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Who dares, wins

Heroism versus altruism in women’s mate choice


Heroism is apparently nonadaptive in Darwinian terms, so why does it exist at all? Risk-taking and heroic behavior are predominantly male tendencies, and literature and legend reflect this. This study explores the possibility that heroism persists in many human cultures owing to a female preference for risk-prone rather than risk-averse males as sexual partners, and it suggests that such a preference may be exploited as a male mating strategy. It also attempts to quantify the relative influences of altruism and bravery in the evolution of heroism. Our study found that females do prefer risk-prone brave males to risk-averse non-brave males, and that men are aware of this preference. Bravery in a male was shown to be the stronger factor influencing female choice of short-term partners, long-term partners, and male friends, with altruism playing a lesser part in their choice. Altruism was deemed important in long-term relationships and friendships, but for short-term liaisons, non-altruists were preferred to altruists. Heroism may therefore have evolved owing to a female preference for brave, risk-prone males because risk-taking acts as an honest cue for "good genes." Altruism was judged to be a less influential factor in the evolution of heroism than bravery and a demonstrated willingness to take risks.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to R. I. M. Dunbar.

Additional information

Susan Kelly has a BSc in Psychology and an MSc in Evolutionary Psychology from the University of Liverpool.

Robin Dunbar leads the Evolutionary Psychology Research Group at the University of Liverpool, england. His research interests focus on the trade-offs and contingencies that influence the reproductive decisions in ungulates, primates and humans and on the evolution of mammalian social systems.

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Kelly, S., Dunbar, R.I.M. Who dares, wins. Hum Nat 12, 89–105 (2001).

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Key words

  • Altruism
  • Heroism
  • Mate choice
  • Risky behavior