The Psychology of Aging Moguls: "Categorically Dangerous," Says Expert

Donald Trump - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Donald Trump - Getty - H 2016

A Yale biological anthropologist explains how fathering kids late in life, putting your name on a building and oversized power displays (Trump?) are all modes of "scent-marking" that come with moguls getting on in years.

People may be uniquely aware of the fact of our mortality, but we are helpless to do anything about it, says Dr. Richard Bribiescas, a biological anthropologist at Yale University. His new book How Men Age — out in September — looks at the evolution that drives male decline: the balding, belly and love handles that come with time and result in dad bod are what he calls "trade-offs."

But Bribiescas suggests that powerful older men may not mellow out in the same way.

"They remain less risk adverse," he says. "Think about it. If you're an old man, what's coming is the Grim Reaper — you know you're not going to live another 10, 15 or 20 years, so the mindset is, 'What the hell, might as well.' And if you are also empowered by a lot of resources, you are likely to take chances because you have an expectation of being OK."

Much of what powerful older men do with those resources is to hedge against their mortality by ensuring a legacy. That may involve fathering scions and tight-fisting the reins of power (see Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone), but it could also see them starting a foundation or donating a building with their name etched deep into its face. "I think of it as scent-marking," Bribiescas says. He adds that powerful older men probably experience more temptation to display their power, some of which is specific to seniority.  

Among certain hunter-gathers in South America, for example, Bribiescas saw "that the ability to hunt and to bring back meat actually peaks in your 40s," some 20 years after peak physical strength. "It suggests that as human males age, they leverage other strengths, like experience, and they turn that into wealth — which could be material, political or social wealth. In Hollywood, you may see this when males are able to secure roles well past their prime."

In Western societies, if they want to, powerful older men are also in a position to mask the effects of aging by lifestyle regimens and even plastic surgery. "In the specific culture of Hollywood, if everyone's got the houses, cars, and money, the forum of competition becomes more intense and you have to find an edge. So if you have the resources for hair plugs and liposuction to appear more youthful, perhaps you do that."

Bribiescas stresses that powerful older men are "categorically dangerous." He says, "All the worst hallmarks you would think of for an older powerful male are personified by Donald Trump: the disinterest in resolution, the oversized power displays (just one big scent-marking exercise), the silencing discourse."

He scoffs at the idea that women cannot be entrusted with red buttons. "I don't even know what to say about that! When I think of any sex that's hormonal, it's men. Specifically older men."