Young men who smoke and drink are more attractive to women as short-term relationship partners than those who do not, which may help to account for the persistence of these risky behaviors, according to a study published in Evolutionary Psychology.
Most young adults are well aware of the risks associated with using tobacco and alcohol, but young men are the most likely of all groups to engage in them. There is evidence that women find risk-taking attractive in men in short-term relationship context, but prefer more risk-avoidant men when it comes to forming long-term relationships.
From an evolutionary perspective, this suggests to some psychologists that young men may be prone to taking risks with their health – including smoking and drinking – because the reproductive advantage of increased mating opportunities in the short term outweighs the long-term costs of elevated incidence of cancer and other diseases.
Researcher Eveline Vincke, of the Ghent University, conducted an experiment in a sample of 239 young women to determine whether their views about smoking and drinking in young men matched the predictions of evolutionary psychology. Women read descriptions of individual young men, including a summary of their personalities and favorite activities.
The description of the young men’s smoking and drinking habits were varied randomly as low, moderate, or heavy. Women rated their perceptions of the young men’s behavior in terms of healthiness and riskiness, and whether they thought they were more interested in short-term or long-term relationships. Finally, the women rated how attractive they found the men as short-term and long-term relationship partners.
The young women in this study rated the same men as more attractive short-term relationship partners when they were depicted as occasional smokers and as occasional or heavy drinkers, compared with non-smokers and non-drinkers. For long-term relationships, on the other hand, women preferred non-smokers and found heavy drinkers less desirable than non-drinkers (although they still preferred moderate drinkers). The women also rated risky smoking and drinking behavior as strong indicators of the men’s healthiness, risk-taking personality, and their relationship preferences (women thought that heavy smokers and heavy drinkers were more likely to prefer casual relationships).
A second study surveying 171 young men confirmed that the young women were correct in their perceptions. Young men who smoked or drank heavily were more interested in short-term rather relationships, and less interested in long-term ones, than those whose health behaviors were less risky.
Vincke concluded that tobacco and alcohol use may be part of an evolutionarily-driven short-term mating strategy for young men and that, based on the attractiveness ratings made by young women, this strategy may be successful. The author suggests that risk-taking behavior may be a signal of desirable genetic material, even though risks are demonstrably dangerous for health in the long term. Deciding whether these risks are worth taking for the sake of increased attractiveness remains a question up to each young man to answer.
“Not only do these findings show that emphasizing the physical harmful effects of cigarettes and alcohol in order to prevent the unhealthy behaviors might not be effective. It may even turn out to be contra productive,” Vincke wrote.