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Being a Daredevil

Illustration by Tamara Jones

Being a Daredevil
Psychological study finds men and women differ in their attitudes toward risk-taking friends and mates

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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 derring-do.

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 concludes.

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," Farthing notes.

"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
September-October, 2005

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