While hostility or belligerent acts might not immediately appear to be linked to reproduction, the new study has shown that mating goals may be behind aggressive behaviors among people.
Griskevicius, a marketing professor at the U of M's Carlson School of Management, and his colleagues have found conclusive evidence that merely activating a desire for status can trigger aggression.
Aggressive displays, which may result in enhanced status, indirectly boost an individual's ability to attract a mate and, thereby, reproduce.
"It all boils down to the fact that status for men typically equals sex. Across different cultures and time, the higher status men have, the more sex or better-quality partners they may have. At the gene-level, nobody wants to go down in an evolutionary blaze of glory-no one wants their genes to become extinct. Additionally, unlike low-status women, low-status men are in serious danger of not reproducing, since they make especially undesirable mates," said Griskevicius.
He added: "Think of it this way. For men, fighting for status is akin to fighting for the survival of their genes. Not caring about status, which can be implied by backing away from a fight, can be evolutionary suicide. Aggression can lead to status. A higher status leads to sex, and that leads to more or higher-quality offspring."
Scientists displayed the evolved pull of aggression in a series of three studies.
The results showed that if men have status or sex on their minds (e.g., they are thinking about a promotion at work or an attractive opposite-sex individual), they would more quickly respond aggressively to a trivial insult.
The slight seems much more substantial when a man has sex or status on his mind. Men are especially likely to respond aggressively when there are other men around to watch the situation, suggesting that much of aggression is about display, rather than self-defense.
And the idea is supported by statistics, for police reports show that "trivial altercations" is the leading reason for homicide.
However, Griskevicius has warned that his work should not suggest that people are attracted to aggression.
Rather, "it is all about status-the one who wins the game-he's the one that gets the girl. And at the end of the day, if those genes are passed on, the aggressor is the ultimate winner," he said.
The study has been published in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.