Tom Simpson/Flickr
Source: Tom Simpson/Flickr

UK scientists have found that women’s fear of crime is related to their preference for bad boys.

The results of their study show that women who are attracted to dominant and physically formidable men are more fearful of crime.

Previous research suggests that women who grow up in high-crime neighborhoods find dominant men more alluring. Although a woman’s fear of crime and the actual likelihood of her being victimised are related, it is subjective fear of crime that best explains women’s attraction to beefcakes. If a woman thinks she is at risk, she will prefer a powerful man.

Psychologists have explained this phenomenon using “The Bodyguard Hypothesis”. The logic is that women who feel they are at risk of victimisation place a premium on physical dominance in a partner, because strong men may be more able to protect them from violent criminals.

But it is unclear whether women who prefer dominant men are more sensitive to cues of vulnerability to crime. It’s likely that we are all more fearful when the risk of crime is high rather than low, but are women who desire a strong man more prone to vary in the fearfulness based on circumstance?

New research has unravelled this conundrum by taking psychology out of the laboratory and onto the mean streets.

Of Leicester, England.

The researchers, led by Hannah Ryder of the University of Leicester, recruited 40 women to take part in the study. They spun a cover story to convince their volunteers that the project had nothing to do with mate preferences, claiming that it was being run in collaboration with the local police force to investigate feelings of personal safety in the city center.

First, the volunteers completed a lengthy survey, which included questions about their preference for dominant and formidable men. The relevant items were hidden among a heap of filler questions, to disguise the researchers’ hypotheses from the volunteers.

The worst walking tour of all time

Next, the volunteers were taken on a 1.7 mile stroll around Leicester city center, including safer open areas and markets as well as potential crime hotspots like glass strewn alleyways, gloomy back streets, and a derelict pub.

At each of nine key locations — some of which were relatively safe and others less so — the volunteers responded to questions about their current fear of crime.

The multidisciplinary research team — which, rather appropriately, included psychologists, a geographer, and an exercise scientist — found that women who preferred dominant men reported that the walk felt riskier. The walk inspired less fear in women who were more attracted to weedy men.

But there was no link between women’s fear of crime and where they were standing when they made the judgement: risky crime hotspot or safe zone. The researchers had expected that, if macho men are preferred because they make good bodyguards, women who are especially freaked out by standing in crime hotspots rather than safer areas of town should be more strongly attracted to dominant men. But women who were attracted to this type of man were more fearful generally, regardless of their location.

In their paper, published recently in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, the researchers say:

The findings suggest that the psychological mechanism underlying the association between perceived risk of victimisation and PPFDM [preference for physically formidable and dominant mates] is general in nature … PPFDM may not be related to actual prevailing rates of violence, but rather appears to be associated with women’s self-assessed vulnerability.

Even though these new results represent further evidence that women’s fear of crime and preference for dominant men are related, they suggest that women’s preferences are stable, and are not influenced by short-term changes in perceived vulnerability to crime.

Reference

Ryder, H., Maltby, J., Rai, L., Jones, P., & Flowe, H. D. (in press). Women’s fear of crime and preference for formidable mates: How specific are the underlying psychological mechanisms? Evolution and Human Behavior. Read summary

For an audio version of this story, see the 9 February 2016 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

You can also keep up with Rob's podcasts and blogs by downloading The Psychology of Attractiveness app.

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