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Sizing up Helen

Nonviolent physical risk-taking enhances the envisioned bodily formidability of women

Journal of Evolutionary Psychology
Daniel Fessler
C. Holbrook
L. Tiokhin
, and
J. Snyder

Men are more prone than women to both commit physical violence and engage in nonviolent activities entailing the risk of injury or death. The Crazy Bastard Hypothesis (Fessler et al. 2014a) addresses this conjunction, arguing that nonviolent physical risk-taking communicates information about the actor’s agonistic formidability, as individuals who are indifferent to the possibility of harm are more likely to enter conflicts, and more difficult to repel, than those who are more sensitive to harm. Reflecting the use of bodily size in representations that summarize formidability, previous work demonstrates that risk-prone men are envisioned to be larger than are risk-averse men. Though less violent than men, particularly in highly competitive environments, women too sometimes benefit from engaging in violence. Correspondingly, observers should draw similar inferences regarding formidability when assessing physically risk-prone women. Results from both a large online experiment in the U.S. and a follow-up study using a modified dependent measure designed to reduce demand characteristics reveal that a woman described as risk-prone is envisioned to be larger — and thus more formidable — than is a woman described as risk-averse. Nonviolent physical risk-taking is thus available to women as an avenue for communicating formidability when it is advantageous to do so.

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Thornhill and Thornhill posited that sexual assault inflicts greater fitness costs on women in committed long-term heterosexual relationships than on women not in such relationships because the former face the added risk of decreased investment by their partners. In a series of papers (1990a, 1990b, 1990c, and 1991), Thornhill and Thornhill reported support for what we term the Relationship Status Hypothesis (RSH) using data on the psychological sequelae of rape. Here, we reexamine the RSH in light of Thornhill and Thornhill's original findings and the relevant literature. Identifying limitations of the original work and finding little support for the RSH in other published work, we then test the RSH in two studies using prospective fear of rape as a dependent measure; again, we find no support for the hypothesis. We conclude that, although marital discord following rape is an important issue warranting further study, the Relationship Status Hypothesis has limited empirical support at present.

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