A Natural History of the Modern Mind

Cognition, relationships, and evolution.

Am I Supposed to Be Impressed?

Making sense of extreme sports, bar fights, and other idiotic behavior

 “Well, Mom, in just one week he got in his first fist fight, bought a motor cycle, and went sky diving… let’s see how next week goes.” 

-KC, referring to her brother’s behavior immediately in the week following his 18th birthday.


Recently, one of us (AG) broke his clavicle after speeding down a 30 ft., 75° incline on his mountain bike, in efforts to clear a 4 ft. deep x 4 ft. wide creek bed in the presence of the other (KC), who was none too thrilled with the effort, even sans injury.

While there is no magical moment at which teenagers immediately engage in reckless abandon, we feel these anecdotes serve to illustrate the epitome of what evolutionary psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have dubbed, “Young Male Syndrome.” This is a term used to describe the propensity of males, ripened 16 to 24 years, to engage in perilous risk-taking activities, discounting safety, good judgment, and the future. During these years (and in at least one case - ahem - for years after), men feel “invincible” and adopt the “it won’t happen to me” mantra, driving their more reasonable and wiser elders to grow gray hair, wag their fingers, and taunt, “I hope you don’t learn the hard way.” 

While it’s true that the incidence of females’ risky behaviors increases as well during adolescence, the slope is steeper for males, and this substantial sex difference persists into adulthood. Moreover, the contexts in which men and women engage in dare devil antics differ. Evolutionary psychologists recognize that a slew of factors (including emotions, goals, and personality) influence the likelihood that an individual will engage in risky decision making, but recent interest has migrated toward examining the function of risky behaviors to illuminate contexts in which they might occur. 

The argument is this: Throughout human history, men have had to compete with other men over access to mates more than women have had to compete with other women. Given basic asymmetries in reproductive biology (women carry babies and men don’t), women are choosier when selecting a mate. Therefore, the number of offspring that men can produce is more variant than the number that women can produce. That is, ancestral men could lose big with the ladies and produce no offspring, or they could win big, in fitness terms, and produce many offspring with several different partners. Because males faced the possibility of being shut out of the mating game, males experienced stronger selection pressures to take risks when competing for mates. To risk it all and win results in the ultimate fitness payoff (i.e., reproductive success), and thus, as the paradox goes, risks can come with substantial costs. Therefore, it has been argued that the reason males engage in such risky, even idiotic, behaviors is because of the importance of communicating to others that they are a competitive, capable mate. The hypothesis, then, is that males’ risk-taking conduct should be situation-specific. That is, males should purposefully engage in precarious ventures primarily in social situations, especially when cues to potential mating opportunities are present, such as your fiancée standing next to the creek you are (unbeknownst to her) about to jump.

 Pretty Girls Make Graves

 Evolutionary psychologists Michael Baker and Jon Maner at  Florida State University claim that males’ risk-taking (a  potentially costly signal) is indeed sensitive to context. Last  year, they published a paper in the journal, Evolution and  Human Behavior, describing research demonstrating that  when a male is motivated to pursue romantic/sexual  interests (after viewing attractive female faces), he is more likely to ask for a “hit” on an uncertain hand (16) when playing Blackjack. This effect was not observed in female participants or in men who viewed unattractive female faces. Because of issues associated with self-reports of motivation, Baker and Maner also examined men’s memory for the faces, an indicator of heightened processing. Consistent with the self-reports, men who remembered more of the attractive female faces engaged in more risky behavior.

Perhaps it is no surprise that boys are often motivated by girls to do “dumb” things. After all, it is to the chagrin of many the weary parent who asks, “Was it over a girl?” when their adolescent ashamedly appears with a bloody nose or black eye. If we accept that what these risky behaviors are communicating is virility and social dominance, the next question is, to whom are these behaviors being communicated? As Baker and Maner point out, it may be that viewing attractive female faces triggered men to react as if there were a congregation of attractive females whom they should impress. This suggests that males’ risk-taking behavior is a signal to females. While women find virility and social dominance attractive, some are often repulsed by the risk-taking behavior in and of itself (KC was). An alternative interpretation, then, for Baker and Maner’s findings is that men’s displays of risk-taking are directed at other men: Presenting men with a slew of attractive faces may cue them that “there are women to be had” and so it’s time to compete with other cads. In other words, it may be that the availability of attractive potential mates primes a virile male to take risks, but these behaviors may actually serve to communicate to other males, “Hey, I’m not scared, don’t F with me,” establishing said male as higher up on the dominance hierarchy, which would have granted him greater access to females. Thus, males may not engage in risk-taking because females prefer risky business, per se, but because said behaviors are a means to an end…a female’s end (“Gasp! How crass!”).

 For the Birds

Baker and Maner addressed this issue further in a paper currently in press at the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In this study, participants were asked to interact with a partner who, for half of participants, was portrayed as romantically available, while for the other half was indicated to be unavailable (married or engaged). The FSU undergraduates were then asked to pump up 15 virtual balloons, gaining points for each pump, but losing points if the balloon exploded. Males who believed that their behavior was more likely to be viewed by the attractive, single female with which they had interacted reported a greater interest in seeking sexual/romantic relationships and engaged in more risky “pumping” behavior (resulting in more popped balloons) than participants in the other conditions. Baker and Maner interpret their collection of findings as indicative that men’s risk taking is context specific, motivated by sexual conquest and the presence of available female observers rather than a general orientation toward thrill-seeking. Although it was not the presence of spectators, per se, but rather the attention of an available female that influenced males’ risk-seeking, it is not clear how the presence of a male might have influenced male participants’ risky behavior (this condition was not included). So risk-taking may be a signal to females, but this study doesn’t rule out the possibility that other males aren’t also the intended audience. 

We further speculate that the degree to which females explicitly favor a male after watching him engage in risky acts varies with the riskiness of the act itself. Women want a long-term mate who can be an stable asset to herself and her children. To put it bluntly, he’s no good to her dead or dismembered and could actually become a burden if he must rely on her for care as a result of his antics, or if he puts herself or her children at risk or in distress in the process. Therefore, in these contexts, women seeking long-term mates might view this behavior as unstable, aversive, even unattractive, leading her to avoid these males, and thus rendering no gains (sexual or otherwise) for a male who engages in such activity in her presence.  The risk-taking behaviors measured in these studies (via Blackjack and balloon inflation) were relatively mild in terms of potential costs - people are unlikely to get hurt or die if they lose at Blackjack or burst a balloon (in fact, it is quite plausible that participants were consciously aware they were not engaged in gambling while playing pseudo-Blackjack on a university campus) - and so it’s difficult to draw inferences from these measures of non-injurious risk-taking in a way that generalizes to real-world behaviors.  

The Danger Zone

We do not blame the researchers for this, of course, because it would be unethical to put young men in situations where they might engage in drag-racing, ultimate fighting, or (ahem) mountain biking. But researchers have examined life-threatening risk-taking behaviors when they occur naturally, outside of the lab. In a recent study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, evolutionary anthropologists from Poland and the UK surreptitiously watched men and women cross a busy road. If you’ve been paying attention thus far, then you already know that men were more likely to cross when it was more dangerous to do so, and men were more likely to “play Frogger” in the presence of women than in the presence of other men.

Another observation comes from meteorological statistics. Men account for 84% of lightning fatalities and 82% of injuries due to lightning strikes. While men might spend slightly more time outdoors than women, this statistic suggests that, during lightning storms, women are smart enough to head inside while men risk it.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that cheerleaders are a staple of the more aggressive and life-threatening sports (e.g., football) than the less risky sports (e.g., baseball): 

"2-4-6-8 

Do women really appreciate

risk-takers?! Risk-takers! 

Goooo Risk-takers?!"

 

Kayla Causey is a doctoral candidate studying developmental psychology at Florida Atlantic University, and Aaron Goetz is an evolutionary psychologist at California State University, more...

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