Being a Daredevil
Psychological study finds men and women differ in their attitudes
toward risk-taking friends and mates
What are women looking for in a potential mate? One answer may come as a
surprise to men who think women are impressed by dangerous acts of
According to a recent study conducted by University of Maine
psychologist G. William Farthing, women prefer prospective mates who
avoid extreme physical risks, and guys who show off with dangerous
stunts tend to impress only one another.
In research into attitudes about
physical risk taking, Farthing surveyed 48 men and 52 women, all UMaine
undergraduate students under the age of 30, about the attractiveness of
risk takers compared with risk avoiders as potential mates or as
same-sex friends. The students evaluated hypothetical scenarios.
In selecting a mate, most women would avoid both daredevils and wimps.
Most women prefer a male companion who is courageous but responsible, he
Both females and males do approve of "heroic" physical risk takers as
mates, with the preference being stronger for females. Heroic risk
taking would include actions like saving a child from a river or a
burning building, or stopping a bully. Non-heroic risky behavior could
include speeding in a car, challenging a rude stranger or skiing an
expert trail with intermediate skills.
Contrary to predictions, when it came to "non-heroic" physical risks by
possible mates, both men and women preferred risk avoiders rather than
risk takers. But when judging same-sex persons as friends, males
significantly preferred non-heroic risk takers, whereas females
preferred risk avoiders.
In a second study, both males and females accurately predicted the
opposite sex's preferences for heroic risk takers as mates, but young
males incorrectly believed that women would prefer men who took
non-heroic risks. In fact, women preferred prospective mates who avoided
extreme non-heroic risks, Farthing says.
The results surprised him. "I predicted that women would be attracted to
risk takers," says Farthing, an evolutionary psychologist with an
interest in the thought process underlying risky behavior. "It turned
out that the answers didn't support the hypothesis."
The results of his study, "Attitudes Toward Heroic and Non-heroic
Physical Risk Takers as Mates and as Friends," were published in the
March issue of the psychology journal Evolution and Human Behavior. It
is one of the first studies of attitudes toward risk takers that
specifically evaluates the attractiveness of people whose risk taking
could be considered more reckless than courageous.
"There have been an awful lot of people who have died on Mount Everest,"
"There also are an awful lot of people who have climbed halfway up and
turned back because of the weather. The risk just wasn't worth it."
The impetus for the study began with questions underlying the thought
process in people considering physical risks, "questions about what is
it that encourages people to take risks or not take risks, or the
different degrees of risk, like people taking an expert ski slope," he
says. "Then I made the connection between that and what people find
attractive in a mate's risk taking."
The research also has Farthing wondering what roles biological factors
and cultural conditioning play in inducing people to pursue risky
activities that could result in injury or death.
"Evolutionary psychology looks at a possible biological evolutionary
link that goes beyond cultural conditioning," he says. "The question for
both psychologists and cultural anthropologists is to determine if there
is a universal human genetic connection that's modified by culture." The
answer will require collecting data across different cultures, he says.
Through the last half-million years of human evolution, people made a
living as hunters and gathers. Taking physical risks often was necessary
for survival, Farthing says. Women could be expected to be drawn to
brave, athletic men who could bring home meat from the hunt or
successfully defend them from marauders. And it's reasonable that other
men would like such individuals beside them in hunting or in battle. The
admired hunter-warrior presumably would have greater social status among
his peers and little trouble finding a mate.
However, even today, women would choose a mate who would be a long-term
protector and provider, according to Farthing's study. "If a woman is
considering a man as a mate, she wants him to be a survivor and not
going off taking foolish risks," he says.
Using modern examples of non-heroic risk taking in sports or recreation,
Farthing allows that the degree of risk in an activity can be mitigated
by the risk taker's skill and experience. A dangerous activity for one
may not be a serious risk for another.
Farthing is further evaluating his research data to see what conclusions
might be drawn about non-heroic risk taking when dangers range from
small or moderate to very risky. Are there some conditions, for example,
under which women prefer takers of non-heroic, non-practical risks as
mates over risk avoiders? His recent research shows that women may
approve of highly skilled experts taking larger risks, or moderately
skilled mates taking moderate risks.
"Women don't want daredevils as mates, but they don't want wimps,
either," Farthing says.
by George Manlove
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.