Mating rituals: Why certain risky behaviors can make you look hot

23 May 2014

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Our David Greene recently discussed some new social science research with NPR’s Shankar Vedantam.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: He’s here in our studios again. Shankar, what’s up?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: I want to talk about mating rituals today, David.

GREENE: Oh, fabulous. Please, the floor is yours.

VEDANTAM: Well, we’ve known for a long time that young people, especially heterosexual young men, are prone to taking physical risks when someone from the opposite sex is watching. John Petraitis at the University of Alaska and his colleagues recently decided to delve deeper into what kind of risk-taking actually increases your attractiveness. He was specifically looking at heterosexual men and women, but his findings potentially are of application to everyone.

GREENE: And I am so afraid to ask: What did they find?

VEDANTAM: Well, they found that both men and women find certain kinds of risk-taking attractive. So, swimming in deep water or washing windows in a tall building, this is the kind of risk-taking that can make you seem attractive.

GREENE: People who are watching that might be turned on by those things.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Driving a car without a seatbelt or working in a chemical factory, for example, they’re risky behaviors, but that’s not the kind of thing that can make you look attractive.

GREENE: Not as sexy. So, what’s the distinction? Why the difference?

VEDANTAM: Well, Petraitis is interested in evolutionary explanations for human behavior, and he thinks that risks that have analogs in the ancient evolutionary world – risks that involve dealing with heights or deep water or predators – these are the kind of risks and risk-taking that can make you look attractive. There is no evolutionary analog to driving a car without a seatbelt or working in a chemical factory.

GREENE: I can hear our listeners taking notes right now.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. Bottom line, David: If you want to look sexy, don’t cheat on your taxes, just walk with alligators.

GREENE: OK. Good to know. Shankar, thanks for coming in, as always.

VEDANTAM: Sure, David.

MONTAGNE: And that’s NPR’s David Greene, speaking with NPR’s Shankar Vedantam. You can find Shankar on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You can follow us @MorningEdition, @NPRMontagne, @NPRInskeep and NPRGreene.

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