The Evolutionary Advantage of Being a Rock Star

New studies link peacocks and guys with guitars.

Posted Aug 06, 2015

Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock
Source: Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock

Many people have likely heard the term "peacocking" used in the context of attracting someone’s attention. The basic idea here is that the "peacock" (typically a male) will dress in colorful or eye-catching clothing in order to capture the attention of females.

As the term suggests, this behavior is based on what a peacock does naturally. The peacock uses his big, bright, beautiful tail to capture the attention (and affection) of peahens. The tail is cumbersome, though, and slows him down; his ability to outrun predators is compromised. The brilliant plumage acts like a giant neon arrow pointing at the peacock, making it hard for him to hide.                    

Although this survival-prospect-impeding ornament isn’t very functional, it serves an important purpose: It helps him attract mates, and ultimately fosters greater reproductive success. That it hasn’t been removed from the gene pool by natural selection suggests that the benefits of the tail (more offspring) outweigh the costs (makes survival more challenging).

How does this relate to rock stars—and what is it that makes them so attractive to the opposite sex? Charles Darwin had the answer pegged more than 100 years ago.

In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Darwin suggested that natural selection can occur by individuals out-producing others in a population, through an enhanced ability to secure a mate. He used the ornate peacock plumage and bird songs to exemplify this concept: Not only does the peacock enjoy greater reproductive success, his sons are likely to inherit a similar capacity for increased reproductive success.

Shake You Tail Feathers

As in humans, females of many species are limited in their capacity to produce offspring by their ability (and willingness) to shoulder the burden of substantive costs (time/energy expended in gestation, lactation etc.). Males, however, may only be limited by their ability to fertilize eggs. The obligate investment for males can be as little as a few seconds of time. Put simply, sex costs a lot more for females than it does for males.

Sexual selection in humans, as in peacocks, is predominantly at the discretion of females. Males compete with each other for female mates, and females mate only with the males they prefer. This mechanism of sexual selection is termed intersexual selection. The tail of a peacock is an example of intersexual selection, whereas conflict and physical violence between (generally) male members of a species is called intrasexual selection.

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?

A study conducted in the United States(1) found that when approached on the street by an opposite-sex stranger, the majority of male participants were willing to "go to bed" with the female confederate, but none of the female participants responded positively to the same request. These results were replicated recently with a French sample.(2) While men are eager for sexual relationships, it appears, women are wary of the costs.

It seems, though, that men can increase their chances by simply holding a guitar.

Another study(3) had male confederates approach women in the street holding a guitar, a sports bag, or nothing, and ask for their phone number. Women were far more likely to respond favorably if the guy had a guitar. Additionally, when asked to rate men as potential partners for a short-term relationship, women at peak fertility preferred creativity (including musical creativity) over wealth in prospective partners.(4) Similarly, A 2014 British study found that women have sexual preferences for composers of complex music during peak conception times, but not outside these times.(5)

Swapping the Tail for a Guitar

Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has referred to music as “auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties." Research suggests that men who can play music display specific adaptive qualities, such as excellent physical coordination and learning capacity.

Akin to a peacock ostentatiously fanning its brilliant plumage or a songbird vocalizing a pleasant harmony, a strutting male rock star generates an aesthetically and aurally pleasing performance. Rather than demonstrating his capacity for survival, he is producing something that is mentally gratifying to others, and appealing to the opposite sex.

Darwin’s words from 1871 appear to ring true.

Image by Fiona Bowie
Source: Image by Fiona Bowie

Based on article originally written by R. Anderson & M. Forbes

(1) Clark, R. D., & Hatfield, E. (1989). Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 2(1), 39-55.

(2) Guéguen, N. (2011). Effects of solicitor sex and attractiveness on receptivity to sexual offers: A field study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(5), 915-919.

(3) Guéguen, N., Meineri, S., & Fischer-Lokou, J. (2014). Men’s music ability and attractiveness to women in a real-life courtship context. Psychology of Music, 42(4), 545-549.

(4) Haselton, M. G., & Miller, G. F. (2006). Women’s fertility across the cycle increases the short-term attractiveness of creative intelligence. Human Nature, 17(1), 50-73.

(5) Charlton, B. D. (2014). Menstrual cycle phase alters women's sexual preferences for composers of more complex music. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 281(1784), 20140403.