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What Really Happens When Men Compete for Women

Do dominant males always come out on top?

It's no secret that the mating market can be brutal — any evening at a singles bar can tell you that.

For this, we can thank in part our evolutionary history, which exalted the role of dominance in the mating dance. Technically speaking, dominance pertains to a person's relative access to resources and mates, which is proportionate to the negative costs (the damage) he can inflict on another individual. Often, this can be reduced to physical aggression — mano-a-mano combat.

But how has this dynamic played out in everyday life? A study by Daniel Bambacorta and Timothy Ketelaar of New Mexico State University set out to investigate this question. They postulated that across human evolution, “dominant males” used physical aggression to thwart “subordinate males” from mating. They point to a variety of evidence suggesting that, indeed, dominance was a key factor in human social relations over the course of our evolution, ranging from skeletal remains suggesting interpersonal violence, to women's attraction to dominant men for their presumed superior gene quality.

This is all fine and good for prehistoric humans — but what does it mean for present-day people?

In keeping with our evolutionary past, Bambacorta and Ketelaar wondered if dominant men still manage to preclude subordinate men from mating. Specifically, they focused on an effective tactic used by dominant males to steal subordinate males' mating thunder — stopping them from engaging in creative displays that could attract mates, or punishing them for doing so. Building on this logic, the authors hypothesized that subordinate men would actually inhibit themselves from making creative displays — in the form of storytelling and jokes — if they believed they were competing against a more dominant male.

Bambacorta and Ketelaar recruited single, heterosexual undergraduate males for their study. The procedure began with participants arriving alone in the laboratory, where they were told that they would be videotaped while being interviewed by an attractive woman who would also be interviewing another male participant — and then choose one or the other for a date. This, however, was a cover story. In reality, there was no attractive female — rather, the men were presented with a photograph of one. (The interviews were conducted via instant messenger and the participants responded aloud to a video camera.) There was no male competitor, either — just a photograph.

This ruse was devised to assign participants to one of two experimental conditions: strong competitor or weak competitor. The participants in the strong competitor condition were shown a photograph of a shirtless male whose picture had been rated in the top 10 percent in strength, while participants in the weak competitor condition were shown a photograph of a shirtless male whose picture had been rated in the bottom 10 percent in strength. (Both images were assessed from a sizable sample of pictures of undergraduates.) The participants were informed that following their interview, a picture of them would be taken (preferably shirtless), after which their competitor's interview would commence.

So from the perspective of the participants, the sequence of events unfolded in the following steps:

  1. A picture of the competitor is taken.
  2. This picture is shown to the participant.
  3. The participant's interview takes place.
  4. A picture of the participant is taken.
  5. This picture is shown to the competitor.
  6. The competitor's interview with the attractive female takes place. (In actuality, the study ended after the third step, the participant's interview.)

The men also took part in three more research procedures:

  1. A question-and-answer session during which they were interviewed by the "attractive woman" about their lives in general.
  2. A storytelling exercise, in which they were instructed by the attractive woman to “tell me a story about your life that you think is interesting.”
  3. A joke-telling exercise, in which they were asked by the "attractive woman" to “tell me a joke that you think is funny.”
  4. Finally, the men provided information about their sexual preferences and relationship status.

As participants spoke their answers aloud to a video camera, they were deceived once again—they were told that the camera was on a live feed to both the female and their competitor, though in reality, it was just videotaping the participant.

A team of nine female coders later rated the videotapes of each participant. For the storytelling exercise, coders tracked whether or not each participant produced a story, and if so, how interesting and elaborate it was. For the joke-telling exercise, the coders tracked whether or not each participant produced a joke, and if so, how funny and elaborate it was.

What did the investigators find?

As expected, the men in the strong competitor condition told significantly fewer jokes than the men in the weak competitor condition—42 percent vs. 60 percent. In addition, men in the strong competitor condition told significantly fewer stories than men in the weak competitor condition, 79 percent vs. 92 percent, respectively.

In other words, the men tended to inhibit themselves when they perceived themselves as potentially competing with a physically stronger rival.

What can we learn from this study? Men, it may be worth noting that you don't have to subdue yourself in the presence of a physically formidable competitor. Women, it may be to your benefit to give men more of a chance if they don't "impress” you at first. This study suggests that context is key — and it may take a few rounds until a man can dazzle you with his creative prowess.

Connect with Dr. Mehta on her website, follow her on Twitter and Pinterest, and don't miss her book, Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

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