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The Male Monkey Dance
What intrasexual competition tells us about violence and male traits
“Male-typical traits such as beards and deep voices may be more about intimidating other men than they are about attracting women. In other words, these traits may be deers’ antlers rather than peacocks’ tails. To the extent that this is the case, the fact that women don’t always find them attractive is beside the point: That’s not why they evolved.”
This is a quote from the evolutionary psychologist Steve Stewart-Williams, in his excellent book The Ape That Understood The Universe.
The idea is that male secondary sex characteristics (beards, deep voices, large muscles) did not evolve primarily to attract women. Rather, the main reason men have them is to compete with other men.
Male-male competition is a fascinating and often overlooked aspect of human nature. The biologist Adam Hart has observed that when two males are in the early stages of conflict, they extend their arms out (“you got a problem bro?”).
The unconscious purpose is to increase the perception of body size.
This is also why during weigh-ins for MMA and boxing, fighters extend their arms, flex their biceps, and flare out their muscles. To look large and intimidating.
In his book Meditations on Violence, Rory Miller describes what he calls the “monkey dance.” Informed by research and his years of experience in law enforcement, he describes the monkey dance as a ritualized form of male combat to establish dominance or secure territory.
It is typically non-lethal and intended to convey strength without escalating to the level of severe injury or death.
The steps are:
1. Eye contact, hard stare
2. Verbal challenge (“what are you lookin’ at?”)
3. Closing of distance, possible chest bumping (this is when the arms extend)
4. Finger poke or two-handed push to the chest
5. Dominant hand roundhouse punch (if the person is untrained in combat)
Miller makes clear that males, especially young males, do not play the monkey dance. It plays them. In many species, males engage in ritualistic conflict, suggesting this ritual predates humans.
We have millions of years of evolutionary programming tucked away in our brains, which can be hard to switch off in certain situations. Especially if alcohol is involved.
One way to circumvent escalation is through submissive body language. Lowering your eyes, apologizing. It doesn’t feel good to do this. For young males, backing down from a status challenge is psychologically painful.
Still, Miller says that if you consciously make the decision to avoid the dance, and knowingly lower your eyes and apologize, it doesn’t hurt quite as much.
There are implicit rules about monkey dances.
The dance is about gaining status.
Which means the selected adversaries are important. Nobody plays the monkey dance with children. No one plays the monkey dance with someone who is obviously high on drugs or crazy. Few men partake in the monkey dance against women.
Typically, the dance is between two males who are similar in physicality and age. It is more likely to occur when there is an open question about who would prevail in a physical contest.
Which is why monkey dances generally occur between strangers rather than men who are familiar with one another, and who other men know. In the context of prisons, when a new inmate arrives, other inmates want to know how tough he is. So when the new inmate enters a monkey dance with another guy, bystanders often encourage them to fight. They want to know what the new guy is made of, and where he fits into the pecking order.
However, when a verbal altercation erupts between two long-serving inmates—when others already have a decent estimate of each man’s formidability—then often bystanders will intervene to prevent escalation.
In fact, men in monkey dances usually want to signal that they are willing to engage in conflict. But they would prefer not to actually pay the cost of violence. Intervention by a third-party (a friend, a bouncer, another inmate in the context of prison, etc.) who gets between the two guys gives them a safe out (“You’re lucky he’s holding me back.”).
Developing a reputation as a fearsome fighter often prevents the need to engage in combat.
Here is a passage from the great social psychologist Roy Baumeister, citing the work of sociologist Martín Sánchez-Jankowski:
"One researcher who spent a decade living with gangs noted some guys had reputations as highly dangerous, aggressive, nasty fighters—yet he never saw or heard about any of them actually fighting...A reputation as aggressive saves you from having to fight."
This is why monkey dances typically take place between two young males who are unknown to one another and do not have formidable reputations to observers. So they feel they have more to prove.
The unspoken rules of the monkey dance are interesting. Miller writes that when they do escalate, they are usually non-lethal, and when someone does die it is typically from falling and hitting their heads. Rarely do men use severe tactics like biting, gouging the eyes, grabbing testicles, etc. There are boundaries.
The concept of a “fair fight” appears to have evolutionary origins. Research suggests the reason why people across different cultures have intuitions about “cheating” in fights is because humans want an accurate assessment of other people’s fighting ability.
Suppose you see two guys in the early stages of a monkey dance and suddenly one of them kicks in the other in the balls and breaks a bottle over his head. In that case, you might think he is crazier than the other guy, but you don’t have reliable information about his physical formidability.
This is in part why young men don’t engage in the monkey dance with the elderly, children, women, and so on. Entering into conflicts with such people would not provide any useful information about the man’s fighting ability.
Compared with “rapid escalation” conflicts, people deem “slow escalation” as more reliable with regard to revealing how tough a guy is.
You see such intuitive “fair fight” concepts in sports like boxing, Muay Thai, and MMA, where rules prevent head-butting, groin shots, eye-gouging, weapons, and so on.
And you see the “slow escalation” idea in movies. For example, in all three of the original Jason Bourne trilogy movies, the climactic fights begin with hands and feet (sometimes after Bourne disarms his assassin, who arrives with a gun).
Inevitably, Bourne’s adversary escalates by pulling out a deadly weapon (e.g., a knife), and Bourne has to improvise by finding a less formidable one in his environment (e.g., a ballpoint pen). Naturally, Bourne prevails, and the audience understands that he is at least as good a combatant as his fellow CIA-trained assassins.
Interestingly, despite such portrayals of slow escalation in his movies, the renowned martial artist Bruce Lee has recommended the opposite approach in real life.
That is, although he filmed protracted fights in his movies for entertainment value, in the real world Lee advocated ending fights immediately with a powerful targeted shot at the nearest body part of your adversary. This is because—even if you are skilled in hand-to-hand combat—the longer a fight goes on, the greater the likelihood that the other person will get lucky and find a way to hurt you.
But when Lee offered this guidance (sensible though it may be), he was already firmly established as a top notch martial artist. For someone like him, or a UFC icon, or a boxing champion, the best strategy would be to completely avoid a street fight or, if the situation absolutely demands it, to end it quickly.
For a young and unestablished guy who hopes to demonstrate his toughness and willingness to engage in conflict, getting involved in a slow escalation monkey dance may, to some extent, and depending on the circumstances, be useful.
The monkey dance is a male lek. A contest to compete for status among fellow males. Even if women aren’t around, men will still engage in this ritual. Because it matters how male peers view us.
In a chapter on male intrasexual competition, the author observes that:
“Sport evolved in the context of male intrasexual competition…at first sport was a low-cost way for boys and men to practice and develop the skills necessary for hunting and warfare. Gradually, however, it developed into a system that allows athletes to display, and male spectators to evaluate, the (physical) qualities of potential allies and rivals…particularly those necessary for warfare.”
The prestige that male competitors accrue is largely due to the collective evaluations and esteem of other men. In fact, compared with women’s evaluations, men’s evaluations are a far stronger predictor of how sexually successful a man will be.
Researchers have found that a man’s physical formidability is a better predictor than his attractiveness for how many partners he has had.
In the study, researchers recorded short videos of 157 different men. Next, another group of men watched these videos. Researchers asked them a question about each of the men in the videos: “How likely is it that this man would win a physical fight with another man?” They used a scale ranging from “extremely likely” to “extremely unlikely.”
A group of women also viewed the videos. They responded to a question about each of the men: “How sexually attractive is this man?” They used a scale ranging from “extremely unattractive” to “extremely attractive.”
Eighteen months later, the men in the videos completed a questionnaire asking about their sexual history over the previous 18 months.
How tough a guy looked to men predicted his reported mating success better than how attractive he looked to women.
The researchers concluded, “Men with higher physical dominance, but not sexual attractiveness, reported higher quantitative mating success.”
Male competition has given rise to male traits like strong muscles, deep voices, and facial hair. Men evolved these traits not so much because women find them sexy, but more because other men find them intimidating, which in turn are strong predictors of mating success.
Evidence is mixed about whether women find beards attractive. Some women like them, others don’t, and for others it depends. But there is clear evidence that men view other men with beards as more intimidating than clean-shaven men.
Or take deep voices. Women tend to find deep voices attractive. But in comparison, men are even more likely to find deep voices intimidating.
In fact, men who perceive themselves as physically formidable tend to (unconsciously) lower their voices in competitive contexts with other males, whereas men who view themselves as relatively weak tend to raise their voice pitch.
Relatedly, in his recent book Different: What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender, the primatologist Frans de Waal has written:
"Soon after their voices break, boys begin to build muscle power to the point that they barely realize what is happening to their bodies. It takes place so rapidly that they perform feats of strength that a few months earlier had been unthinkable. An amusing case involved a friend of mine at university…One day we were talking while walking into a classroom. Once we sat down together, we both stared with astonishment at the doorknob in my friend’s hand…He must have ripped it off without realizing. This is how boys become aware of their physical strength."
Back when I was around 13, my family and I were going through one of our many home relocations. My mom and her partner rented a moving truck, and the deck (part of the truck where goods are loaded into) was a little more than three feet off the ground. I’d invited a couple of friends over to help us move. At one point, I sprang vertically, jumping right into the deck to grab something. My friends and I paused to acknowledge how we wouldn’t have been able to do that even one year prior.
You could view this scene from the 2002 Spider-Man movie as an allegory for what happens to boys during puberty:
Three or 4 years of muscular development compressed into one night.
Anyway, we tend to be accurate in our assessments of male formidability. A recent study reports:
"We readily estimate men’s physical strength—that is, their ability to inflict costs using physical aggression and violence—from their face, their body, and their voice, and these estimates closely track men’s actual physical strength."
This ability appears to exist cross-culturally. Researchers collected data from four different groups: the Tsimane of Bolivia, Andean herder-horticulturalists and U.S. and Romanian college students. Their finding:
“Subjects accurately assessed upper-body strength in voices taken from eight samples across four distinct populations and language groups...the human voice—especially the male voice—contains cues of physical strength.”
Another study found that among men aged 18 to 59, muscularity was significantly positively associated with the number of total sexual partners and partners in the last year.
Handgrip strength is correlated with having more sexual partners.
Returning to the concept of intrasexual competition, another group of researchers report that:
“Men engage in riskier behavior when with or observed by other men than when with or observed by women...men were more likely to drive aggressively when their passengers were men...male drivers are least likely to wear a seatbelt when other men were in the car.”
Young men are preoccupied with impressing their peers and looking tough to them. Research suggests this is a prudent strategy to win the attention of potential female romantic partners. After all, most sports fans are men. Yet professional athletes tend to do well with women. Even women who don’t watch sports frequently find athletes appealing.
Related to the finding that formidability was a stronger predictor than attractiveness for romantic success, another study found that muscularity and low voice predicted how many women a man has slept with, but facial attractiveness did not. The researchers suggest: “Perhaps women rate men’s attractiveness differently from how they ultimately choose.”
In other words, the qualities people find attractive are not necessarily the same as the qualities they favor for sexual encounters. There’s often a difference between what people say and what people do.
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