"Long before it's in the papers"
March 11, 2015


Do heroes win sexiness points? Only if they’re male, soldiers—and decorated, study finds

March 12, 2015
Courtesy of the University of Southampton
and World Science staff

Wom­en are more at­tracted to war heroes than reg­u­lar sol­diers or men who dis­play he­ro­ic traits in oth­er fields, such as in sports or nat­u­ral dis­as­ter work, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.

The find­ings al­so sug­gested men ac­tu­ally found her­o­ism un­at­trac­tive in wom­en. The dif­fer­ences may have an ev­o­lu­tion­ary or­i­gin, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors pro­posed.

In the stu­dy, pub­lished on­line in the jour­nal Ev­o­lu­tion and Hu­man Be­hav­iour, 92 wom­en stu­dying in the U.K. were shown hy­po­thet­i­c pro­files of men, rep­re­sent­ing var­y­ing lev­els of her­o­ism in con­texts such as war­fare, sport and busi­ness. The women were surveyed to find out how at­tracted they were to the pro­files. 

Wom­en were more in­clined to find a sol­dier at­trac­tive and to date him if he had been awarded a med­al for com­bat brav­ery. Simply hav­ing seen com­bat was­n’t found to af­fect at­trac­tiveness sig­nif­i­cantly, nor were dis­plays of her­o­ism in oth­er fields. 

In a sub­se­quent ex­pe­ri­ment by the re­search­ers, 159 wom­en and 181 men stu­dying in Hol­land took part in a si­m­i­lar ex­er­cise to de­ter­mine their lev­el of sex­u­al at­trac­tion to the op­po­site sex. This time, the sol­dier pro­files dis­played var­i­ous lev­els of brav­ery, ei­ther in com­bat or by help­ing in a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter zone. 

Again, her­o­ism in com­bat in­creased wom­en’s lev­els of sex­u­al at­trac­tion to­wards male sol­diers, but her­o­ism in a dis­as­ter zone had no im­pact, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. And men deemed female heroes, both in com­bat and in dis­as­ter zones, less at­trac­tive than oth­er wom­en. 

“This pro­vides ev­i­dence for the hy­poth­e­sis that gen­der dif­fer­ences in in­ter­group con­flict [war] can have an ev­o­lu­tion­ary or­i­gin, as only males seem to ben­e­fit from dis­playing her­o­ism,” said Joost Le­u­nis­sen, a psy­chol­o­gist at the Uni­vers­ity of South­amp­ton in the U.K. and co-author of the stu­dy. 

“In light of the phys­i­cal dan­gers and re­pro­duc­tive risks in­volved, par­ti­ci­pat­ing in in­ter­group ag­gres­sion might not gen­er­ally be a vi­a­ble re­pro­duc­tive strat­e­gy for wom­en.”

The ex­pe­ri­ments sup­ple­ment a his­tor­i­cal anal­y­sis un­der­taken by the re­search team, which looked at num­bers of chil­dren fa­thered by US Med­al of Hon­or re­cip­i­ents in World War II com­pared to the num­bers of chil­dren fa­thered by reg­u­lar vet­er­ans. The anal­y­sis shows Med­al of Hon­or re­cip­i­ents had an av­er­age of 3.18 chil­dren, while reg­u­lar vet­er­ans av­er­aged 2.72 chil­dren, sug­gest­ing dec­o­rat­ed war heroes sired more off­spring than oth­er vet­er­ans. 

Joost com­ments: “Raids, bat­tles, and am­bushes in an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ments, and wars in mod­ern en­vi­ron­ments, may pro­vide an are­na for men to sig­nal their phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal strengths. Of course, wom­en may not al­ways wit­ness these he­ro­ic acts in per­son, but such in­forma­t­ion is likely to be widely com­mu­ni­cated with­in a trib­al com­mun­ity.”

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Women are more attracted to war heroes than regular soldiers or men who display heroic traits in other fields, such as in sports or natural disaster work, according to new research. The findings also suggested men actually found heroism unattractive in women. The differences may have an evolutionary origin, the investigators proposed. In the study, published online in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour, 92 women studying in the U.K. were presented with hypothetical profiles of men, representing varying levels of heroism in different contexts such as warfare, sport and business. They were then asked questions designed to determine how attracted they were to the profiles. Women were more inclined to find a soldier attractive and to date him if he had been awarded a medal for combat bravery. Simply having seen combat wasn’t found to affect attractiveness significantly, nor were displays of heroism in other fields. In a subsequent experiment by the researchers, 159 women and 181 men studying in Holland took part in a similar exercise to determine their level of sexual attraction to the opposite sex. This time, the soldier profiles displayed various levels of bravery, either in combat or by helping in a natural disaster zone. Again, heroism in combat increased women’s levels of sexual attraction towards male soldiers, but heroism in a disaster zone had no impact, the investigators said. And men deemed female heroes, both in combat and in disaster zones, less attractive than other women. “This provides evidence for the hypothesis that gender differences in intergroup conflict can have an evolutionary origin, as only males seem to benefit from displaying heroism,” said Joost Leunissen, a psychologist at the University of Southampton in the U.K. and co-author of the study. “In light of the physical dangers and reproductive risks involved, participating in intergroup aggression might not generally be a viable reproductive strategy for women. The experiments supplement a historical analysis undertaken by the research team, which looked at numbers of children fathered by US Medal of Honor recipients in World War II compared to the numbers of children fathered by regular veterans. The analysis shows Medal of Honor recipients had an average of 3.18 children, while regular veterans averaged 2.72 children, suggesting decorated war heroes sired more offspring than other veterans. Joost comments: “Raids, battles, and ambushes in ancestral environments, and wars in modern environments, may provide an arena for men to signal their physical and psychological strengths. Of course, women may not always witness these heroic acts in person, but such information is likely to be widely communicated within a tribal community.”