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New Research on Why Women Seek Heroic Romantic Partners

A new study explores the importance of heroism in mate choice.

Key points

  • Heroism is often conceptualized as a combination of bravery and altruism.
  • Research suggests heroism matters in mate selection, particularly for women and for long-term relationships.
  • Why does heroism matter in mate selection? One potential answer is that heroic behaviors signal good genes.
Source: NatKar26/Pixabay

What is heroism? Though there are various definitions of heroism, a common way to define heroism is as a combination of bravery and altruism (i.e., selfless regard for the well-being of others).

An article published in the July issue of Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, by Bhogal and Bartlett, sheds light on the importance of heroism in the context of mate selection.

Investigating heroism in mate choice

The sample comprised 276 heterosexual individuals (175 women; average age of 26 years). A 3×2×2 mixed design was used: 3 (within-subjects factor: low/control/high heroism) × 2 (within-subjects factor: short-term relationship/long-term relationship) × 2 (between-subjects factor: men/women).

Participants were required to read various scenarios (four involving a target with low/high heroism, plus two control situations) and rate the desirability of the target for both short-term relationships and long-term relationships.

For instance, a low-heroism situation involved the following situation: At some point during an adventure (a boat cruise), a member falls overboard. In response, the target calls for help. However, despite being a great swimmer, the target does not attempt to rescue the individual himself/herself.

To compare, a high-heroism scenario involved a target who is a mountain climber risking his or her life to rescue another climber.

The control scenarios did not involve heroism (e.g., one involved a meeting at a supermarket).

Heroes as romantic partners

The results showed a significant main effect of heroism, sex, and length of the relationship (i.e., short-term vs. long-term):

  • Participants judged the targets who displayed more heroism as more desirable than both control targets and ones who displayed less heroism. In fact, even control targets were more desirable than low heroic targets.
  • Targets who displayed greater heroism were seen as more desirable for long-term relationships than for short-term relationships.
  • Compared to men, women expressed greater desire for heroic targets. Nevertheless, heroism mattered to both sexes.

Desirability of heroic romantic partners: altruism and support

It is puzzling why heroism exists at all. After all, heroism is quite nonadaptive. According to Dunbar and Kelly, “Brave, courageous and self-sacrificing individuals” should be rare, “both in evolutionary terms (sacrificing self for unrelated others is not an ideal way of promoting your own genes) and in terms of lifetime survival chances (the more risks taken, the greater the likelihood of disaster).”

However, we also need to remember the following: While it is true that heroes are risk-takers, heroes’ risk-taking is prosocial. Perhaps this explains why women are attracted to heroic men. After all, care and concern for others are important qualities in a supportive romantic partner, particularly one who might become a parent one day. A selfish man is less likely to be willing to make the sacrifices (e.g., time, money, resources) needed to raise children.

Desirability of heroic romantic partners: risk-taking and good genes

What about the value of risk-taking by itself?

Think of a person who rides a motorcycle, goes rock climbing, or makes risky investments. What attractive quality do such behaviors reveal about the risk-taker?

An explanation favored by Kelly and Dunbar is that risk-taking is an indicator of good genes. They note: “Risk-taking could be interpreted as an attempt to put good genes to the test in circumstances where cheating is easily exposed.” Cautiousness, on the other hand, may suggest a lack of capability or resources. Cautious people can not “afford” to take risks.

In their own investigation, these researchers found male bravery had the biggest impact on female choice for short-term sexual partners. For long-term partners and friends, however, altruism was more important. The reason for this might have to do with the risks of committing to a long-term relationship with a risk-prone romantic partner: If the risk-taker dies early, the female partner would be left without support. So, for long-term relationships, preference is often given to an altruistic partner.

Source: CarlosAlcazar/Pixabay

Concluding thoughts on the role of heroism in mate selection

The present research found that in mating contexts, heroism matters, particularly for women and for long-term romantic relationships. Why?

The answer to what makes heroism attractive depends on how we define heroism. Heroism does not mean pure altruism (providing help in risk-free ways). Nor is heroism mindless risk-taking—engaging in street racing, making poor financial decisions, playing dangerous sports, etc. It is a combination of the two.

But to the extent that heroism relates to altruism and prosocial tendencies, it may be attractive to those looking for a supportive romantic partner—a romantic partner who would be willing to make sacrifices needed to provide for and take care of their mate and children.

And to the extent heroism relates to risk-taking, it might signal fitness (in mating situations), thus increasing the desirability of the person as a romantic partner, at least for short-term relationships. As Bartlett and Bhogal state, “Through displaying heroic behavior, one can signal that they can bear the costs of behaving heroically, thus making them more desirable in mate choice contexts.”