Men make up four-fifths of the world's skydivers and two-thirds of all rock climbers, and a new study suggests they do it for more than just the thrill.
Men may flirt with risk because they think it will help them score women.
Evolutionary psychologists have long believed that women are choosier about men than men are about women. It's not (just) because girls want to make life difficult for guys; it's because, at least historically, women have had to pick men who could provide for them and their children. This pressure forces males to work harder to prove their worth to females and out-compete other guys in the running. Social psychologists at Florida State University wondered: could risk-taking be one of the ways in which men show off their strength, ambition and confidence to potential lovers?
To find out, they asked 134 undergraduate male and female psychology students to participate in an experiment. They wanted to see whether men would take more risks if they were "in the mood" and if the men thought there were beautiful women around for them to woo.
The researchers showed students pictures of either 10 attractive or 10 unattractive faces of the opposite sex. Then they asked the subjects how sexually motivated they felt — that is, how interested they were in finding new sexual partners. One-by-one, each of the students then played a succession of 11 rigged blackjack hands; since the researchers knew what cards the participants had, and all were given the same cards, the scientists could compare how the subjects played each hand. (Asking for a "hit" indicated a risky move, since the player risked going over 21, while "staying" was considered safe.)
Finally, after the game, the researchers tested the students' memories for the faces they had seen before the game.
The men were much more likely to take blackjack risks if they were sexually motivated and had seen images of beautiful women before they played. The guys were also more likely to take risks if they saw attractive female faces and remembered them afterwards — even if they weren't looking for a new partner — perhaps because the faces made more of an impression on them and ramped up their sexual desire. The behavior of the female students, however, wasn't affected by what they felt, saw, or remembered.
"The bottom line is that risk-taking can be a tool that men use to show potential mates that they have desirable qualities such as confidence or ambition," said study co-author Michael Baker, a doctoral student in social psychology at Florida State.
Interestingly, the study found that guys who saw attractive faces but weren't sexually motivated did not take more risks than guys who saw unattractive faces. Baker speculates that guys only take risks if they stand to benefit from them, because risk-taking does come with a cost — after all, a bad skydiving or rock climbing experience could keep a guy from reproducing ever again.
"If men are not motivated to pursue a mate or there are no potential mates present, then the potential benefits of a risky display are less likely to outweigh the potential costs," Baker told LiveScience.
In other words, if a guy doesn't really want a new relationship, then his safest bet may be just to stay home and watch football.
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