Men with friends assume an aggressor is small and wimpy

It’s usually a good idea to back away from physical confrontation with an aggressor who is bigger and stronger than you. However, there are other factors to take into account. Perhaps you’re a ninja? Maybe you’re bigger than the nasty person, but they’re armed. You’re alone whereas they have a band of thugs with them, and so on.

According to Daniel Fessler and Colin Holbrook the central role of conflict in human history has led to us becoming expert at making these judgments. Rather than considering each factor in turn, our representation of the odds of a winning a fight is summarised efficiently in a sense of the physical dominance of our would-be opponent.

The researchers tested this idea on the streets of Santa Monica California. They approached 149 men who were either on their own or in a group of 2 to 7 friends. Each participant was taken to one side and shown a picture of a turbaned, bearded terrorist pointing a gun. The photo was cropped so the aggressor’s physical size was hidden. The participants were asked to estimate his physical size and muscularity (the terrorist and rating scales are shown above).

The key finding was that participants with one or more friends tended to estimate that the terrorist was shorter by around one and a half inches, and less muscular (having more than one friend in tow didn’t exaggerate this effect). In contrast, participants who were alone or smaller stature tended to guess that the terrorist was more physically formidable.

A problem with this first study is that there may be something different about men in groups compared with men who are on their own, and perhaps it’s this inherent difference that explains their diverging judgments about the terrorist (e.g. maybe more confident men are more likely to hang out in groups). To get around this, Fessler and Holbrook headed for a public boardwalk by the ocean and approached only men who were in a group. Half of them were tested near their buddies, the others were tested about 100 yards away behind a tent barrier. Once again, the men tested with their friends nearby tended to estimate that the terrorist was less physically formidable, as compared with men tested on their own.

“These findings indicate that the immediate presence of allies is an important factor in men’s estimations of the formidability of potential opponents,” the researchers said – a result that they suggested could be relevant for “violence prevention, policing and military science”. There are some obvious study limitations. The terrorist’s physical proportions were kept deliberately ambiguous, which means we don’t know how the presence of allies would affect the perception of an aggressor’s size if that information was more readily available. Also, would the study replicate with women?


Fessler, D., and Holbrook, C. (2013). Friends Shrink Foes: The Presence of Comrades Decreases the Envisioned Physical Formidability of an Opponent. Psychological Science, 24 (5), 797-802 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612461508

–Further reading–
Smiling fighters are more likely to lose
How our visual system is guided by gossip radar

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
Image reproduced with permission from the author and the Association for Psychological Science.

7 thoughts on “Men with friends assume an aggressor is small and wimpy”

  1. Interesting findings, but why use, as stimulus, a turbaned, bearded person who is consequently (!?) labelled terrorist ?

    I am not sure to understand the scientific rationale for using the association between turban and aggression. Fessler et Holbrook say: “because we expected the predicted effect to manifest itself most unambiguously in contexts of potential violence, we selected as a stimulus a photograph of a bearded, turbaned terrorist brandishing a gun in front of Arabic calligraphy” ?

    Does Turban –> agression really corresponds to commonly lived situation (ecological validity) ? Doesn't this experiment unnecessarily enforces implicit associations and thus racist attitudes in subjects and readers ?

  2. It says the men who were alone OR who were smaller tended to see the hypothetical enemy as bigger, but it only mentions the opposite happening for men who were with friends. Was there no threat-mitigating effect for being big and strong yourself?

  3. This is a terrific question. I'd love to see the researchers' answer to it.

    (You *would* think a picture of, say, a white man making an angry face or raising his fists would work just as well.)

  4. Well said. I'm glad I'm not the only one who found this choice of experimental stimulus somewhat disturbing.

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