Jerks: What's Your Deal?

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Drunken rowdiness at sports facilities, dangerous driving in heavy traffic, stupid and risky financial decisions, and other behaviors associated with jerks could be explained by the newly formulated "Crazy Bastard Hypothesis."

The hypothesis, outlined in the latest issue of Evolution of Human Behavior, says that part of the population -- mostly young men -- are predisposed to nonviolent risk-taking, which can improve their status.

"Specifically, the less that someone cares about their own welfare, the more dangerous they are as an opponent, because they will not be deterred by threats, and will be less likely to retreat if injured," lead author Daniel Fessler explained to Discovery News.

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"A considerable part of the psychology of young men is dedicated to competition, including potentially violent competition with other young men," added Fessler, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Advertising that one is indifferent to injury or death makes one a feared adversary and a valuable friend."

Fessler was inspired to conduct the study because he wondered why anyone would engage in non-violent risk-taking. For example, he noticed that young men in California are vastly more likely than other people to be bitten by rattlesnakes. Guys often pick up the snakes sometimes as a dare or to show off in front of others.

For the study, Fessler and his team conducted five experiments. Most looked at how both men and women perceived the size and strength of unseen risk takers. Risk-prone vignettes included things like not wearing a seat-belt, eating and texting while driving, speeding, driving through a red light, sunbathing without sunscreen, betting a day's income at a high-stakes poker game, and other risky behaviors.

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A similar study was conducted in Fiji among villagers, only this time the risky behavior vignettes including things like climbing tall coconut trees and sailing rough seas without a life vest.

In most cases, and particularly among men, knowing that a man voluntarily engages in dangerous, nonviolent activities leads others to conceptualize him as larger and stronger.

"In other words, in your 'mind's eye,' you form a mental picture that is a summary of all of the various tactical assets and tactical liabilities that you and your opponent would bring to a fight (such as weapons, the presence of allies, etc.)," Fessler said. "Conceptualizing a risk-taker as bigger and stronger thus reveals that you think of that person as more dangerous in a fight."