Paulo Finuras, PhD
Guest Associate Professor at ISG – Business & Economics School of Lisbon
Associate partner Hofstede Insights Portugal
This article seeks to understand why sport in general, and certain sports activities in particular, tend to be more practiced by men. It is suggested that behind this phenomenon will be strategies associated with male and female behavior that are inscribed in the different signaling strategies with reproductive final objectives.
Understanding human behavior through evolutionary lenses implies going beyond immediate explanations and also seeking absolute explanations. To understand this, it is necessary to understand not only the ontogeny of the behavior (mechanism and development) but its phylogeny (function and origin). I propose that the “hypothesis of male warrior and the crazy bastard” together, can give a deeper explanation as to why men, more than women, practice more sports and some are even an exclusive male.
Evolution, Intra sexual competition, Men, Reproduction, Sexual Strategy, , Sport
Men, women and the practice of sport: what is hidden behind it?
What does our evolutionary psychology tell us about this?
Why do men play more sport than women? From the “male warrior” to the “crazy bastard hypothesis”: an evolutionary perspective
An analysis of the main literature in the social sciences shows that there are multiple examples of human tribalism, as well as a propensity for individuals to categorize themselves based on their group affiliation favoring treatment of members of their group. Several authors, with particular emphasis on Mark van Vugt (2006), believe that this phenomenon is a group and adaptive response to the threats of the conflicting group coalitions of human males, both in ancestral environments and in modern environments, having affected the psychology of men and women in different ways.
In this article I seek a reflection from the evolutionary point of view that helps us understand and explain why men are more prone to the practice of sport and why some sports are practically a male exclusive.
Men, women and the practice of sport: what is hidden behind it?
That men die earlier and earlier than women, commit more crimes and more violence, have more accidents, take more risks, write more books, master humor, occupy most positions of power and leadership in societies and organizations and are war-takers, it is a fact based on history, our common experience and all available statistics.
I propose that the fact that men, more than women, are also playing and watching sports, is part of this evolutionary line of something that is more important to men than to women. The reason is also relatively understandable from the evolutionary point of view. It is that, as Steve Stewart-Williams (2020) pointed out, the “general rule remains: what females want, males evolve to provide it”.
On the whole, all this seems to be related to the so-called “male warrior hypothesis” proposed by Mark van Vugt, David de Cremer and Dirk P. Janssen (2007) and can help to understand and explain the difference that men have in their relationship with sports practice and also in their support of it as spectators, which is significantly higher than that of women when compared. It is that, as in other activities mentioned above, sport and its practice are also essentially dominated by men, whether as practitioners or as spectators. And once again, the evolutionary paradigm can help us understand this if we perceive the origin and root of the phenomenon. That’s what I’m on next.
What does our evolutionary psychology tell us about this?
The answer will probably be for the same reason that they also commit more crimes, write more books, take more risks and have more need to occupy positions of power and leadership in all areas of life in society. It is that, whenever they can, men seek and try to signal their abilities, qualities and resources in the great storefront of reproduction.
As Lombardo (2012) argued, “sport evolved in the context of male intrasexual competition…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”
According to this author, sport began as a way for men to develop the skills needed in primitive hunting and warfare, and then developed to act primarily as a lek where athletes display, and male spectators evaluate the qualities of potential allies and rivals.
Again, as Lombardo put it, “the most popular modern male sports require the skills needed for success in male-male physical competition and primitive hunting and warfare, champion male athletes obtain high status and thereby reproductive opportunities in ways that parallel those gained by successful primitive hunters and warriors; men pay closer attention than do women to male sports so they can evaluate potential allies and rivals, and male sports became culturally more important when opportunities to evaluate potential allies and rivals declined as both the survival importance of hunting and the proportion of men who experience combat decreased.” So, in a way we should approach the practice and the evolution of sports as an adaptive hypothesis.
Sporting events, as the statistics of the live television broadcasts show it, are the ones that capture the most attention and the most audiences have in the world.
We’ll ask, why? Why are human beings in general, and men in particular, so attracted to this type of activity that they are thousands of years old? What does our evolutionary psychology tell us about this? In fact, it says a lot.
If we look closely, most sports activities have, in a sense, some whatsoever about activities that our ancestors had to perform simply to survive. Whether running, throwing, jumping, rowing, chasing or trying to dominate opponents, to conquer any goal, both physically and through some object (such as the ball, for example) are examples of this.
In sports with a strong physical component (which are the majority of them, in fact), men are more likely and numerous to practice them, either in quantity or in quality of their own performance. In addition, men have about 30 times more testosterone than women, being stronger, faster and more aggressive, something that, in ancient and adaptive times, has always been important to ensure the survival of themselves and their groups or tribes, both in war, as in the conquest of territories and resources, or in defense against predators or enemies, or, still, simply, in the hunt.
The so-called “warrior man hypothesis”, coined and proposed by scientists Mark van Vugt, David de Cremer and Dirk P. Janssen (2007), seems to be the best way to understand this phenomenon from an evolutionary point of view.
This scientist suggests that male psychology was essentially shaped during our evolution by the need for cooperation within groups and competition between groups, whether to conquer, acquire or protect reproductive and scarce resources. Thus, gender-specific selective pressures will have favored cooperation among the group members, combined with the manifest hostility and aggression against foreigners. This hypothesis is supported by investigations (Bowles & Gintis, 2011; Halevy, Bornstein, & Sagiv, 2009) suggesting that the scenario of conflict between groups promotes cooperation and internal cohesion among members of the ingroup and aggression against members of the outgroup.
And there is yet another hypothesis, called, in the original, by “The Crazy Bastard Hypothesis” , which hold that taking risks, voluntarily, and engaging in dangerous nonviolent activities has, in itself, a signaling value of abilities and qualities of those who do so.
In fact, in 2014, researchers from UCLA (Fessler, D.M. T., Tiokhin, L. B., Holbrook, C., Gervais, M. M., & Snyder, J. K.) sought to find out why young people are disproportionately involved in both violent and nonviolent activities in which both entail high risks of injury or even death. This is how the so-called “crazy bastard hypothesis” came about. As mentioned above, this hypothesis proposes that young people are attracted to dangerous activities and to take risks, because they thus reveal their courage, a propensity that makes a man be faced either as a dangerous enemy and/or a potential useful ally. Interestingly, the researchers found also that people tend to conceive of men and their propensity to take risks as being larger and stronger, although in reality there is no link between size or physical size and the propensity to take risk. It is likely that this voluntary risk-taking guidance can serve as a capacity signaling function, so that risk-prone individuals are seen as “more formidable” than individuals averse to it. 
This is probably also, alongside the previous “male warrior hypothesis”, one of the reasons that helps us understand and explain why men, more than women, play more sports and, especially, why, also, some of these sports activities, which are dangerous, are typical when not exclusive to men.
It is worth highlighting three important aspects: first, we know that men tend to expose themselves much more to dangerous displays and situations of greater risk (such as war), seeking, whenever they can, to display their capabilities and resources in the mating showcase. Corroborating this idea is the fact that, globally, men commit more than 85% of all homicides, 91% of all same-sex homicides and 97% of all homicides between men and women and the killer are unrelated to each other..
Second, the “relative value” of men for reproduction is lower than that of women because the number of sperm of man is much higher than the number of eggs of a woman, which makes the latter “more” valuable and less risk-prone (since the potential danger that comes from the death of the mother to her descendants had always been a crucial factor for her survival).
Third, sports that imply more radicalism or extreme reach are more common among men than among women given the greater male variability of behaviour.
In this vein, a relatively recent study (Thöni & Volk, 2021) suggests that men are generally much more likely than women to make choices and make extreme decisions. In an investigation involving more than 50,000 participants spread across 97 samples, an investigation team sought to analyses sexual differences in areas such as altruism, cooperation, trust, justice and attitudes towards time and risk in economic decision-making. Evidence of greater and systematic male variability was found, and the results suggest that men’s most extreme choices and decisions may be both positive and negative. This study points out that men, compared to women, have much more possibilities of being at the extremes of the behavioral spectrum, acting in a way, now very selfish, or very selfless, now very confident or very suspicious, “[…] being more focused on both the very short and the very long term.
In short, when men show off and take risks by exercising in sports, what they do is continue to signal their abilities, qualities and resources in terms of their general condition. And they do so because the performance of such practices conveys valuable information in the mating market, a market that is characterized by a general rule that seems to remain this: men compete and women choose from where, any athlete to become a valuable asset in terms of potential mating value.
Put another way, “honest signaling of abilities”, or the “handicap principle“, gains, here, a key highlight to understand and explain why men are more likely to practice all kinds of sports with strong physical component. And even in those who are highly mechanical and not fundamentally physical, they also serve to display the courage and resilience of their performers, or their intelligence (as in the case of chess).
As we know, all this information is important in the market and in the mating showcase. It should not surprise us, therefore, that, in our societies, the best male athletes (regardless of the sport practiced) are individuals with more demand for the mating value they represent. Therefore, looking at this phenomenon from this perspective, it is best to see why sports are so important, in particular, for men. Perhaps this will help explain why in some motor sports it is found that there are almost no women doing so (formula 1 or motorcycle racing, etc.).
If we want to understand human behavior through evolutionary lenses we need to look for absolute explanations and not just approximate. Thus, it is as important to perceive the ontogeny of behaviors (mechanism and development) as their phylogeny (function and origin). Only in this way will we be able to fully understand what explains certain differences between men and women as an integral part of deeper strategies that are associated, although not so, with reproductive strategies inscribed in nature, beyond cultural differences and not because of them.
If we accept both hypothesis (“male warrior and the crazy bastard”)”, combined with the “handicap principle”, we will better understand and explain why men, much more than women, are the main protagonists and sports practitioners.
References and other recommended bibliography and readings
Bowles, S. (2009). Did warfare among ancestral hunter-gatherer groups affect the evolution of human social behaviors. Science, 324 (5932), 1293-129–8. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1168112.
Daniel. T et all. “Foundations of the Crazy Bastard Hypothesis: Nonviolent physical risk-taking enhances conceptualized formidability”, Evolution and Human Behavior, Vol. 35, Issue 1, 2014, p. 26-33,
Lombardo MP. On the Evolution of Sport. Evolutionary Psychology. January 2012. doi:10.1177/147470491201000101
Massar, K. (2022). Men’s Intrasexual Competition. In T. Shackelford (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Sexual Psychology (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 84-110). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108943543.006
Miller, G. (2001). The mating mind. Nature. London: Random House.
Moller (Eds.), Annals of the NY Academy of Sciences: Vol. 907. Evolutionary perspectives on human reproductive behaviour (pp. 114-131). New York: New York Academy of Sciences.
Thöni, C., & Volk, S. (2021). Converging evidence for greater male variability in time, risk, and social preferences.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(23), e2026112118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2026112118.
Tracy, J., & Robins, R. (2004). Show your pride: Evidence for a discrete emotion expression. Psychological Science, 15, 194-197. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.01503008.x.
Trivers, R., & Seger, J. (1986). Asymmetry in the evolution of female mating preferences. Nature,
Van Vugt, M. (2008). Follow me: The origins of leadership. New Scientist, June 11.
Van Vugt, M. M., King, A., Johnson, D. (2009). The origins and evolution of leadership. Current Biology, 19, R911-R916. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.027.
Van Vugt, M., & Giphart, R. (2016). Mismatch – How our stone age brain deceives us every day & what we can do about it. London: Robinson.
Van Vugt, M., & Spisak, R. (2008). Sex differences in the emergence of leadership during competitions within and between groups. Sage Journal, 19. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02168.x.
van Vugt, M., de Cremer, D., & Janssen, D. P. (2007). Gender differences in cooperation and competition: The male-warrior hypothesis. Psychological Science, 18(1), 19-23. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01842.x.
Zahavi, A., (1997). The handicap principle: A missing piece of Darwin’s puzzle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Lombardo MP. On the Evolution of Sport. Evolutionary Psychology. January 2012. doi:10.1177/147470491201000101
 Maybe you don’t know, but men are also much more likely to watch sporting events involving physical confrontations (such as boxing or martial arts), or in which cooperation plays a key role, such as football, basketball, handball, hockey or any other team games. In fact, statistics suggest that men, on average, watch three times more than women at sporting events and experience these same events in a much more intense and dramatic way, often ending in physical confrontations or hospitalizations.
 See on this subject, Daniel M.T. Fessler, Leonid B. Tiokhin, Colin Holbrook, Matthew M. Gervais, Jeffrey K. Snyder, In “Foundations of the Crazy Bastard Hypothesis: Nonviolent physical risk-taking enhances conceptualized formidability,”, Evolution and Human Behavior, Vol. 35, Issue 1, 2014, pp. 26-33,
 In fact, other researchers had already described this tendency of young people to take risks as something designated as “young male syndrome”.
Despite more than 900 drivers having participated in F1 Grand Stakes in the past 73 years, only two riders have been women (i.e., 0.002%): Maria Teresa de Filippis (1958) and Lella Lombardi (1975 and 1976).
For example, with the say , for every 100 women aged between 20 and 24 who die of homicide, thus die 717 men, and for every 100 women who are in adult prisons, there are 1,000 men (Sources: Federal Bureau of Prisons, National Center for Health Statistics, cited by author Thomas Mortenson and Congressional Research Service; ScienceDaily; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Census Bureau).
 To learn more, see McAndrew (2009).
 Previous research involved two large-scale meta-analyses of economic decision-making studies and organizational citizenship behavior with more than 20,000 participants. Although the researchers found no differences in the degree to which men and women behaved cooperatively on average, they found strong evidence of greater male variability in cooperation. It seems clear to me that these differences will most likely have evolutionary roots, coexisting with other alternative explanations for the existence of what is often referred to as greater male variability of behavior..
 In particular , their mental and physical abilities, their flexibility, endurance and courage, as well as dexterity and coordination skills
 This makes perfect sense, because if women prefer to mate with men with more abilities, qualities or resources, then men seek to increase their reproductive prospects by displaying their abilities, and sports activity is a good means to signal it, not being very different from the “peacock tail”.
Originally formulated by biologist Amot Zahavi. To learn more, Vd. Zahavi (1975); Zahavi and Zahavi (1997). In short, the principle of handicap, as is known, postulates that all behaviors (or characteristics) that are costly to their holders (and are therefore difficult to fake) tend to be an honest way of signaling the qualities and resources of their owners.