Film industry analysts have been surprised by the enormous box office success of American Sniper. Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle has proven popular not just with male fans of war movies, but with female filmgoers as well.
Newly published research suggests one reason why. It finds that women—apparently responding to a primal urge—find male war heroes uniquely alluring.
“War heroism likely benefits men because it increases their sexual attractiveness and, as a result, their reproductive success,” a team of researchers from Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands writes in the journal Evolution & Human Behavior. Their data suggests performing heroically in a non-warfare context, such as rescuing victims of a natural disaster, does not confer the same level of sex appeal.
Evidence of this response, which was presumably programmed into humans early in our evolutionary history, was found by the researchers in three different studies. One featured 92 female British university students, all of whom read and evaluated three vignettes about men who were engaged in either business, sports, or the military.
“Our findings suggest that the role of sexual selection must not be ignored in understanding the roots of warfare, and why men fight.”
The military-themed vignettes all featured a fictional five-year veteran named John, "the leader of a unit consisting of four men." In the first version, he and his men had yet to be deployed. In the second, they have "fought in a number of battles and returned safely." In the third, "John was awarded a medal for individual bravery upon his return from Iraq."
The women were asked to rate on a one-to-seven scale how attractive they found John, and whether they wanted to date him. The researchers found that simply participating in battle did not raise his appeal above that of staying home. But he was viewed as significantly more attractive if he had earned that medal.
In contrast, "We did not find evidence of increased attractiveness of men who are heroic in business or sports," the researchers write. "This suggests that heroism only benefits men when it is displayed in the context of warfare."
Another study featured 340 students from a Dutch university—181 men and 159 women. They read either one of the vignettes described above, or a fourth version in which the soldier was described as having been dispatched to a natural disaster area.
"Heroism was manipulated by adding to the respective scenarios that, on return, a decoration was bestowed on the soldier for his/her action in the war zone or the natural disaster zone," the researchers write. (To measure sex appeal, the soldier was given a female name in the version read by the male participants.)
Once again, women participants found the male soldier more attractive if he had been awarded a medal for bravery. But this was true only if he showed heroism in combat. Doing so in a natural-disaster scenario did not increase his sex appeal.
Male participants did not find the female medal recipient more attractive regardless of whether she was described as being in battle or at the scene of a natural disaster. "Only males seem to benefit from displaying heroism in intergroup conflict," the researchers write.
In addition, the researchers compared two groups of World War II veterans: 123 recipients of the Medal of Honor, and 449 who received no special distinction. After controlling for various factors, they found the war heroes "sired more offspring than the regular veterans."
The results are in line with parental investment theory, which states that women, consciously or unconsciously, are looking for signs of "status, dominance, altruism, and commitment" in men, on the assumption those qualities would make them good fathers. War heroism implies the presence of all of them; it also conveys an appealing, I'll-protect-you vibe.
The study suggests one reason why so many men are willing to head to the battlefield, even knowing they are putting themselves in harm’s way. An itch for excitement and the desire to do something meaningful can certainly play a major role in their thinking. But never underestimate the motivational power of enhanced sex appeal.
As researchers Hannes Rusch, Joost Leunissen, and Mark van Vugt put it: “Our findings suggest that the role of sexual selection must not be ignored in understanding the roots of warfare, and why men fight.”
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.