When and Why We Choose Strong Men as Allies

by Mitch Brown, Donald Sacco, Nicole Barbaro, and Kelsey M. Drea

In early 2021, the common professional wrestling trope of the “stable,” a group of wrestlers with a common goal of dominance within a wrestling promotion, returned to All Elite Wrestling (AEW) with William Regal allying with Bryan Danielson and Jon Moxley. These scripted alliances have a seemingly universal understanding of how men forge bonds with each other based on perceptions of how they may aide in physical conflict. It could even be possible that these stories reflect how men have forged these alliances throughout evolutionary history. Such decisions are likely shaped by carefully navigating when (and whether) strong allies are desirable in attaining group goals.

Humans have been engaged throughout history in forming groups that facilitate goals. The process of choosing allies may have some ancestral roots. These preferences could help people identify those best suited to ensure their safety and access to resources from competitors, particularly when there could have been limited access to resources or threats of violence from other groups. People could have historically identified formidable allies to address these potential threats. Who were the best allies? Recognizing the best allies could happen through physical features that could demonstrate men’s physical prowess, given considerable research demonstrating such cues may connote actual strength. For example, men’s facial width-to-height ratio (fWHR), a configuration of facial width relative to its height, is associated with perceptions of aggression and related to their actual fighting ability.

Although perceptions of dominant personalities through fWHR are less universal than previously thought, men with a higher fWHR remain consistently perceived as more formidable and intimidating to perceivers. In fact, these perceptions offer a kernel of truth. Male professional fighters with higher fWHRs are more successful in certain aspects of combat (e.g., grappling), with archaeological records suggesting that formidable men were more likely to survive violent conflicts. These men also find themselves more prone to using aggressive interpersonal tactics.

With these (often true) stereotypes people make about men based on their fWHR, it would seem likely that people might choose high-fWHR men for physically demanding group tasks as allies – which is indeed the case for physically strenuous sports like American football. In a recent study, my collaborators and I sought to replicate these findings using a pair of tasks that could reflect, in part, realistic features of ancestral coalitional alliance, namely tug-of-war and escape rooms. In three studies, we presented participants with men’s faces that varied in fWHR, with half having high fWHRs and others low fWHRs. Our results conceptually replicated previous effects by showing that people chose men with high fWHRs more frequently for tug-of-war and were perceived as physically strong and effective in using their strength to get the job done.

Now that we knew men were chosen for strength tasks based in part on their fWHR, our next step was to know whether these preferences for high-fWHR men extend to choosing allies for protection tasks specifically. We got participants into similar competitive or cooperative mindset using a priming procedure. Then, participants chose from the same options of men’s faces as the previous studies under the assumption that they would accompany them to a football game against an historic rival of their university (in our case, Southern Miss versus Mississippi State). Knowing how football rivalries play out in the Southern U.S., that environment could get tense! When in a competitive mindset, individuals preferred men with high fWHRs over those with low fWHRs, aligning with our predictions that formidable men would be desirable for potential outgroup protection. Preferences weren’t influenced by cooperative mindset.

Nonetheless, the formidable ally could often betray his teammates for his own benefit. This potential for exploitation from the ally seems to mirror additional research suggesting a wariness to formidable men based on the possibility of the costs they could inflict. We tested this idea in a final study within this paper to determine if a competitive mindset makes the perceived threat of high-fWHR men less apparent. Using the same competitive versus cooperative mindset priming procedures described above, participants did a visual bias task that measures participants’ motivation to approach or avoid a high and low-fWHR men. Although the competitive or cooperative mindsets had no effect, people did view high-fWHR men as more threatening than low-fWHR men across under both conditions. This means that the recruitment of formidable men may reflect an “uneasy alliance” with a perceiver who may be wary of this potential betrayal.

Overall, these findings provide continued support for how historically derived perceptions of men and their physical abilities shape how people engage them in everyday environments, showing how individuals navigate social landscapes while making best estimates for the utility of their own proverbial stablemates.

Read the paper: Contextual factors that heighten interest in coalitional alliances with men possessing formidable facial structures