Author Nicholas Derenzo
For years, social psychologists have noticed that young men are much likelier to engage in risky behaviors when they have an audience of potential mates. Think Fonzie “jumping the shark” on water skis in front of a crowd of bikini-clad fans. John Petraitis of the University of Alaska suggests that the allure of the sexy risktaker goes back much further than “Happy Days”—perhaps all the way to the Stone Age. In a recent study, he gave undergrads 101 pairs of behaviors, each pair including one high-risk act and one low-risk act, and asked them to assess which would make a hypothetical male a more suitable dating partner. Some precarious acts were tied specifically to the modern world, like driving without a seat belt or cheating on taxes. Others, like handling fire or climbing great heights, played on strengths useful to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Petraitis found that only risky behaviors with a prehistoric analog make you more appealing to potential mates—perhaps playing subconsciously on Darwinian ideas. Strictly contemporary risky behaviors had no positive impact on sex appeal. Rock climbing? You’ll escape hungry predators. Swimming in deep water? You’ll catch better fish. Waterskiing over a shark? Sorry Fonz, it just makes you look desperate.