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Can't fight it?

December 15, 2008


Vladas Griskevicius.

Vladas Griskevicius

New study shows that mating goals underlie aggressive behavior

By Rick Moore

In the wee hours of an October night in 1997, professional basketball star Charles Barkley orders a drink in a bar. Another man there, Jorge Lugo, tosses a drink at Barkley, apparently without provocation. Barkley picks up Lugo and throws him through a plate glass window. According to reports, "witnesses gushed... in admiration of [Barkley's] feat."

Barkley's antics are Exhibit A for a new study by University of Minnesota researcher Vladas Griskevicius and colleagues, which will appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their work found that aggressive displays by men often lead to an enhanced social status, which in turn boosts their ability to attract a mate and reproduce.

"For men, fighting for status is akin to fighting for the survival of their genes," says Griskevicius, a marketing professor at the Carlson School of Management. "Not caring about status, which can be implied by backing away from a fight, can be evolutionary suicide. Across different cultures and time, the higher status men have, the more sex or better-quality partners they may have. At the gene level, nobody wants to go down in an evolutionary blaze of glory—no one wants their genes to become extinct."

Griskevicius's paper, titled "Aggress to Impress: Hostility as an Evolved Context-Dependent Strategy," begins with that Barkley-Lugo anecdote because it's far from an anomaly. A high percentage of violent crimes and homicides are the result of seemingly trivial altercations that blossom into extreme aggression.

"Even though human beings have very large brains, underneath those large brains are tendencies that our ancestors had," Griskevicius says. "Those parts of the brain are still around today and being activated."

To explore the topic, the research team conducted a variety of experiments with groups of young men and women from a large state university.

In one study, motivation for higher status prompted a measurable increase in direct aggression (e.g., the intent to push or punch) from men and in indirect aggression (e.g., excluding a person from a social group) for women. (Previous studies have shown that men are more inclined than women to engage in direct aggression.)

Another study tested whether competition for status and for affection from the opposite sex would have the same effects on aggression. For women, both motives increased indirect aggression. For men, the influence of courtship motives on direct aggression depended on the audience watching the aggressive display. A male-dominated audience meant more direct aggression.

But with an audience of females, the courtship motive did not increase direct aggression. Therefore, men's aggression is dependent on the context of the situation.

In the case of Barkley and his overriding urge to toss a stranger through a window, the rewards may have trumped the hazards, as evidenced by the witnesses gushing over him. And though he was arrested minutes after the assault, he had this reply to a question of whether or not he regretted the incident: "I regret we weren't on a higher floor."

Do the status-seeking instinct and the aggression it may bring diminish over time? In other words, can men grow out of this behavior with maturity... or when the need to find a mate subsides?

Yes, says Griskevicius. When you look at who is responsible for homicides, the vast majority of perpetrators are males from the age of 15 to the late 20s—"the peak reproductive age," he says. Once married, a guy thinks, "You know, this aggression stuff—it's not as fun as it used to be."

"But if you remain single, you're much more likely to get involved in all sorts of altercations and not walk away from insults," he adds. "If you want a guy to be less aggressive, have him get married."

So what are we to take away from all of this, especially when there's that age-old football cheer that can be heard from coast to coast, "Be. Aggressive. Be-Be. Aggressive"?

For one, the primal instincts for perpetuation of the species are hard to ignore.

"Even though human beings have very large brains, underneath those large brains are tendencies that our ancestors had," Griskevicius says. "Those parts of the brain are still around today and being activated. ... They need to be overruled by other parts of the brain."

In the case of men who are seeking to impress, it appears as if that's easier said than done.

Listen to Griskevicius discuss his research on the links between aggression, status, and sex.