They went boating alone without life vests and gave no thought to shimmying up very tall coconut trees.
And although they were only figments of a writer’s imagination, the fictional adventurers helped provide new insight into how humans, especially men, gauge the threat of a potential adversary. Those reading the stories — dozens of residents of a small village on the Fijian island of Yasawa — judged the characters to be risk-seekers.
The study, published in the January issue of the scholarly journal Evolution and Human Behavior, is part of a body of research emerging from the lab of UCLA anthropologist Daniel Fessler. Fessler’s studies, published over the past two years, have identified a mental mechanism people use to subconsciously gauge threats posed by others. The mechanism translates the magnitude of the threat into the same dimensions used by animals to size up their adversaries — size and strength — even when these dimensions have no actual connection to the threat.
“Unless we consider the bigger picture, there’s nothing about boating alone that should make you think that an individual is larger or stronger, yet you do,” Fessler said. “In choosing between fight and flight, we rely on a little picture in our heads that adjusts the size of every potential foe we encounter according to how formidable he seems to us to be. The more likely we believe the individual is to win a fight, the bigger and stronger he seems to us.” An associate professor of anthropology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and director of the UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture, Fessler specializes in integrating anthropological, psychological and biological theories and methods to explore little-understood aspects of human behavior, experience and health.
To ensure that the effect wasn’t unique to American culture, the team also assessed perceptions of risk-seeking behavior among men on the Fijian island, where one of Fessler’s graduate students happened to be conducting research at the time. The team even tested whether there was an actual correlation between height, muscularity and risk-seeking behavior in the U.S., but found none.
“Risk-prone behavior doesn’t have a literal connection to size and strength, yet is conceptualized in those terms,” Fessler said. “Risk-prone individuals make for dangerous enemies — if someone isn’t worried about getting hurt or dying, he’s someone you don’t want to mess with.”