“I am a scientist who enjoys bird watching and canoeing.”
“Interesting!” she thinks.
Then she scrolls to the next profile; also a scientist:
“I enjoy white water kayaking, and I study alligators in the wild.”
She passes on you with your canoe, and in eager anticipation sends the kayaker an electronic “wink.”
This, according to a study by psychologist John Petraitis, is what most women will do, but why?
John Petraitis limped painfully into his office with his left foot in a black knee-high Velcro cast. His right wrist was wrapped in a matching black cast to stabilize his thumb tendon recently repaired by surgery.
“Skiing deep in the trees makes me come alive.” He says enthusiastically gazing at the gorgeous snow covered mountains surrounding his office in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alaska, at Anchorage.
That explains the snapped Achilles tendon and hand surgery. Many guys are drawn to danger. Whether aggressive skiing, motorcycle racing, or rock-climbing, why are men and boys attracted to risky activities?
Part of the answer, according to John Petraitis’ latest research, together with co-authors Claudia Lampman, Robert Boeckmann, and Evan Falconer, is supported by an experiment analyzing responses to on-line profiles in a mock electronic dating service. A lady’s choice for a first date may be swayed by factors extending back in time to when sharp stones, rather than Sharp computers, were the most advanced technology.
Petraitis was investigating the psychology of adult substance abuse when he was struck by the conspicuous differences in risk-taking behavior between the sexes. The highest rates of cigarette use, heavy alcohol use, binge drinking, and illicit substance use are seen in young people between the age of 15 and 25. Males have higher rates of all these risky activities, and males show up at emergency rooms in much higher numbers with traumatic injuries. They die at higher rates in outdoor accidents such as skiing and car accidents, and they are more often victims of homicide.
Part of the answer could be cultural. Boys are encouraged to display dominance and courage, accept dares and take risks, whereas girls tend to be socialized to be cautious, social, and to show concern for others. Girls play with dolls. Boys play with “action figures.” But the preference for risk-taking behavior in males is seen across all cultures, suggesting something more than socialization may be at work in drawing men and boys to risky pursuits.
The research team suspects that gender-specific behaviors that have been favored over eons of evolution in the battle for survival have left their imprints in our DNA and they are still guiding our mate choices today. As every biologist knows, evolution is about sex. When it comes to sex, females are the ones who make the decision about mates. Males audition.
Consider the garish male peacock with such ridiculously showy tail feathers that actually make it hard to fly and easier for predators to spot them. The male birds strut about displaying their showy tail feathers to impress the peahens in hopes of mating with them. The females, seeing the handsome bird with such a dangerously showy plumage think, “This guy must be amazingly fit to have survived with those dazzling tail feathers.” Genetic fitness, superior ability to survive in the face of dangers and handicaps, that’s what females are seeking in selecting their mates. A mate that can survive great risks must be exceptionally good at avoiding predators and acquiring food.
Many modern women will object to having their mate choices reduced to the pea-brained level of a bird, but have a look at the data. The researchers devised a list of 101 pairs of behaviors in a mock dating service in which each question paired a higher-risk option with a lower-risk choice. For example: Do you prefer a person who enjoys canoeing vs. white water kayaking? The choices included many more subtle risks, such as whether one prefers hot or mild hot sauce. The questionnaire was given to both men and women, and what the results showed is that women greatly preferred guys who engaged in the higher risk behaviors. Guys, in contrast, did not show any preference for women based on their risk-taking profile.
But here’s the really cleaver part. Half of the paired questions dealt with the sort of risks that human beings would have faced thousands of years ago, and the other half dealt with modern risks, such as driving while talking on a cell phone. Neither guys nor gals cared a whit about modern risks in selecting first dates; in fact, these modern risks were likely to be viewed as unattractive and foolish.
Females could care less about a guy who enjoys sticking forks in toasters. There was no electricity in the Stone Age. The risk-taking behaviors women prefer are the ones that deal with overcoming gravity, dealing with wild beasts, crossing water, being indifferent to nasty or dangerous foods, and engaging in human conflict. These are what the research team calls “hunter/gatherer risks,” the kind of risks our cave-man ancestors would have had to deal with. Modern risks, like playing with electricity, fooling with deadly chemicals, taking risks of identity theft, or driving without a seatbelt, did not impress the ladies one bit.
Why is risky behavior so pronounced in young males? Again, the answer is sex.
“Female fertility is a rare commodity,” Petraitis explains. Males remain fertile into old age, but not so for females. “A 20-year-old male competes with a 60-year-old male” [for attractive women]. The two age groups use different strategies to attract younger women. “Younger males are faster, stronger; they can bounce back from injury or adversity. Older males have more resources to provide for women.” So each group competes for young women in arenas in which they are more likely to win. “Young males are greater risk takers and adventurers to demonstrate their fitness,” he says.
He cites statistics on the biological facts of life to make his case. Males are fertile for 60 years, or 22,000 days. Females are only fertile half as many years, and they are only fertile 26 days/year whereas males are fertile every day. Do the math and in an entire lifetime, women are fertile only 850 days compared to 22,000 days for men. Also, women’s investment in fertility is much greater, considering the 9 months of pregnancy and years devoted to rearing a young child. Women have to be choosy.
Human behavior is complex and one important insight, such as the hunter/gatherer risk appeal identified in this new study, cannot explain everything about male risk taking. Petraitis suspects that males may also engage in risky activities to elevate status among other males. These new findings also do not explain why many women engage in risky activities, but he is devising experiments to investigate these questions.
For guys this research provides revealing insights into our male urge to risk life and limb in tests against gravity, water, fire, wild beasts, and dangerous food, but if you are thinking that taking risks is how to impress women, you are missing an important point. Male fertility is cheap. If a peacock with an outrageous tail gets eaten, well…there are plenty others. Likewise if a guy gets trampled by charging bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
Energetic and fit with a neatly trimmed greying beard, one might easily imagine Petraitis as the kind of guy who would eagerly attempt a 720 with a half-twist off the halfpipe to impress his lady (who happens to be one of the co-authors on the paper). But maybe he shouldn’t.
John M. Petraitis, Claudia B. Lampman, Robert J. Boeckmann, and Evan M. Falconer (2014)
Sex Differences in the Attractiveness of Hunter-Gatherer and Modern Risks Journal of Applied Social Psychology 44: 442-453.