New research provides evidence that men tend to mellow out when they are with their girlfriend. The study, published in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, found that the presence of a romantic partner reduces risk-taking propensity in young men who are in relationships with women.
“I think it is important to understand the social functions of risk-taking. Oftentimes we focus on people’s relative maturity to explain age differences in risk-taking but young people aren’t wired for risk-taking just for the thrill of it,” said study author Karol Silva, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“The underlying ‘thrill’ may facilitate risky behavior but there is often some form of social gain that motivates the behavior. Evolutionary psychology theories tell us that risk-taking, especially in heterosexual men, functions to attract a partner. And we do have evidence that single men are more risky than men in relationships.”
“So I was curious to know what exactly was ‘protective’ about being in a relationship. Is being in a relationship enough or is there something about the actual presence of a partner that is protective?”
In the study, 134 young men in relationships with women were randomly assigned to be tested alone, in the presence of their girlfriend, or in the presence of an attractive 24-year-old female stranger. The risk-taking test consisted of the Stoplight task, a first-person driving game in which participants attempt to reach the end of a track as quickly as possible. The men were told the faster they arrived at the destination, the more money they could win. (Up to $10.)
In the game, the participants are repeatedly presented with the choice of driving through an intersection to save time but risk a car crash or to apply the brakes and wait to safely drive through. If they wait, they lose 3 seconds. But if they crash, they end up losing 6 seconds.
The researchers found that participants took significantly fewer risks when in the presence of their girlfriend. There were no significant differences in risk-taking between participants when they were alone compared to when they were with an attractive stranger.
“Young (heterosexual) men are less inclined to take risks when they are in the actual presence of a partner. The presence of a partner has a sort of taming effect on a young man’s risk-taking tendency,” Silva told PsyPost.
It is unclear, however, how the presence of a romantic partner reduces men’s propensity to take risks. The researchers believe it is possible that avoiding risks can signal safety and security, or that “the presence of romantic partners has a calming effect on young men, such that they become less concerned about task performance.”
“I think a follow-up study needs to include physiological assessments, whether it is cortisol and testosterone levels or brain imaging. Integrating physiological measures may help us pinpoint potential biological mechanisms that explain this ‘mellowing out’ effect that we observe. A long-term study that follows young men into their early 30s would also be really interesting, to explore how risk-taking tendencies, behaviors, and also general well-being fluctuate with the ebb and flow of romantic attachments,” Silva explained.
“It would also be interesting to know what sort of effect young men have on their girlfriends, and what behavioral patterns we might observe in gay or queer couples. Imagine a similar study that compares men of different sexual identities and orientations, such men in heterosexual relationships, gay men where both partners are cis-males, and trans men dating cis women.”
The study, “The influence of romantic partners on male risk-taking“, was authored by Karol Silva, Jason Chein, and Laurence Steinberg.