A new study at Harvard University has found that even after the fiercest of sports competitions, male opponents are more likely than females to engage in friendly physical contact — such as a handshake, back pat, or even a hug — in an attempt to put hard feelings to rest.
The findings support what researchers call the “male warrior hypothesis,” the notion that males tend to initiate good feelings after conflict to ensure they can call on allies to help defend the group in the future.
“This finding feels very counterintuitive because we have social science and and evolutionary biology models that tell us males are much more competitive and aggressive,” said study leader Dr. Joyce Benenson, an associate of Harvard’s Human Evolutionary Biology Department and a professor of psychology at Emmanuel College.
And yet scientists have long observed peacemaking behavior among male chimps after a conflict.
“Male chimps show tremendous aggression, even to the point of killing other males, but they also often reconcile immediately following a conflict,” said Benenson. “They do that because, in addition to the battle to sire the most offspring, they also have to cooperate to defend their community in lethal intergroup conflicts.
“So the question is how do you get from these severely aggressive 1:1 dominance interactions to cooperating with your former opponents so you can preserve your entire community? We think post-conflict affiliation is the mechanism.”
Previous research had shown that male chimps are more likely than females to try to put hard feelings to rest following a head-to-head conflict. This motivated Benenson and her co-researcher Dr. Richard Wrangham, the Ruth B. Moore Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, to wonder whether the same might be true among humans.
To find the answer, they turned to a modern form of conflict — sports. Sports provide identical conflicts for males and females, so sex differences can be objectively examined.
For the study, the researchers scoured YouTube and the video archive of several international sports federations and found hundreds of videos of tennis, table tennis, badminton, and boxing matches in 44 different countries. They closely watched each video, focusing their attention not on the match itself, but its immediate aftermath.
“We watched carefully to see what happened after the match ended,” said Benenton. “The requirement is that people touch after the match ends, but how do they touch? They can just touch hands quickly, or they can really shake hands or give a pat or even a hug.”
Researchers watched hundreds of matches, taking care to ensure no player was repeated in any match, and found clear sex differences in all four sports.
“Most people think of females as being less competitive, or more cooperative, so you might expect there would be more reconciliation between females,” Benenson said.
“With their families, females are more cooperative than males, investing in children and other kin. With unrelated same-sex peers however, after conflicts, in males you see these very warm handshakes and embraces, even in boxing after they’ve almost killed each other.”
So why is it that women seem less willing to reconcile following conflict?
The answer may stretch to the earliest days of human history, suggest the researchers. Chimps and humans lived in groups of both males and females, but while males cultivate large friendship networks, females focus more on family relationships and a handful of few close friends — partly as a way to share the burden of raising children.
Ultimately, Benenson said, the implications of the study could reach far beyond the boundaries of the playing field.
“What we’re talking about is women having a harder time when they have to compete with other women,” she said. “Studies have shown that when two females compete in the workplace they feel much more damaged afterward. I think this is something human resources professionals should be aware of, so they can mitigate it.”
The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.
Source: Harvard University