A novel mental mechanism that people subconsciously use to gauge threats posed by others has been discovered by scientists.
UCLA anthropologist Daniel Fessler study found a mechanism that translates the magnitude of the threat into the same dimensions used by animals to size up their adversaries - size and strength - even when these dimensions have no actual connection to the threat.
Fessler's work illuminates how people make decisions in situations where violent conflict is a possibility, which could have ramifications for law enforcement, the prison system and the military.
In the study's first phase, Fessler and Colin Holbrook, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab, presented Americans with descriptions of two men - one who participates in several dangerous sports including freestyle motorcycling and big-wave surfing, and another who is so risk-averse that he can't bear to even watch big-wave surfing.
The respondents consistently perceived the daredevil to be taller and stronger than the man who avoided the extreme sports.
To ensure that the effect wasn't unique to American culture, the team also assessed perceptions of risk-seeking behavior among men on the Fijian island, where one of Fessler's graduate students happened to be conducting research at the time.
The team even tested whether there was an actual correlation between height, muscularity and risk-seeking behavior in the U.S., but found none.
The study has been published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.