A recent study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science examined the value of male physical strength in shaping perceptions of their ability to protect and nurture offspring. While stronger men were perceived as more effective protectors, they were also perceived as less effective in nurturance.
Historically, investment from both parents has been vital for ensuring the survival of offspring into adulthood. Prioritizing mates who could invest time and resources to offset the costs associated with pregnancy would have been especially beneficial for women. An important aspect of investment potential is men’s ability to physically protect their children. Mitch Brown and colleagues write, “From an affordance management perspective, acuity toward men’s strength would lead to an understanding of how these features indicate men’s capabilities to facilitate or impede social goals of the perceiver, resulting in motivations to approach or avoid social targets based on their salient affordances.”
Reproductive success is heavily reliant on parental care, and selection pressures to provide this care have led to parental care motivational systems. Humans tend to be sensitive toward young children and neotenous features, which elicit tenderness as a proxy for motivation to care for them. Activation of parental motives heightens vigilance toward threats.
The parental care system consists of distinct systems relating to protecting and nurturing offspring. For example, babies elicit feelings of warmth (i.e., nurturance system), and breastfeeding mothers are especially hostile toward strangers (i.e., protective system). Visual features can signal parental motives; women with highly feminized facial features are perceived to have significant maternal motivations, and large breasts are indicative of women’s capabilities to nurture offspring.
The ability to infer activation of the parental care system suggests it may be possible to identify individuals motivated by protection. This could be of particular value in identifying men’s parental affordances, given men have a heightened motivation for protection (vs. nurturance). Physical conflict was common throughout our evolutionary history, with male participation being more frequent. “Formidable men’s advantage in intrasexual competition could subsequently connote their heritable fitness to prospective mates, leading to upper body strength becoming sexually selected itself,” the authors write.
Both men and women select formidable men in forming coalitions when concerns regarding physical safety and crime are salient, and for tasks that may require protection from intergroup threats. The inferred benefits in protective domains could extend to parenting domains, with physically strong fathers being perceived as especially effective in protecting their children. Despite various advantages, strong men’s favorability toward promiscuity suggests disinterest in forming the long-term bonds necessary for biparental investment. This would consequently undermine perceptions of formidable men’s capability to nurture; for example, muscular men are inferred to be less capable of nurturance. Women are especially averse to masculine features in harsh ecologies, “shaped in perceptions of them being typical of aggressors more than protectors.”
Strong men could be seen as more likely to be physically aggressive in discipling their children. In fact, formidable men are more likely to endorse aggressive punishments, which could be indicative of their preferred disciplinary style. In the current work, Brown and colleagues predicted that strong (vs. weak) men would be perceived as more effective protectors, but less effective in nurturance (given increased interest in promiscuity). Given strong men’s greater proclivity toward aggressive behaviors, the researchers predicted they would be seen as more likely to use physical discipline. As well, the authors consider whether strength or anger would be more diagnostic of perceived parental efficacies.
A total of 159 undergraduate students (109 women and 50 men) were recruited from a large public university in the Southeastern United States. Participants evaluated the identities of four physically strong and four physically weak men. “Target strength was ascertained by an electronic dynamometer from which targets provided a composite measure of upper body strength derived from a chest press and hand grip.” All targets (i.e., the 8 men) wore white tank tops for standardization purposes. Given the “wifebeater” stereotype which could bias responses, the clothing standardization was addressed in the instructions.
Targets appeared in random order, and participants indicated how strong each body appeared. Further, perceived aggression of the targets, and how bad of a temper they ostensibly have were measured as additional affordance judgements for upper body strength; these two items were combined for a score of “perceived anger”. Two additional items assessed perceived parental abilities of targets in the domains of protection and nurturance. Lastly, participants indicated the likelihood that a target would use physical punishment and verbal discipline on children.
Strong (vs. weak) men were perceived as more effective parents. Further, strong (vs. weak) men were perceived to be more effective at protection. However, there were no differences in perceptions of nurturing ability between strong and weak men, with both being perceived as ineffective in nurturance. Strong (vs. weak) men were perceived as more likely to physically punish their children, and weak (vs. strong) men were perceived as more likely to use verbal tactics. However, all men were perceived as categorically unlikely to employ physical discipline.
Lastly, the authors examined the perceptual bases of these social judgements. The perceived strength advantage of strong men was positively associated with their perceived effectiveness to protect their children. There was no relation between anger and perceived effectiveness in protection. Importantly, “men and women did not differ in their perceptions of parenting affordances.”
One limitation is the recruitment of an undergraduate sample, who likely lack parental experience and may have provided responses that are developmentally constrained. Thus, it could be the case that the observed effects are more amplified among individuals with children.
The study, “Physical Strength as a Cue to Men’s Capability as Protective Parents”, was authored by Mitch Brown, Steele Donahoe, and Kaitlyn Boykin.