Science & Environment

Men may have evolved better 'making up' skills

boxing Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Researchers say that men spend longer touching and embracing after conflicts such as professional boxing

Men's historical dominance of the workplace may, in part, be because of their ability to reconcile with enemies after conflict, a new study suggests.

Researchers examined the aftermath of same-sex sporting events and found that men spent longer talking, touching or embracing their opponents than women.

These efforts to patch things up ensure the males can then co-operate more successfully in the future.

The authors believe that this trait has been carried down through the years.

Bickering chimps

Researchers have long been puzzled by the abilities of male chimpanzees, who constantly bicker and fight, to put aside their differences and co-operate and work together in struggles for territory with other groups.

Studies showed that male and female chimps acted differently in the aftermath of fights, with males much more inclined to engage in reconciliation behaviours.

Psychologists wondered if the same habits were true for humans - and decided to analyse high-level, same sex sporting competitions for these reconciliation traits.

The team looked at recordings of tennis, table tennis, badminton and boxing involving men and women from 44 countries.

They focused on what happened in the aftermath of these events in terms of physical contacts, such as handshakes and embraces, between opponents.

In society generally, data indicates that physical contact between women is equal to or more frequent than it is among males.

But across the four sports observed, men spent significantly more time touching than females, in what the authors term "post-conflict affiliation".

"What you'll see is that many times females brush their fingers against each other," said lead author Prof Joyce Benenson from Emmanuel College and Harvard University.

"You're expected by the sport to do something but it's so frosty. However, with the males even with a handshake you can see the warmth, the tightness of it.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The study showed that women spent less time touching after sports events than men

"I expected this would be the least strong in boxing, because you try to kill the other person, but it's the strongest in this sport, there really is this sense of love for your opponent which is beyond my understanding."

The authors conclude that men in these sports are doing exactly what the male chimpanzees are doing - investing more time in patching up their differences so that they can potentially work together down the line.

Willing to die for

The authors recognise that there may be limitations to their study, but they believe their work fits in with other research such as the finding that after divorce, men tend to more easily form peaceful relationships with their former wives' new spouses than vice versa.

Prof Benenson believe that overall, her new work shows that these reconciliation abilities are an "evolved sex difference that still operates today".

"It's the idea that you can have a mechanism that allows you to go from that tremendous competition to beat others to being able to form groups and create human society.

"Really men have done that in business, in religion, in education and the military - they form these relationships where they are willing to die for each other in some cases."

These traits have been, and continue to be, to the detriment of women in the workplace, Prof Benenson believes.

She argues that in family settings, women are able to fight and make up in the same way as men, but in the office environment the same incentives don't seem to be there.

She says that if childcare could be more closely incorporated into work, and women were able to share this with their female colleagues, they might be able to see them more as family members and this might help them achieve the same level of co-operation with competitors as men do.

Other researchers say that this is an "impressive" study.

"That men are more likely to reconcile after a conflict supports other studies showing that male-male relationships are generally different than female-female relationships," said Prof Robert Deaner from Grand Valley State University, who wasn't involved in the work.

"A woman's relationship with another woman is often gravely damaged if one woman achieves greater status than the other or somehow outdoes her.

"Men, by contrast, seem to better tolerate these kinds of ups and downs, which may be why men seem better than women at maintaining large same-sex social networks."

The study has been published in the journal Current Biology.

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