Human Nature

, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 393–409 | Cite as

Men’s Physical Strength Moderates Conceptualizations of Prospective Foes in Two Disparate Societies

  • Daniel M. T. FesslerEmail author
  • Colin Holbrook
  • Matthew M. Gervais


Across taxa, strength and size are elementary determinants of relative fighting capacity; in species with complex behavioral repertoires, numerous additional factors also contribute. When many factors must be considered simultaneously, decision-making in agonistic contexts can be facilitated through the use of a summary representation. Size and strength may constitute the dimensions used to form such a representation, such that tactical advantages or liabilities influence the conceptualized size and muscularity of an antagonist. If so, and given the continued importance of physical strength in human male-male conflicts, a man’s own strength will influence his conceptualization of the absolute size and strength of an opponent. In the research reported here, male participants’ chest compression strength was compared with their estimates of the size and muscularity of an unfamiliar potential antagonist, presented either as a supporter of a rival sports team (Study 1, conducted in urban California, and Study 2, conducted in rural Fiji) or as a man armed with a handgun (Study 3, conducted in rural Fiji). Consistent with predictions, composite measures of male participants’ estimates of the size/strength of a potential antagonist were inversely correlated with the participant’s own strength. Therefore, consonant with a history wherein violent intrasexual selection has acted on human males, a man’s own physical strength influences his representations of potential antagonists.


Relative formidability Fighting capacity Cognitive representation Size Strength 



This work was supported by the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research under Award #FA9550-10-1-0511. We thank Juliette Gerardo and Joji Rayasidamu for assistance with data collection, and the villagers of Yasawa Island, Fiji, for their participation.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel M. T. Fessler
    • 1
    Email author
  • Colin Holbrook
    • 1
  • Matthew M. Gervais
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and Center for Behavior, Evolution, and CultureUniversity of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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