning to an ‘effective polygyny’ here, and written about it in my blog here.”
“Essentially, the same modern mating crisis that leads a lot of disenfranchised young men to withdraw from the mating market hurts heterosexual women too, as there are fewer eligible men for them to select from in the mating market. Modern women’s recent socioeconomic success means there is a culturally skewed sex ratio of highly educated and selective women to fewer and fewer economically attractive men,” Costello elaborated.
“I also thought that despite the large degree of media attention the incel topic garners, it’s actually quite an understudied and poorly understood topic. When it came to my literature review, I realized that most studies consisted of linguistic analyses of online incel rhetoric. It’s unclear how much of incel online rhetoric is performatively antagonistic, so I thought it would be good to produce some of the earliest work containing primary responses from self-identified incels as a novel contribution to the literature.”
“Additionally, there is a robust body of evidence from evolutionary psychology around the idea of ‘young male syndrome,’ the consistent cross-cultural finding that a surplus population of unpartnered young men in any given society disproportionately hurt themselves and others. So, if there are features of the modern mating market leading to increasing numbers of sexless young men, this really ought to be studied, and the specific population of men should be studied.”
“Finally, incels often misappropriate a hyperbolic interpretation of some of evolutionary psychology’s findings, so I thought it is appropriate that someone from our field takes the responsibility of trying to understand the phenomenon, rather than shying away and washing our hands of the topic.”
This study included 151 self-identified male incels, as well as 378 non-incel males of similar ages. Participants were recruited through Twitter and Facebook primarily, using social media snowball sampling. They responded to a variety of measures to assess depression, anxiety, loneliness, satisfaction with life, interpersonal victimhood, sociosexual desire, incel identification and mate preferences.
“To put the levels of well-being in this group into context, our study used the PHQ-9 and GAD-7 measures used by the NHS to clinically diagnose depression and anxiety, using these measures [we found that] 73% of incels were severely or moderately severely depressed vs. 33% of non-incels in the sample. 67% of incels [were] severely or moderately anxious vs. 38% of non-incels. Previous in-house surveys from incel forums reveal that 82% of incels had strongly considered suicide. Incels also scored significantly higher on loneliness and lower on life satisfaction. In my view, extreme inceldom looks more like suicidality than terrorism or violence,” Costello explained.
On tendency for interpersonal victimhood
“Incels also scored significantly higher on the new personality construct scale: the tendency for interpersonal victimhood (Gabay et al., 2020), which describes an ongoing feeling that the self is a victim. It consists of 4 subdimensions.
- Need for recognition: a preoccupation with wanting one’s victimhood to be acknowledged.
- Moral elitism: the belief that one’s self or one’s ingroup behave more morally than others.
- Lack of empathy: a difficulty in caring about the pain of others.
- Rumination: constantly reflecting on past victimization.
A victimhood mindset leads to an external locus of control, and people who feel they have been wronged also feel entitled to behave aggressively. In line with an external locus of control, a common belief held by incels is the idea of the blackpill, or that there is nothing incels can do to improve their mating prospects.
On ethnic and political diversity
“Many media outlets and authors describe the incel movement as far right or white supremacist. However, in our sample a smaller proportion than would be expected by chance were white considering it was a majority US and UK sample. White: 63.58% BIPOC: 36.42%. [There were] no differences in political orientation between incels and non-incels, [with] ~39% right leaning, ~45% left leaning and ~17% centrist.”
On socioeconomic status
“Roughly 50% of incels vs. 27% of non -ncels reported to still live with a parent or carer (the mean age for incels in our sample was 27). 17% were NEET (not in education, employment, or training) compared to 9% of non-incels. Given the premium women do indeed place on socioeconomic status in a mate, incels socioeconomic situation could be having deleterious effects on their mating prospects. Incels are partially accurate about the socioeconomic drivers contributing to their plight.”
With regard to study limitations, Costello said, “I think political beliefs and views could be interrogated further, ours was just one item question in one study after all. Although it’s one of the biggest samples to date, it is still just 151 [participants].”
As well, that “There are a lot of reports among incels on their forums of prevalence of autism in the community,” which the current study did not measure.
The researcher added, “One study found that even in the online forums, it is just a minority of incel accounts that produce the most extreme hate (~10%). I don’t think there’s good reason to think this is any different in other online spaces. Typically, we try to refrain from judging an entire group by the actions of an extreme minority within that community, such as, the harmful stereotype of Muslims as terrorists… but we do the exact opposite with incels. Usually, we also try to prop up or at least try to sympathize with the most disenfranchised groups in society, however we don’t do this with incels either.”
“Going further, it’s an even more extreme minority of incels that ever turn violent, and the global death count attributable to incels is ~ 60. Ten of those can be attributed to Alek Minassian who in 2017 drove his van into a crowd of people in Toronto. In almost all media reports on incels you will see Alek Minassian held up as the incel poster boy. However, what is less often reported is the judge’s verdict in the Alek Minassian case. The judge said: ‘He told lies deliberately to depict the killings as being connected to the incel movement and get more media attention… He piggybacked on the incel movement to ratchet up his own notoriety… His story to the police about the attack being an ‘incel rebellion’ was a lie.’”
Costello said, “I think the media reporting on incels is quite irresponsible at times, sensationalizing the level of threat; and also by giving a lot of notoriety to incel spree killers, this could inspire future spree killers. For example, Sky News splashed the YouTube videos of alleged incel killer Jake Davison all over the news, this is tantalizing notoriety for would be spree killers.”
The study, “Levels of Well‑Being Among Men Who Are Incel (Involuntarily Celibate)”, was authored by William Costello, Vania Rolon, Andrew G. Thomas, and David Schmitt.