Psychology ETDs

Publication Date

Spring 4-14-2017


Costly signaling theory posits that people will sometimes engage in seemingly irrational behavior to show off attractive qualities about themselves. These behaviors may end in or incur a cost to the actor such that only individuals who are highly fit are able to succeed at the behavior, and therefore behavior success is an honest signal of fitness. Previous research has used costly signaling to explain human physical risk taking behaviors such as rock climbing, but the current study seeks to apply them to social risk taking, such as raising one’s hand in class. Should social risk taking prove to be a form of costly signaling, successful risk takers should be seen as more attractive than risk avoiders, and unsuccessful risk takers should be seen as less unattractive. Participants (N=219) from the University of New Mexico read 13 vignettes about individuals who either succeed at, fail at, or avoid taking a social risk. Participants then rated the protagonist on their attractiveness as a potential friend, long term partner, and short term partner. Results indicate that while successful risk takers are indeed attractive as is consistent with costly signaling, unsuccessful risk takers are actually more attractive than risk avoiders, which is inconsistent with predictions. However, this may have been due to the wording of vignettes and the questionable ecological validity of an obvious avoidance condition; indeed, given the apparent lack of self-confidence, an individual who obviously avoids a risk may be assumed to fail if they had taken the risk. Future studies should therefore vary the wording of this condition, as well as study the specific personality traits that are risk takers and risk avoiders are displaying in their actions.

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First Committee Member (Chair)

Geoffrey Miller

Second Committee Member

Steven Gangestad

Third Committee Member

Elizabeth Yeater




costly signaling; risk taking; social risks

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