Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Male Protection

  • Martha Lucia Borras GuevaraEmail author
  • Carlota Batres
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_280-1



The act through which males protect themselves and/or others.


Natural selection favors those physical and psychological traits that are beneficial in terms of reproduction and survival (Dobzhansky 1956). Human ancestral times were characterized by prevalent violence, consisting both of within and between group conflict (Duntley and Shackelford 2012; LeBlanc 2003; Puts 2010). As a result, both men’s and women’s psychology could have been influenced by such violent contexts, leading to preferences for certain physical traits related to protection from partners or allies (men’s: Borráz-León et al. 2014; women’s: Buss 1994).

Male Protection for Females

On average, women are shorter, smaller in size, less aggressive, and have a weaker body composition compared to men (Daly and Wilson 1988). Evidence from archeological archives suggests that damage of property, homicide, and rape were common practices during human evolutionary history (Keeley 1996; LeBlanc 2003). During this time, conflict was mostly driven by intra-sexual competition between men (Archer and Benson 2008; Little et al. 2013; Puts 2010), hence women’s physique could have made them more vulnerable to becoming victims of crime and violence elicited by men (Duntley and Shackelford 2012; Perilloux et al. 2012). The costs associated with men’s aggression against women ranged from physical and psychological pain (Thornhill and Palmer 2000) to death (Duntley and Shackelford 2012). In order to minimize or avoid these costs, women are thought to have evolved psychological strategies to protect themselves from potentially being hurt (Duntley and Shackelford 2012).

Women’s preferences may have thus shifted toward men with the ability to protect them from violence and therefore decrease victimization risks (Li et al. 2014). Previous studies have suggested that traits that indicate men’s protective capabilities, their probability to survive in agonistic encounters, and deter competitors could be their physical formidability, aggressiveness, and coerciveness (Snyder et al. 2008). Findings on who women prefer as partners have supported this idea. Buss (1994) found that women choosing potential partners had a higher preference for men who could offer protection for themselves and their children. Likewise, Snyder et al. (2011) found that when women felt at higher risk of crime, they preferred partners who looked more formidable and dominant. Taking this idea further, Ryder et al. (2016) found that women’s preferences for more formidable and dominant men were exacerbated in crime hotspots and decreased in safespots. Furthermore, women have been found to prefer friends, short-term mates, and extra-pair partners who were described as protective (Bleske-Rechek and Buss 2001; Greiling and Buss 2000). These results suggest that women prefer to be in contact with men (either as partners or friends) who are more capable of protecting them under violent contexts.

Women’s higher preferences for more formidable partners are not restricted to bodily features; it extends to facial ones too. For example, men’s facial masculinity, which has been directly related to perceptions of dominance (Fink et al. 2007; Little et al. 2013), was preferred by women who were primed with images of male on male conflict (Li et al. 2014). Findings from Li et al. (2014) suggest that when women face danger they prefer partners who would be more able to protect them as well as partners who are more masculine, formidable, and dominant (Windhager et al. 2011).

Men’s ability and willingness to protect women can be considered both an asset and a liability. A protective partner would be characterized by being more aggressive, dominant, and physically formidable (Snyder et al. 2011). Although a partner with these traits may seem advantageous in a violent scenario, it could be dangerous as well (Borras-Guevara et al. 2017a; Li et al. 2014; Snyder et al. 2011). For instance, men’s aggressiveness correlated positively with coercion and predicted partner abuse (Lorber and O'Leary 2004). Furthermore, aggression, coerciveness, and getting more involved in fights are more common between stronger than average men (Archer and Thanzami 2009; Sell et al. 2009). While there is a clear association between men’s protective traits and women’s risk of being hurt, most research on the influence of violence on women’s mate preferences has focused on the benefits women obtain when choosing a protective partner. Only a few studies have done research on the potential costs that women would face as well when preferring such kind of partners (Borras-Guevara et al. 2017a; Li et al. 2014; Snyder et al. 2011). Li et al. (2014) found that when women were primed with images of men punching women, their masculinity preferences dropped. More recently, while studying a Colombian population, Borras-Guevara et al. (2017a) found that women who feared men being dangerous to their children had lower masculinity preferences for male faces.

The findings from Borras-Guevara et al. (2017a, b) and Li et al. (2014) both illustrate the multi-modalism of violence. Indeed, studies on public violence have realed that this type of violence is mainly driven by intra-sexual competition between men (Wilson and Daly 1985). In domestic violence reports, however, women are commonly the victims and men the perpetrators (Zlotnick et al. 1998; Brewster et al. 2002). Therefore, women’s partner preferences should reflect the different roles men and women play during public or domestic violence.

Due to the above, living in a violent environment may not be the only criteria women take into account when choosing a protective partner, they should also take notice of the incidence and severity of different types of violence (Borras-Guevara et al. 2017a, b). That is, choosing a protective partner may be a priority when domestic violence is perceived as infrequent, but public violence is recurrent (Borras-Guevara et al. 2017b). In fact, Colombian women’s partner preferences confirm this claim. Women who were asked about their perceptions of domestic and public violence, whose perceptions of within partnership violence were higher, had lower masculinity preferences for male faces (Borras-Guevara et al. 2017b).

The existing research supports the idea that women’s mating preferences reflect a need for protection; however, the type of partner they prefer may shift depending on the source of violence. If women face higher public violence, where conflict is mainly between men, they may be better protected by more aggressive, formidable men. Yet if domestic violence is instead more common than public violence, women may be better off partnering up with someone less likely to be aggressive toward them (i.e., someone less aggressive and formidable).

Male Protection from Males

Men’s psychology, like women’s, may have been influenced by the high frequency of violence in ancestral environments (Borráz-León et al. 2014; Duntley and Shackelford 2012). In such contexts, men would benefit from recognizing potential allies to approach, from whom they could gain protection from, or potential rivals to avoid (Borráz-León et al. 2014). In support of this idea, Sell et al. (2009) as well as Holzleitner and Perrett (2016) found that men can accurately evaluate other men’s fighting abilities by precisely identifying physical cues of strength. An additional explanation, however, is that this ability reflects men’s need to protect themselves from potential cuckoldry since during human evolution, male intra-sexual competition for female partners was fierce (Puts 2010).

Previous research has found that men’s preferences for other men match that of women (Batres and Perrett 2014; Borras-Guevara et al. 2017a, b; Borráz-León et al. 2014). On the one hand, these findings could support the idea that men’s preferences for more formidable males reflect a need to recognize potential rivals, who would be more attractive for potential partners. On the other hand, men’s preferences could reflect their ability to identify males that represent a lower/greater threat to them. Following this idea, Borras-Guevara et al. (2017a) reported that Colombian men, who feared about general violence, preferred less masculine male faces, just as women did, suggesting that when facing conflict, men would prefer male allies who represent to them a lower risk of being hurt. How much protection is gained from an ally, however, depends on the physical abilities of both parties involved. That is, a man’s own physical strength influences his perceptions of potential competitors (Fessler et al. 2014). Indeed, Watkins et al. (2010) found that when men considered themselves as less dominant than the average, they were more likely to associate facial masculinity with fighting capacity, compared to men who rated themselves as more dominant.

Men’s need for protection, reflected in their preferences for allies, may depend on the source of violence too. Domestic violence is not a matter that only affects women. In fact, in the last 10 years, within-partnership violence against men in the UK has increased by 500%. To date, however, no study has focused on the effects of different types of violence on men’s preferences for allies or enemies.


Overall, the existing literature agrees with the notion that women’s mating preferences under violent circumstances reflect a need for protection. However, these preferences are contingent on the type of violence women need to protect themselves from. Studies that have taken into account women’s fear of public violence, or violence between men, have found that under these conditions women prefer more formidable-aggressive men. When other types of violence were also studied, for example, domestic violence, women preferred less formidable and aggressive partners. In the case of men, it is still not clear if preferences for other males reflect either a desire to gain protection, avoid costs associated with agonistic encounters, or to discern what potential partners want. More studies on both women’s and men’s preferences for male protection are thus needed to clarify and reach a consensus about their causes.



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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of St. AndrewsSt. AndrewsUK
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyFranklin and Marshall CollegeLancasterUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Tara DeLecce
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyOakland UniversityRochesterUSA