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The Allure of Inceldom: Why incels resist ascension.
William Costello takes us on a tour of the latest incel research...
Written by William Costello.
There's a place in the world for the angry young man
With his working class ties and his radical plans
He refuses to bend, He refuses to crawl
He's always at home with his back to the wall
And he's proud of his scars and the battles he's lost
And he struggles and bleeds as he hangs on the cross
And he likes to be known as the angry young man
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand
And he's never been able to learn from mistakes
So he can't understand why his heart always breaks
— Billy Joel: Angry Young Man
Incels (involuntary celibates) are a subculture of men who forge their identity around a perceived inability to form sexual or romantic relationships. The estimated number of men in the community ranges from 40,000 to hundreds of thousands. They operate almost exclusively online, which provides an outlet for a minority to express misogynistic hostility toward society for a perceived failure to include them. Concerns about violence stemming from the incel community (59 people have been killed by incels around the world) have grown in recent years, and indeed, incels have been highlighted as an (inter)national security threat, e.g., the UK Commission for Countering Extremism notes that the movement meets their definition of hateful extremism.
Although formal examination of incel ideology is still in its infancy, we understand its basic tenets well. Incels suggest that genetic factors, evolved mate preferences, and inequitable social structures restrict their access to sexual relationships with women. Indeed, there is some evidence that incels are partially accurate about the socioeconomic factors contributing to their plight. Incel activity is sensitive to the local mating ecology, i.e., incels are more prevalent in geographic areas of:
High income-inequality (fewer high-status men for women to compete for),
Low gender pay gaps (where women do not need to settle for men out of economic necessity)
Male-biased sex ratios (fewer single women).
Incels believe that most women are attracted to a small number of men (Chads), who monopolize sexual encounters, while the "genetically inferior" incels are excluded from the gene pool. In this sense, incels differ from many existing extremist groups. Rather than striving to change society, incels are more focused on justifying what they perceive to be their hopeless existence.
However, we can make a compelling case for why society should worry about incels.
Although it is unclear how much of incel rhetoric is performatively antagonistic, online misogyny can be used to predict domestic violence. There is also evidence that internet "trolls" who are hostile online are similarly hostile offline, and they may be attracted to evolutionarily novel online worlds where they can pursue aggression-based strategies without risking real-world retaliation. Most significantly, robust evidence supports the idea of a Young Male Syndrome, i.e., the tendency for surplus populations of unpartnered young men disproportionately to harm society and themselves because of increased status-seeking and risk-taking. Furthermore, accumulating evidence supports the sexual frustration theory of violence; and research has indicated that unwanted celibacy (a subjective psychological experience characteristic of, but not exclusive to, incels) is associated with misogynistic attitudes among men.
Journalist Naama Kates, host of the popular Incel podcast and co-author on some of the few academic papers on incels, contends that the "incelosphere" can be characterized as a "fatalistic, misogynistic echo chamber in which misery and failure are celebrated." Kates also outlines media alarmism about incel violence. The mainstream media, for example, predicted a wave of incel violence corresponding to the release of Joker, but this did not happen.
Incel stories garner significant media attention, often fixating on misogyny and violence. For example, almost every media story about incels features the case of Alek Minassian. 10 of the 59 deaths attributable to incel violence can be accounted for by Alek Minassian alone, who in 2018 used a rental van to kill ten people in Toronto. Minassian's case is attractive to the media because of a Facebook post he made the night before his actions, saying that "The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger".
Elliot Rodger is the most infamous incel killer. In 2014 he killed six people and injured fourteen others—by gunshot, stabbing, and vehicle ramming—near the University of California, Isla Vista, Santa Barbara campus before killing himself. Rodger emailed his 107,000-word manifesto, My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Rodger, to 34 people, including his therapist, his parents, and other family, former teachers, and childhood friends. In his last YouTube video, "Elliot Rodger's Retribution," Rodger complained of being rejected by women and envying sexually active men and described his planned attack and the motives behind it. In the video, he says:
Tomorrow is the day of retribution, the day in which I will have my revenge against humanity, against all of you. For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty, I've been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection, and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection, and sex, and love to other men but never to me. I'm 22 years old and I'm still a virgin. I've never even kissed a girl. I've been through college for two and a half years, more than that actually, and I'm still a virgin. It has been very torturous. College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. Within those years, I've had to rot in loneliness. It's not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me. I don't know why you girls aren't attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. It's an injustice, a crime, because ... I don't know what you don't see in me. I'm the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman.
Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian are often presented as the poster boys of the incel community. However, the grandiose narcissism of Elliot Rodger may not be common among incels. Indeed, incels typically suffer from low self-esteem. Also, less frequently reported in the media is the following element of the judge's verdict on Alek Minassian's case, where he was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years:
He told lies deliberately to depict the killings as being connected to the incel movement & 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.
We also have the tragic case of Jake Davison, who, in the first alleged incel attack in the UK in 2021, used a pump action shotgun to kill five people, including his mother and a three-year-old girl, and injure two others before killing himself. This was the UK's worst instance of gun violence in over a decade, causing the government to consider designating incels as a terrorist group (a move that some experts in terrorism studies suggest would be a mistake). Again, less frequently reported is the fact that Deputy senior national coordinator for UK counterterrorism policing, Tim Jacques, concluded that Jake Davison was "not motivated by the misogynistic incel online movement, and the shooting was not terror-related and the incel ideology is not a terrorist movement."
However, one fundamental problem with the media misrepresentation of incels is that they frequently go against the guidelines of the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism, which suggest that we should incorporate a "no notoriety" protocol when reporting on incel violence. While it is odd to categorize incels as male supremacists when their identity is primarily based on emphasizing their inadequacy, this guideline is probably wise. However, in the cases of Jake Davison and Alek Minassian, the media are happy to splash YouTube videos and social media posts all over the news, potentially inspiring future spree killers.
An Incel Ascends
A recent example of media coverage that is particularly illustrative of the media's sneering analysis of incels and peculiar artifacts of incel psychology appears in a story for Rolling Stone. On Thursday, April 27th, a journalist, Miles Klee, published a piece of forensic investigative journalism into the ascension (incel lingo for forming a romantic relationship and no longer being an incel) of a particularly prominent incel.
A thread on the forum Incels.is that has since been deleted (it remains available through the Internet Archive), a moderator who goes by the username "Komesarj" announced his departure from the group. He explained that he had already taken several months off from the site to focus on self-improvement. "And I have to say, my efforts paid off," he wrote. "I made it as a 33 year old, [5'6″], ugly, bald, formerly disabled, deathnik. And with a really cute [19-year-old] girl too. We're dating now." In his original and followup statements, he attributed the relationship to exercise, diet, and the use of testosterone therapy.
"Thank you all and I wish you health and prosperity," Komesarj added. "All we can do is make the best of the shitty genes we were given. I'll stick around for a bit until I'm banned." Traditionally, the website (Incels.is) exiles anyone revealed as sexually active, but not before subjecting them to a round of verbal abuse.
Yet many of the first responses were positive, congratulating Komesarj on "ascending." Soon enough, however, other incels were pestering him for more details, accusing him of "bragging" or rubbing his success in their faces, calling him a fake incel, and speculating that he'd made the whole story up. "Tales from the psych ward," one user replied.
Debate raged as to whether Komesarj had ever genuinely been one of them. An especially baffled incel hypothesized that he could actually be dating an undercover federal agent. (The link between incel ideology and violent extremism has led to paranoia within the scene about being spied on by law enforcement.)
Meanwhile, the drama spilled over to Twitter, where Komesarj expressed "mixed feelings" about his post-incel identity. Critics labeled him a "traitor" to the movement, with Komesarj denying that incels comprise a "movement" in the first place. One person lamented, probably not in all seriousness, that this was "the equivalent of [LeBron James] retiring." Komesarj updated his Twitter bio to read "Known as the 'Lebron James' of Incels," and several of these exchanges went viral, prompting ridicule from those outside the incel world.
Direct engagement with the incel community
I often criticize academics and journalists for not directly engaging with the incel community. Direct engagement with the community is something I try to do in my research, including our latest research project: The SURIC (Swansea University Researching the Incel Community) Project. This is the first project to offer incels payment (or the option to have $20 donated to men's mental health charity Movember on their behalf) to participate in our survey. You can learn more about the project and our mission statement here.
However, a weakness of most incel research is that it focuses on secondary data analysis based on online forum interactions. Such analyses are problematic because incels often use bravado for effect by engaging in what they describe as "shitposting." This behavior aligns with self-verification theory, which suggests that some people (specifically incels) prefer and seek evaluations that confirm their negative self-views. Research has found that incels perceive that most of society hates them. As such, they may engage in "performative antagonism" to engineer criticism, which they can then use to verify their narrative that they are victimized by society.
However, Klee's journalistic approach is not exactly the good faith direct engagement with the community I had in mind. In a Twitter thread, he seems perplexed that the incel in question will not provide definitive proof of him and his newfound girlfriend, essentially asking the incel to dox himself. Alex DatePsych summed the approach up best in his tweet: Breaking: Rolling Stone journalist to check the incel girlfriend's hymen to make sure they really had sex.
Klee's writing is teeming with the ridicule typical of the mainstream media. Another recent example is the hyperbolic "nut picking" (i.e., picking the most extreme members of a group and pretending they represent the group) Channel 4 documentary The Secret World of Incels. The documentary presents an extreme caricature of incels, asking us to take seriously as representative of the community, a masked individual discussing the prospect of breaking bones in his own face with a hammer to improve his attractiveness. I was personally interviewed over the phone by the producers before the documentary. However, they only seemed interested in whether I could give them "access to some incels" rather than the stark mental health findings we have uncovered in our research. Having seen the caricature they depicted, I'm glad I didn't connect them with any individual incels who have shared their experiences in qualitative interviews with me.
This derision in the media and wider society, and some unique sex differences in the character of the disdain, is brilliantly summed up by James Bloodworth in his insightful article, "Why Incels are the Losers in the age of Tinder”:
We still judge people by how much sex they have, or not in this case. We still view men who don't have sex as failures in some way…For men, calling someone an Incel implies something positive — a certain sexual abundance — about one's own existence. For women it has begun to function as a putdown that ruthlessly dismisses unworthy suitors while simultaneously expelling them from the community of the good as misogynistic and creepy.
Rolling Stone is quick to draw allusions to incel ideology and violent extremism. However, the empirical evidence for such a link is less clear. For instance, the incel study with the largest sample size (n=274) found that most incels reported mental health problems and psychological trauma of bullying or persecution and that incel ideology was only weakly correlated with radicalization. Most incels in the study rejected violence. Another report from the International Centre for Counterterrorism on incels/MGTOW/PUA/right-wing forums used LIWC (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) software to analyze language. Regarding the percentage of posts categorized as legitimizing violence, incels were the second lowest group at 1.39%.
Rolling Stone seems less interested in the fact that more recently, some extensive primary quantitative incel studies have emerged, finding abysmal levels of mental health among incels. Using clinical measures used by the NHS (i.e., the PHQ-9 and GAD-7), our research found that 73 percent of incels were clinically diagnosable as severely or moderately depressed, and 67 percent were severely or moderately anxious. Indeed, many incels openly discuss suicidal plans online, and a 2019 incels.co survey indicated that 67.5 percent had considered suicide. Other research highlights how only one-third of incels.co users indicated that they had any friends. Our research also found high levels of loneliness among incels, suggesting that incels may be missing a critical buffer in sheltering them from the adverse effects of romantic rejection.
Another component of incels' psychology that should not be overlooked is the high rates of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) within the community. About 18% of incels reported an official diagnosis, and about 44% reported experiencing symptoms of autism. That compares to a rate of only one percent in the general population. There is some troubling evidence that ASD may influence, but does not cause, individuals to commit extreme violent acts such as mass shootings. One study provides a conservative estimate of ASD in six of 75 mass shooting cases (8 percent), approximately eight times higher than the prevalence of ASD in the general population.
Incels are often referred to in the media as right-wing, alt-right, or white supremacist adjacent. Perhaps media outlets would adopt a more sympathetic tone if they knew the disproportionate number of BIPOC incels (36% in our majority US/UK sample) or that they do not appear right-wing in their political affiliation?
Finally, incels are highly likely to be NEET (not in education, employment, or training) and still live with their parents or caregivers. These factors undoubtedly affect their mating prospects when we consider the premium that women place on socioeconomic status when selecting a mate.
Coalitional Bargaining for Sexual Access?
However, the Rolling Stone piece does highlight a particularly fascinating component of incel psychology and identity, i.e., the fact that they seem to hold each other back and resent each other for "ascending." As Klee notes:
The incel (or "involuntarily celibate") community has never been a particularly supportive or amicable one. Whatever nasty remark you could level at men who spend their days seething that "stuck-up" women won't sleep with them, they've heard far worse in toxic forums where they constantly put one another down, mocking the supposed flaws that make them such unloved losers, and indulging in collective despair.
I think Klee is at least slightly correct, and a brilliant new paper that analyzes incels from an evolutionary psychology perspective is wrong. The paper outlines the evolutionary logic for the danger of Young Male Syndrome, which can be summed up in the following quote from two of the founders of evolutionary psychology, Margo Wilson and Martin Daly: "Any creature that is recognizably on track toward complete reproductive failure must somehow expend effort, often at risk of death, to try to improve its present life trajectory."
However, I disagree with the author's characterization of incels as coalitional bargaining for sexual access. Incels are indeed engaging in coalitional psychology, but they are a distinctly evolutionarily novel group of incels that pointedly do NOT bargain for sexual access. Incels do not seem to want other incels (or even themselves) to achieve romantic success. In fact, they encourage each other to "lay down and rot," accept that "it's over," and advocate taking the "black pill." The black pill is a derivative of the concept of the red pill from the movie The Matrix, which denotes a willingness to see the world as it is, as opposed to the blissful ignorance of the blue pill. The black pill describes a particularly bleak truth; the belief that sexual attraction is mainly fixed and that incels can do nothing to improve their romantic prospects.
How can we make sense of incels' resentment toward other incels for ascending and resistance to achieving romantic success? Recent research from us and others can help explain.
The Self Verification of Incel Identity Vs. An Anxiety-Inducing Mating Market
Our research found that incels have a significant tendency for victimhood (TIV). The TIV describes a persistent feeling that the self is a victim, which becomes central to one's identity. Those with a perpetual victimhood mindset tend to have an external locus of control regarding their life. Incels take an external locus of control to the extreme in perceptions of inter-sex relations, e.g., ~95 percent of incels subscribe to the black pill (the acceptance of their inceldom as a permanent and hopeless state). One dimension of the TIV is the need for recognition, i.e., a preoccupation with having one's grievances acknowledged. In line with this need for recognition, incels prefer having their self-view verified by other incels. The idea is that whether we see a cat or a lion in the mirror, we tend to prefer to surround ourselves with people who see the same thing.
Following the need to belong theory, which suggests that humans have a fundamental motivation to be a part of social groups, incels may experience many positives from the social identity of inceldom compared to participating in what they see as an anxiety-inducing mating market. Indeed, incels endorsed "being too anxious around potential partners" as one of our study's most popular reasons for being single. The retreat into the incel identity is seductive because it gives lonely men a sense of fraternity, genuine/perceived grievance, common enemies, and a rich lexicon of in-group and out-group terminology. This is preferable to what they see as participating in a ritualistically humiliating, exhausting, and expensive dating market.
Research has indeed found that incels experience pressures to avoid being labeled fake community members.
Members of online incel forums often limit other members from engaging with the mating market, even banning them from the forum if they report any semblance of romantic success. For incels, the little bit of hope is more psychologically disturbing than the black pill because it provides evidence that it often isn't over, and they perhaps could achieve romantic success. Despite the real challenges incels face on the dating market, it is objectively impossible to prove someone can't form sexual or romantic relationships, and thus the identity requires one to embrace it. Relatedly, one must be comfortable facing much rejection to be romantically successful. Incels may be high on rejection sensitivity and not consider it worthwhile. Troublingly, this incel mindset may be indicative of a wider cultural malaise. Recent data shows that ~60% of young men are not looking to form relationships.
Not All Incels, but WHICH Incels? The Dangers of identity fusion and the incel forums
A recent paper from William B. Swann (my professor here at UT Austin) and colleagues has found that once some incels begin affiliating with the group, the self-verification they receive encourages them to develop strong ties with other group members. Eventually, these feelings may develop into Identity Fusion - a visceral sense of oneness with the group, which has been found to predict extreme beliefs and behaviors, e.g., Jihadi violence and extreme attitudes in gaming. Incels display notably higher levels of identity fusion than men in other groups, which predicted endorsement of past and future violence and recent online harassment toward women.
Additionally, we found that forum-using incels reported lower levels of well-being than those who reported not using forums. Separate research has revealed that roughly three-quarters of incels reported that forums made them "feel understood," provided "a sense of belonging," or made them "feel less lonely," but a little over half reported that forums made them "feel hopeless." We also found that most incels believe participating in the forums made them have a worse opinion of women. This is unsurprising given that ~30% of incel posts can be considered misogynistic. A group often becomes collectively more radical than any of its members were when they first joined, and there is some evidence that this is the case with incels.
These findings accentuate the importance of encouraging incels to re-engage with the mating market rather than reinforcing their incel identity. Central to this could be helping incels improve their mating intelligence (including any failures in cross-sex mind reading that may exist), reduce their belief in female deceptiveness, reduce dating anxiety, make friendships more broadly, and, importantly, recognizing the distinct appeal of the incel identity.
Sneering journalism from Rolling Stone is not helping.
William Costello is a Ph.D. student of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is part of Dr. David Buss’ lab. In 2021 William graduated with distinction with an MSc in Psychology, Culture and Evolution from Brunel University London. William’s Master’s dissertation was some of the world’s first empirical research investigating the psychology of incels (involuntary celibates). The first paper from this research is published in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science, and the second paper is currently under review.
William is currently leading the world’s biggest study of incels to date. Incels can choose to get paid to participate or alternatively have their participation fee donated to men’s mental health charity Movember. Learn more about this project, including the research team’s mission statement and a link to participate in the research here.
Listen to our conversation with William here: