Scientists examine: Why do men sometimes show their opponents signs of respect after a fight?

A new study provides some clues about when and why some men show signs of respect after a fight.

Researchers from Oakland University said their findings indicate that humans may have evolved psychological mechanisms to signal evaluations of fighting performance. The study, published in the peer-reviewed Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, examined what factors could predict signals of respect, such as shaking hands with an opponent.

The researchers used questionnaires and an in-lab fight simulation game to investigate when men expect to receive post-fight respect from an opponent and when they themselves display respect for their opponent. They found men expected to receive respect if they win the fight, fight a more formidable opponent, and fight fair. Likewise, individuals are willing to signal respect for their opponent when they fight a less formidable combatant and if their opponent does not fight “dirty.” On the other hand, the presence or absence of witnesses appeared to have no effect on post-fight respect.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Nicole Barbaro. To learn more about the study, read her explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Barbaro: There were two primary reasons we were interested in this topic. One reason being that no research had yet been conducted on post-fight respect, or post-fight reconciliation behavior, in humans. A bit a research had been done on reconciliatory behaviors following combative behavior in chimpanzees and other primates, but the vast majority of the human research on fighting and combative behavior has been focused on formidability assessments and the benefits of dominance within competitive contexts. The second reason being that we were interested in explaining a real-life phenomenon commonly seen in combat sports, such as mixed martial arts (e.g., UFC). It is incredibly common to see that two opponents — who had spent upwards of 25 minutes attempting to knock out the other — shake hands, hug, and praise one another at the conclusion of the fight. So, we were interested in whether there are reliable predictors of displaying what we call “post-fight respect “given certain attributes of the fight and the combatants.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Our research includes three studies (two self-report studies, and one behavioral study) to investigate whether features of the fight and combatants—fight outcome, use of “dirty” fight tactics, size asymmetries, fighter ranking, and presence of witnesses—predicted whether an individual’s anticipates receiving respect from their opponent and the likelihood that an individual would actually display respect to their opponent following a one-on-one fight.

Across the three studies there are two major findings. One being that, on average, individuals expect that they should receive post-fight respect more often than they are willing to actually display post-fight respect. The second being that size asymmetries and use of “dirty” fight tactics appear to be the most reliable predictors of both receiving and displaying post-fight respect.

The latter finding accords with much previous research on human combat, such that (1) men (and to a lesser degree, women) can very accurately assess the physical strength and general formidability of other men visually, and (2) cross-cultural research shows that there is general agreement on what type of fight tactics, or behaviors, are acceptable for one-on-one fights. Given the previous work in this area, our findings mesh well, and also contribute novel findings in an under-researched domain of psychology.

Based on our findings, we suggest that displaying post-fight respect to an opponent reflects positive valuations of the opponent’s fighting performance—that is, if an opponent is much smaller than you (a fighting “handicap” of sorts) and fights a “clean” fight, then your display of respect is a way of praising their good fighting performance.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Our research is, to our knowledge, the first attempt to understand the psychology underlying the phenomenon we call “post-fight respect” in humans. Replication and extension of our findings are important for a better and more comprehensive understanding of post-fight behavior in humans, more generally. There are several unanswered questions that still need to be addressed. For instance, the relationship between the two combatants may be important for displays of post-fight behavior–Are the combatants friends? Enemies? Strangers?

Another potential predictor we are interested in looking into is whether the fight itself resolved the issue that lead to the escalation in the first place—for instance, we suspect that post-fight respect may potentially signal that the conflict between the combatants has been resolved.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Humans—and in particular, men—have a long evolutionary history of fighting and combat. And a wealth of previous research supports this notion, including findings that the events leading to combat are quite predictable, that men have the capacity to evaluate the formidability of other men, and that there is cross-cultural agreement on acceptable fighting behaviors. Our study adds to this area or research and shows displays of post-fight respect may also be predictable given features of the fight and the combatants. Perhaps most exciting, are the future research opportunities that our findings may stimulate within this domain given the results of our research.

Nicole Barbaro is currently a PhD student of Evolutionary Psychology at Oakland University. Her research focuses on romantic attachment dynamics and the predictors and consequences of aggressive behavior. More information about Nicole’s research can be found on her website (, or you can follow her research on Twitter @NicoleBarbaro

The study, “Post-Fight Respect Signals Valuations of Opponent’s Fighting Performance“, was also co-authored by Michael N. Pham, Justin K. Mogilski, Todd K. Shackelford, and Virgil Zeigler-Hill. It was published March 1, 2017.