Men Show Off in Front of (Even Virtual) Women

A team of researchers at UCLA have found more evidence that men will take risks to impress women. In a virtual environment—which let the researchers ask the men to do things that would be dangerous in real life—heterosexual males were told to make their way across an “ominous bridge over a steep valley.” Sometimes, the men were alone, while at other times, there was a virtual male or virtual female watching them. In the real world, one of the researchers oversaw the experiment.
What happened? The men crossed the bridge faster when the experiment was overseen by a female scientist than when it was observed by a male scientist. But there’s a catch: This effect was seen only when the men were also being watched by a virtual woman.
In other words, the men crossed the bridge fastest when the scientist was a woman and the observer was a woman, but slower when the scientist was a woman and the observer was a man, or when the scientist was a man and the observer was a woman.


These findings, the researchers conclude:

are therefore generally in line with previous research suggesting that male risk taking is primarily directed at females. We found no evidence that males were more risk-prone in the presence of another male (virtual or actual), or that males were more risk-prone in the presence of an observer, irrespective of sex, compared to when they were alone (Journal of Evolutionary Psychology).

Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Queensland showed that male skateboards took more risks when they were being watched by an attractive female than when they were observed by a male. (Saliva tests showed the skateboarders’ testosterone levels also went up when a woman was watching.) Psychologist Bill von Hippel, who worked on the study, explains that:

Historically, men have competed with each other for access to fertile women and the winners of those competitions are the ones who pass on their genes to future generations. Risk-taking would have been inherent in such a competitive mating strategy. Our results suggest that displays of physical risk-taking might best be understood as hormonally fueled advertisements of health and vigor aimed at potential mates, and signals of strength, fitness, and daring intended to intimidate potential rivals (University of Queensland).

In the case of the skateboarders, the greater risks led to greater success with their tricks, but also to more crashes. That got us wondering: Could pretty women be killing off men? No, von Hippel told us—and yes:

Physical risk taking is an honest signal of male quality—in the sense that you can’t fake being strong and robust by taking big risks because if you’re not really strong and robust, the risk won’t succeed and you’ll be badly hurt or killed. Because females of many species want high-quality males to contribute their genes to the production of robust children, they look for such honest signals of male quality. Thus, male risk taking might have evolved to impress women (i.e., via sexual selection), even if women claim not to be impressed by risk-taking men.

Although women might not want a risk taker as a long-term partner, women often adopt dual mating strategies, whereby they choose a good dad for their long-term partner, but then occasionally sneak off with a high-quality male when they are ovulating. … Because risk taking is a signal of quality, women are encouraging it by choosing the “bad boy” type for their affairs.

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