It may be totally cool for women to wear pants, love football, and work in, say, architecture these days, but new research confirms (again) that the world has a long way to go when it comes to how we perceive gender. Or perhaps more accurately: Our cavemen libidos have a long way to go.
In a new study published in Evolution and Human Behavior, researchers set out to determine if acts of heroism in war increased a man's attractiveness to women—which could act as a motivation for men to go to war in the first place. (We’d love to see that military ad campaign.) Sure enough, battlefield heroism proved a turn-on to the ladies.
However, when male participants were presented with scenarios in which women showed acts of heroism on the battlefield, men actually found them less attractive. Apparently having a woman save your life isn't as sexy as having her, I dunno, bake you a pie.
The study worked like this: Through three separate experiments, researchers from The University of Giessen in Germany, University of Southampton in the U.K., and University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands found that women were, in fact, more attracted to war heroes than any other group of men.
First, through an archival study, the researchers found that WWII war heroes produced more offspring compared to WWII veterans in general. (Of course, this finding could be attributed to correlation, not causation.) Second, they found that modern-day women were more attracted to men who showed acts of bravery in war compared to non-heroic soldiers or non-combat soldiers. And third, they found that women were more attracted to war heroes versus men who acted heroically in other crisis situations such as natural disasters.
The researchers attribute these findings to evolution. "For women, reproduction is a huge investment (heavy toll on the body), and you need others to provide you with food and protection. Women are thus evolved to look for a mate who can provide resources and commitment to help her raise offspring. War heroes can show these signals," said Joost M. Leunissen, a psychologist at the University of Southampton and co-author on the study. Yeah, yeah.
Only the third experiment—which set out to discover attraction toward war heroes versus heroes in other crisis situations—gauged men's attraction to female heroes. For that study, 340 participants (181 men, 151 women) were recruited from a Dutch university. Participants were split into groups and given a short vignette that described different scenarios of heroism. One group was handed a story about a soldier who led a four-person team into a war zone and returned unharmed. Another group was told the soldier went into a natural disaster area and returned unharmed. The other groups learned that the soldier received a medal of honor.
There was only one catch: The men read about a female soldier, and the women read about a male soldier.
Researchers then asked the participants to answer several questions to evaluate the soldier's attractiveness. For example, "To what extent do you think [soldier’s name] is generally attractive?” or “Would you want to go on a date with [soldier’s name]?"
As predicted, the women found soldiers who displayed heroism in war zones the most attractive. Men, on the other hand, did not find the female heroes attractive—in fact, they deemed them less attractive, leading the authors to write, "Bravery in combat may not be a suitable domain for them to show their mate qualities."
What did the researchers make of this? According to Leunissen, humans have evolved to look for specific qualities in the opposite sex to maximize reproductive interests, known as sexual selection theory. "Men look particularly for cues like youth and fertility (e.g. breasts) in women, whereas women pay more attention to cues of physical strength, resource power, and emotional commitment in men," he told Fusion in an email.
Isn't it time we break free from our so-called biology?
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.