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What Women Want: Neither Daredevils Nor Wimps

Contact: William Farthing, (207) 581-2053
George Manlove, (207) 581-3756

ORONO, Maine — Are women attracted to men who do physically risky things, such as whitewater kayaking or mountain climbing or skiing fast down the expert slope? From an evolutionary psychology approach, two different predictions can be made — and they seem to be mutually exclusive.    

On one hand, the “costly signaling” hypothesis suggests what women would be attracted to physical risk takers because such behavior signals a man’s desirable qualities such as physical fitness, athleticism and bravery. Such a man would likely be a good hunter and provider and protector for a woman and her children. This view leads to the prediction that women tend to be attracted to daredevils — men who do things that are very risky.

On the other hand, a man who exposes himself unnecessarily to physical risks increases the chances he will be seriously injured or killed, and thus no longer able to provide for and protect a woman and her children. This view might lead to the prediction that women will be attracted to wimps — cautious men who avoid physical risks.

Recent research by William Farthing, a psychology professor at the University of Maine, says that women are not attracted to either daredevils or wimps. Rather, women prefer men who take mild to moderate risks, but not extreme risks.

Farthing asked undergraduate women to read a variety of scenarios involving an opportunity for physical risk taking, and indicate whether they would be more attracted to a man who took the risk or to one who avoided the risk as a potential long-term mate or spouse (other things being equal). Some of the scenarios involved heroic risks, such as rescuing a child from a river, while others involved non-heroic risks, such as risky sports.  Also, some of the scenarios described highly risky acts — with a significant chance of serious injury or death — whereas others described acts that were only moderately risky.  

Farthing’s results indicated that:

1.  For non-heroic risky acts, women are more attracted to risk-takers than to risk-avoiders when a situation is only moderately risky, such as kayaking in medium rapids. But their preference was reversed — in favor of risk avoiders — when a situation is highly risky, such as severe rapids.

2.  For both medium risk and high risk acts, women’s preferences for risk takers were much greater for men who took altruistic, heroic risks than for men who took relatively arbitrary, impractical non-heroic risks.

3.  Risk takers who were described as highly skilled at the required acts, such as kayaking, or self-defense, were more strongly preferred than men only moderately skilled, for either medium- or high-level risks.  

4.  In choosing adjectives to describe the men in the scenarios, women characterized men who took high-level risks as more physically fit, athletic and brave than risk avoiders, but also as more impulsive, attention-seeking and foolish. Takers of high-level heroic risks were seen as similar to non-heroic risk takers on those dimensions, but heroic risk takers were viewed as more altruistic, conscientious and sexy than non-heroic risk takers.

Thus, Farthing concludes, women do not prefer daredevils or wimps. Most women prefer men who have the ability and bravery to engage in moderately risky acts, but also the thoughtfulness to avoid highly risky daredevil acts. Men who are highly skilled are preferred over men who are less skilled at the same risky acts, at least partly because highly skilled men are actually taking less risk than less skilled men.  

The lesson: Men rarely have a chance to do anything truly heroic, but if they get the chance, they will appeal to women because of it. Most of the time, men considering activities such as risky sports would be advised to try moderately risky activities and learn the skills to do them safely, and avoid looking foolish by attempting high-risk daredevil stunts. When it comes to impressing women with physically risky behavior, more is not better.

Farthing’s study – “Neither daredevils nor wimps: Attitudes toward physical risk takers as mates” – is in the current issue of the journal Evolutionary Psychology and is available online at: http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/ep05754777.pdf

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Farthing’s teaching interests include evolutionary psychology, motivation, cognition and general psychology. His research interests include risk-taking behavior, the decision-making processes and evolutionary approaches to thinking and behavior.

He can be reached at (207) 581-2053 or by email: g.w.farthing@umit.maine.edu.

For more information on the University of Maine, see: http://www.umaine.edu.

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