A willingness to take risks enhances men’s sex appeal. This much we know from past research. What’s not clear, is whether this is because of cultural beliefs about traditional gender roles, or if it’s an evolutionary hang-over (or perhaps both). John Petraitis and his colleagues have put these two explanations to the test by drawing a distinction between risk-taking behaviours that reflect the challenges faced by our ancestors, and contemporary risks based around modern technology.
Over two-hundred undergrads (average age 22; 143 women) studied 101 pairs of behaviours – one high risk, the other lower risk – and in each case they indicated which would make a man a more attractive dating partner for a typical young woman. The task was then repeated but in relation to the attractiveness of a woman as a dating partner for a typical young man (some participants completed the questionnaires in the reverse order).
Crucially, some of the pairs of behaviours pertained to risks relevant to our hunter-gatherer ancestors – such as “rock climbing at a health club” (low risk) vs. “rock climbing in the back-country” (high risk) and “being a scientist who studies alligators in the wild” (high risk) vs. “being a scientist who studies birds in the wild” (low risk). These hunter-gatherer risks all related in some way to “situations where death, disease or injury could be found in drowning, weather extremes, falling, foods, other species, members of different clans, physical conflict with other people, and simple psychoactive substances available for more than 1000 years.”
The remaining pairs of behaviours were based around modern technology or contexts, such as “driving a car while wearing a seat-belt” (low risk) vs. “driving a car without wearing a seat belt” (high risk); or “updating virus software” (low risk) vs. “not bothering to update virus software” (high risk). The complete list of modern risky behaviours pertained either to media piracy, academic plagiarism, electricity, the internet, chemicals, mobile phones, identity theft, or modern psychoactive substances.
The young male and female participants agreed that the sex appeal of both sexes was boosted by engaging in risky behaviours relevant to our hunter gatherer ancestors. However, this attractiveness enhancement was far more pronounced for men, than for women. In contrast, men and women agreed that the sex appeal of both sexes was actually diminished by engaging in risky behaviour based on modern technology or contexts.
Petraitis and his colleagues believe their findings support an evolutionary interpretation for why men’s sex appeal is enhanced by engaging in risk-taking behaviour. Men are continuously fertile through most of their adult lives whereas women’s fertility is restricted to specific times during a limited portion of their lifespan. This creates an asymmetry, the researchers explained, whereby women are selective in their choice of partners, while men must compete with each other for a limited supply of potential mates. The new findings support the idea that one way men (especially low status young men) advertise their genetic fitness to women is by displaying their willingness to take risks, just as a peacock parades his tail. The new findings support the evolutionary interpretation by showing that only hunter-gather risks relevant to our ancestors have this attractiveness enhancing effect, at least according to the perceptions of young Americans.
The researchers acknowledged that their category of hunter-gatherer risks also happens to take in activities that today tend to be considered “cool” or otherwise positive, whereas the modern category of risks are seen mostly as stupid or otherwise negative. This is consonant with a cultural explanation of the findings, but the researchers remind us that men’s attractiveness was boosted by risk-taking more than women’s, and they said these cultural perceptions might well exist because “contemporary cultures are shaped by prior evolution.” They added: “[W]hat nature and evolution create, nurture and culture might exaggerate.”
Petraitis, J., Lampman, C., Boeckmann, R., & Falconer, E. (2014). Sex differences in the attractiveness of hunter-gatherer and modern risks Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44 (6), 442-453 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12237