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Women Like Men With Big Medals

If survival is good, why do men volunteer to get shot at in wars?, public domain
Source:, public domain

When I was a kid, I wrote a story about “Gregorio,” a heroic gladiator on his way to the arena to battle a ferocious lion. My teacher loved it for some reason—probably because the hero’s name sounded very similar to the seven-year-old author’s—so my Mom loved it, too. As a matter of fact, it’s probably in a box somewhere in her attic. I thought I was so smart for a while.

It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me that if that imaginary battle had really happened, it probably wouldn’t have gone too well. Small boy. Big lion. Did I mention the lion was in a snarling, hungered frenzy in my story? Nope, not well at all. So much for me being smart.


This leads to a question that’s important for understanding evolutionary theory. If our basic drive is to survive and reproduce, as evolution suggests, why do men, who have been the primary war fighters throughout human history, volunteer to subject themselves to the life-threatening dangers of war? According to the Washington Post, 6,676 US male soldiers (and 160 US female soldiers) have died in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with around 1 million wounded. Put otherwise, fighting in a war is a high-risk endeavor.

Why would men do this? A psychologist and fellow Psychology Today blogger has an answer. Mark van Vugt and his colleagues Hannes Rusch and Joost Leunissen argue that men signal their reproductive qualities to women through heroism in combat. Women want to mate with men who will give their children high-quality genes that will make it more likely that their children will survive and reproduce. And men can signal qualities of physical strength, courage, and leadership by heroism in battle.


To test this “Male Warrior Hypothesis,” Rusch, Leunissen, and van Vugt conducted three studies. In the first, they looked at Medal of Honor winners from World War II. The Medal of Honor “is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States.” There is no doubt that these men are true heroes. And the researchers found that World War II Medal of Honor recipients sired more children than other US soldiers who also fought in WWII.

So far, so good: War heroism means more sexual reproduction.

Sgt. Dakota Meyer, Instagram @dakotameyer0317
Bristol Palin, daughter of former VP candidate Sarah Palin, announced her engagement to Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Dakota Meyer in March 2015.
Source: Sgt. Dakota Meyer, Instagram @dakotameyer0317

In the second study, they showed in a lab experiment that a sample of female students from the United Kingdom found male soldiers described as having received a medal for bravery in the Iraq War to be more attractive and more desirable as a date than male soldiers described as having fought in the Iraq War with no medal for bravery and male soldiers described as never having fought in the Iraq War. By the way, they also tested the desirability of males who had performed exceptionally in sports and business and found no increase in attractiveness and desirability.

Still makes sense: War heroes are more attractive as mates than typical soldiers, and the effect is specific to war, which, unlike sports and business, is related to survival.

In the final study, they asked female students from a Dutch university in another lab experiment to rate a male soldier based on five questions: how generally attractive he is, how desirable he is, how sexually attractive he is, how desirable as a date he is, and how desirable as a romantic partner he is. The soldier was described as either having returned from a war zone or a natural disaster and either having been given an award for his actions or not while in the war zone or at the scene of the natural disaster. They found that the male war heroes were rated more desirable and attractive as mates by the female subjects, but the male natural disaster heroes were not.

Interestingly, they also asked male students to rate a female soldier based on the same criteria and under the same condition of either war or natural disaster. And they found that heroism did not increase the attractiveness of the female soldier to the male subjects.

Yep, their hypothesis seems right: War heroism only works to attract mates for males.


So between the three studies, these researchers found a lot of support for the Male Warrior Hypothesis. Why do men volunteer to go to war? Male war heroes are more attractive as mates to females. They have more kids, as shown in the study of Medal of Honor winners, they are more sexually attractive, as shown in the first lab experiment, and the effect only applies to men, as shown in the second lab experiment.

Now I wonder how “Gregorio” would have done with the ladies…

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For more information: Rusch, H., Leunissen, J. M., & Van Vugt, M. (2015). Historical and experimental evidence of sexual selection for war heroism. Evolution and Human Behavior.

In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. You can find more information on Gregg at

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