, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 93-104

Mobile phones as lekking devices among human males

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Abstract

This study investigated the use of mobile telephones by males and females in a public bar frequented by professional people. We found that, unlike women, men who possess mobile telephones more often publicly display them, and that these displays were related to the number of men in a social group, but not the number of women. This result was not due simply to a greater number of males who have telephones: we found an increase with male social group size in the proportion of available telephones that were on display. Similarly, there was a positive relationship between the number of visible telephones and the ratio of males to females. Our results further show that the increased display of telephones in groups with more males is not due to the ostensive function of these devices (i.e., the making and receiving of calls), although single males tended to use their phones more. We interpret these results within the framework of male-male competition, with males in larger group sizes functioning in an increasingly competitive environment. This competitive environment is suggested to be akin to a lek mating system in which males aggregate and actively display their qualities to females who assess males on a number of dimensions. We suggest that mobile telephones might be used by males as an indicator of their status and wealth (sensu “cultural ornaments”).

The senior author is supported by an ESRC programme grant for the ELSE Research Centre. We thank Russell Hill and three anonymous referees for comments on the manuscript. The initial impetus for this study was provided by discussion with Dr. Alison Kidd.
John Lycett is a research assistant in the Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution (ELSE) at the University of Liverpool (England). His research focuses on human behavioral ecology.
Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Liverpool and is co-director of the ELSE Research Centre. His research focuses on the behavioral ecology of human and nonhuman primates and the evolution of the social brain.