Frank McAndrew, Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology at Knox College, explores why men feel the need for physical bravery more often.
Frank McAndrew is the Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology at Knox College, a blogger for Psychology Today Magazine, and an elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and several other scholarly societies. He is an evolutionary social psychologist who studies gossip, aggression, and creepiness. Consistent with his long tenure at a liberal arts college, McAndrew is also an award-winning teacher who is particularly proud of the fact that more than 110 of his former students have gone on to complete a doctoral degree in psychology or a closely related field.
Is Physically Risky Heroism a ‘Guy Thing’?
Heroism and courage can appear in many forms, and there is certainly no shortage of courageous women. However, when it comes to physically risky bravery – the kind that’s called for when there’s a terrorist on a train or a shooter in a school – we usually expect men to step up. A man who fails to display physical courage when called upon will suffer damage to his reputation in a way that a woman would not.
Taking and surviving risk signals that a man has special qualities, and this impulse has evolved because heroic action has reliably provided mating advantages for men. I am not suggesting that heroes consciously calculate all of the great stuff that will come their way if they risk their lives. In fact, interviews with real-life heroes reveal that heroic actions are usually intuitive – even impulsive – rather than a product of thoughtful deliberation.
Psychological research has confirmed that altruistic male behavior is most admired when it takes the form of risky heroism displaying courage and strength, and that men are more likely to behave generously in the presence of an attractive member of the opposite sex; the same doesn’t hold true for women.
A team of European psychologists explored the proposition that war provides an arena for men, but not for women, to impress potential mates.
They found that 464 American men who had won the Medal of Honor during World War II eventually had more children than other U.S. servicemen, and that women rated the sexual attractiveness of men who behaved heroically in war higher than that of other soldiers. Women did not find men who had behaved heroically in sports or business to be more attractive. Their studies also revealed that when female soldiers behaved heroically in war, it didn’t increase their attractiveness to men.