Science: Men Act Differently Around Women

Scientists have discovered that heterosexual men alter their behavior around women.


Scientists have discovered that heterosexual men alter their behavior around women.

WSJ (“The Cheerleader Effect: What Men Do to Impress“):

When women are present or when men are prompted to think about women, they act differently, research shows. Well, duh. But in unexpected ways. A 2008 study in the journal Evolutionary Psychology showed that in the mere presence of women as witnesses, men become more likely to jaywalk and to wait until the last second to dash on to a bus. This reflects, no doubt, the well-known belief among men that jaywalking means you’re a Roman gladiator of irrepressible virility. As I said, pathetic.

Over the past several years, the pattern has been found repeatedly in studies of male behavior published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the British Journal of Psychology and elsewhere. In some cases, a woman is present; in others, men look at pictures of a woman’s face or her legs; in still others, men list what they find to be sexually arousing (versus things that make them happy). In a 2011 paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, this last technique is called, with a straight face, “inducing mating goals.”

Sex-related cues like these have been found to make men more prone to take risks while playing blackjack, to discount the future when making economic decisions and to spend on conspicuous luxury items (but not on mundane expenses). Typically, the effects are strongest in single men. By contrast, these studies uniformly report that cues about males have no such effects on women.

There is also a darker side to the tendency of men to show off in the presence of women. As a 2012 study by Sarah Ainsworth and Jon Maner of Florida State University found, “inducing mating goals” in men made them more likely in a competitive game to punish the opposing guy with loud blasts of noise. The effect was strongest in men with an “unrestricted sociosexual orientation”—that is, men who are perpetually on the prowl with a propensity to indiscriminate one-night stands. In another study, men who were primed by the presence of women were found to be more likely to endorse aggressive stances about war (with no change in their stances about the more humdrum issue of trade tariffs).


But now comes research carried out by Mark van Vugt and Wendy Iredale and reported last year in the British Journal of Psychology. In the presence of women (but not other men), men became more generous in an economic game: They made more contributions to public goods and volunteered more time for charitable causes. In fact, the size of their charitable contributions increased in the presence of women they rated as more attractive. As usual, the presence of men had no such effects on women. As summarized in the title of the paper, this seems a case of “Men Behaving Nicely: Public Goods as Peacock Tails.”

There’s an important point here. The allure of the opposite sex makes men more violent, but only, it seems, in circumstances where violence is rewarded with higher status. When status can be achieved in a more socially desirable way, things work differently. In short, with the right social arrangements, this ludicrous tendency of men can be harnessed not only to encourage a ferocious goal-line stand but to make the world a kinder place.

Presumably, these studies are of heterosexual men; otherwise, they’d understate the impact.  Similarly, one imagines the effects are stronger with younger men and when they find the women in question sexually desirable; the write-up only indicates that obvious control in one case. And, indeed, the “Peacock” study involved “65 men and 65 women, all of an average age of 21.”

The only mildly surprising finding here is the increase in jaywalking—which would seem opposite the peacock effect. For that matter, it’s not obvious why men would think madly dashing for a bus would impress a woman; maybe it’s a function of being distracted?

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Science & Technology, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So… Men are stupid? Especially so around women?

  2. Tyrell says:

    I would bet that place in the photo has tons of job applicants.

  3. @OzarkHillbilly:

    That seems to be a universal truth that becomes apparent some time around 7th or 8th grade, no?

  4. Tony W says:

    When status can be achieved in a more socially desirable way, things work differently. In short, with the right social arrangements, this ludicrous tendency of men can be harnessed not only to encourage a ferocious goal-line stand but to make the world a kinder place.

    This concisely states the reason for my position in favor of reducing income inequality and poverty and continuously improving equal rights for minorities.

    It is no mystery why there are so many young black men in our prisons. Largely because of my white-middle-class upbringing, I sought, instead, to distinguish myself through economic success – and was rewarded with the sort of status I have been raised to value.

    This is the core of liberal values. The political right, by contrast, governs by bumper sticker. They think simply of bootstraps and Horatio Alger. Until the right is again willing to complicate the discussion with facts we will have a significant portion of the country blaming the victim for their own bad upbringing.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Tony W: Is it your thesis that being white or from a higher status family makes men less attracted to—or otherwise less likely to act a fool around—women? I don’t think the research outlined above bears that out.

  6. Mr. Replica says:

    “The problem is, God gave man a brain and a penis and only enough blood to run one at a time.” – Robin Williams

  7. Tony W says:

    @James Joyner: No. When I act foolish I am more likely to take business risks, rather than get involved in a drive-by shooting.

    Our society rewards/punishes those two sorts of risk takers differently. White bankers defraud the government of billions of dollars with little to no criminal penalty while some loser carrying a bag of crack cocaine does 20 years.

  8. Liberal Capitalist says:

    In other shocking discoveries: Water wet, fire hot.

    We are what we are.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Tony W: You’re saying underprivileged young men engage in drive-by shootings to impress women? Or are you just using an unrelated post to vent a pet peeve?

  10. Lounsbury says:

    Not especially surprising, the jaywalking. Demonstration of risk taking behaviour as a fitness signal. Fairly common mammalian trait. Essentially the study(ies) tell us that although humans are socially complex, deep seated evolutionary influences still impact, albeit mediated in complex ways. We’re socially complicated chimps (or chimp-bonobo blends), for good and bad.

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    I have been retired for several years but looking back on my career as an engineer my two best supervisors were women. In both cases they were both beautiful and brilliant. In both cases we genuinely liked and respected each other. Did I act differently? Of course I did. Extended business trips could be uncomfortable at times. I often spent more time with my boss than I did with my wife. In part that may have been the reason for my divorce.

  12. CSK says:

    Well, men show off for women. So what else is new? Most of the time I think it’s kind of cute.

    Slightly OT, but perhaps relevant: When I was in high school, a female teacher advised us that if we were ever in a car with a boy who was driving dangerously fast, we shouldn’t show fear or anger, because either would just induce him to speed more. What we should do, she said, was claim we were going to throw up all over the front seat or dashboard. That would slow him down, or stop him so we could get out of the car.

  13. Tony W says:

    @James Joyner: False dichotomies aside, I am (perhaps ham-handedly) trying to show that the topic is not unrelated to the post, and to put the subject in a broader perspective. My rhetoric was intended to move the discussion from “gee whiz” trivia about our cave-man instincts, toward a more useful discussion about what tools we might collectively have at our disposal to improve society.

    I submit that men living in the gang-infused neighborhoods east of the 405 in Los Angeles probably impress their women differently than their brethren living in large Marin County or Long Island estates. It is not a stretch to say that the means used in East LA are likely less beneficial to society as a whole, than those of the other group.

    To summarize, I imagine that once less destructive means of differentiating oneself (within accepted norms) are available, then by-and-large men may find less socially-destructive ways to impress women. Lastly, I do not present this as a panacea or silver-bullet for all that ails society, merely a data point around which we have some leverage.

  14. Tillman says:

    Alright, Science, you’ve had your say lately, I think it’s time you went to bed for a bit.