Hometown U: Researchers mull why men's risk-taking lures women

Kathleen McCoy

A few weeks back, this newspaper ran a front-page photo of a young man executing an impressive back flip over a sand dune at Kincaid Park. The hearts of young women readers likely beat a bit faster at the sight, thanks to their evolutionary hunter-gatherer instincts.

That's the soon-to-be-published finding by three UAA social scientists -- John Petraitis, Claudia Lampman and Robert Boeckmann, with help from an undergraduate researcher, Evan Falconer. They ask why young males so predictably engage in risky behavior and why young females find it so attractive.

"My guess," speculated Petraitis in an interview, "is that that young man also drove fast into Kincaid, and drove fast back out, and was weaving in and out of traffic along the way. Young women don't do that. Older men don't do that. Typically, it's young males."

There's even a name for the behavior, Young Male Syndrome, the researchers said.

Whether or not our back flipper drove fast or biked or walked into Kincaid, we do have empirical evidence that young men drive faster, leap higher, ski faster. Some die doing it.

Males in their early 20s are three times more likely to die in auto accidents than females their age. In accidents that don't involve cars (leaping off mountains, skateboarding), they die at five times the rate of young females.

Those facts aren't new. What the researchers' work adds to the discussion is an exploration of why young males behave like this. I was surprised to learn it's driven by our primitive compulsion to procreate, both male and female. Here's how it works:

Women are fertile and capable of bearing children for roughly 30 years of their life. Because their fertility is precious and limited, they guard it carefully. Scouting for a mate, they likely seek one capable of standing by them through the vulnerabilities of pregnancy, birth and childrearing.

The fertility story for men is much different. They can procreate up to twice as long as females, roughly 66 years. That means men face lots more competition from other men. A 25-year-old male trying to win a 25-year-old female not only has to compete against males his own age but also against males in their 30s, 40s, 50s, etc.

As men age, their wooing strategies change drastically. An older man may not have the gifts of youth but he has other serious advantages. He is established. He has resources: a nice car, the ability to buy expensive gifts, to arrange for exotic travel -- all the amenities that might turn a security-minded woman's head.

Young men, on the other hand, have fewer or no accumulated resources. In fact, about all they have is the ability to put themselves in harm's way, and survive, as a way of demonstrating their value as potential mates.

This behavior comes right out of the animal kingdom, the researchers write. Consider gazelles and peacocks. In the face of danger, they behave stupidly. Facing a lion, rather than fleeing or making themselves less visible, male gazelles repeatedly show off by leaping in the air. It's the animal equivalent of "neener, neener," Petraitis says.

Peacocks' showy tail feathers require lots of extra calories to grow and also make the birds slower, more obvious targets for predators. "Meat bags with handles," Petraitis calls them.

Assuming the show-off gazelles and peacocks survive, they have advertised to females their competitive "genetic fitness and superior ability ... in the face of dangers and handicaps."

Not only did the peacock manage to find the extra calories to grow its gorgeous feathers (and thus demonstrate its potential to find food for babies), but by successfully avoiding predators, both the gazelle and peacock may pass along genes that make the babies resilient too.

So behavior that looks completely stupid ends up winning the day -- or, as Petraitis puts it, "getting a second date."

Now here's a key finding contributed by their paper: Not just any risky behavior is a turn-on. It must be specific behavior directly descended from our forefathers' ability to deal with danger. That means defying gravity, wrestling wild animals, forging raging rivers, fighting fires. He-man stuff.

The research team discovered the power of these hunter-gatherer skills by asking college students to rate them against familiar modern-day risky behaviors.

Say you cheat on your taxes, drive without a seat belt, plagiarize your English term paper or stick a fork in a toaster. Is that as sexy as climbing Denali? Fighting forest fires? Rescuing kittens from a tree?

Not a chance.

The irony is that -- assuming these risk-taking males survive -- the persuasive power of their dangerous behavior may influence our human gene pool to seek even more risk.

Think of all those reasonable-minded gazelles that refused to dance in front of the lion because they didn't like the odds, says Petraitis. They may have avoided the immediate danger but as far as actually becoming fathers?

Sure, "they can always send in an application to mate," Petraitis says. Good luck with that.

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U