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What sports matches reveal about gender roles

Cell Press

In the modern era, it's clear that women can do just about anything that men can do. But, according to researchers reporting evidence based on hours watching online videos of social interactions after professional sports matches, men and women still manage conflict differently, most likely based on differences in traditional gender roles that go way, way back. The findings are published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on August 4.

The study shows--across competitions in four sports with players from 44 different countries around the world--that men spend more time engaged in peaceful physical contact immediately after a sports match than women do. The findings suggest that men are more invested than women in ensuring that the conflict over who would win the match has ended, the researchers say. They also lend support to the so-called warrior hypothesis, which holds that men should work harder to patch up any hard feelings after a conflict within their own group so as to better work together against any outside threat down the line.

"We believe that human social structure resembles that of chimpanzees in which males cooperate in groups of unrelated same-sex peers and females cooperate more with family members and one or two good friends who act as family," says Joyce Benenson of Emanuel College and Harvard University. "Human males form large cooperative organizations that have changed the world. Females [traditionally] invest more in families to keep their children and other family members alive and thriving. We expect that this is an evolved sex difference in social structure that still operates today."

Benenson says that she and her colleagues got interested in this question of intragroup conflict resolution after years of questioning how men engage in contests between groups--in war and business, for example--while also engaging in continual competition within their social groups. They knew from earlier studies that male chimpanzees, who continually engage in aggressive conflicts, are also more likely than females to engage in post-conflict affiliation than females, presumably to allow them to then cooperate against hostile neighboring communities. They wondered whether the same was true of humans.

Benenson realized that they could test this notion in studies of sports matches, which serve as a proxy for aggressive combat with clear outcomes and standardized rules. The researchers found dozens of online videos of pairs of men and women playing high-level matches in tennis, table tennis, badminton, and boxing. But they weren't interested in what happened during the game or in the outcome. What they wanted to see was how the two competitors interacted just after the game had ended.

While it's customary to shake hands after a match, their observations showed that men consistently chose to spend more time in peaceful contact with their opponents after a game than women did.

According to the researchers, the findings might have modern-day implications that extend beyond sports. For example, they suggest that women might generally struggle more to resolve conflicts with same-sex peers at work and at play. She and her colleagues now hope to explore the physiological mechanisms that underlie the observed sex differences.

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The study was funded by the Emmanuel College Faculty Development Committee.

Current Biology, Benenson and Wrangham:"Cross-Cultural Sex Differences in Post-Conflict Affiliation following Sports Matches" http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(16)30663-7

Current Biology (@CurrentBiology), published by Cell Press, is a bimonthly journal that features papers across all areas of biology. Current Biology strives to foster communication across fields of biology, both by publishing important findings of general interest and through highly accessible front matter for non-specialists. Visit: http://www.cell.com/current-biology. To receive Cell Press media alerts, contact press@cell.com.

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