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Dominance and Prestige in Diverse Contexts: Investigations into the Relative Contributions of Coercive and Persuasive Attributes in Mate Selection, Rape Avoidance, and the Social Dynamics of a Mutual Aid Organization

  • Author(s): Snyder, Jeffrey Keith
  • Advisor(s): Fessler, Daniel M.T.
  • et al.

Evolutionary anthropology is a scholarly endeavor informed by the history of human evolution, drawing on the fields of evolutionary biology, behavioral ecology, behavioral economics, and evolutionary psychology, in addition to the substantial contributions of conventional anthropology itself. This frame of reference allows for a functional perspective on human behavior without ignoring or neglecting important sources of individual and cultural variation. In a general way, this work investigates how natural and sexual selection pressures shape human psychology and behavior, generating evolved proclivities and propensities, including the propensity for humans to be cultural animals. Hence, this perspective situates humans as active agents navigating a complex terrain of selective regimes and interacting with multiple local social systems in the interest of achieving both cultural competency and fitness. More specifically, within this framework, the work of this dissertation examines both differing forms of social status and cooperation and conflict in mating and mate selection.

Much of the work presented here explores how, as autonomous agents operating within the affordances and constraints of their social ecology, women negotiate heterosexual mateship choices across varying environments. Positing that dominant men may also be domineering mates in the household, my research previous to this dissertation focused on critiquing the simplistic perspective that heterosexual women prefer dominant men. This research established that it is more likely that, on average, women interested in upward mobility actually prefer prestige in their prospective partners rather than dominance. Furthermore, these women pay attention to the context of men's domineering behaviors, ensuring that men adhere to culturally-prescribed norms of behavior. Presumably, this suite of preferences functions to increase the probability of coordination and cooperation in long-term pair bonds - cooperation directed toward the raising of extremely altricial human offspring.

While the majority of heterosexual women surveyed in my prior work prefer male partners who pursue social status through prestige rather than through dominance, nonetheless, observation suggests that some women select domineering partners in spite of available alternatives. Clinicians and scholars alike tend to approach this phenomenon from a perspective that pathologizes these women and deprecates their choices. Chapter 1 of the dissertation argues that such women can, in part, be understood as confronting a trade-off wherein they shift their preferences toward men who are likely to offer them necessary protection in spite of the strong possibility that these same men will be domineering in the household. This work reveals that women who perceive themselves to be more vulnerable to crime indeed have preferences for such aggressive and physically formidable men. Hence, women who select domineering men as long-term partners may be responding in a functional manner to their unfortunate circumstances. Rather than suffering pathology or dysfunction, these women are making the best of a bad situation, a fact that has likely eluded middle- and upper-class investigators who are less familiar with the experiences and dangerous environments that such women face. Importantly, this work also offers an explanation for why preferences for long-term partners who can offer protection were long posited but went previously undetected.

Again focusing on cooperation and conflict in mateships and mate selection, Chapters 2 and 3 of the dissertation call to task evolutionary psychology researchers who have, I argue, incorrectly characterized women's psychological responses to rape and their defensive coping strategies. My data-driven investigations challenge widely-held views on the subject. It is important for any phenomenological investigation to be held to high standards of scientific rigor. In addition, as sexual coercion and rape are deeply disturbing social ills and a profound tragedy for the victims, it is especially important that the scholarship of this topic be held to the highest levels of rigor.

Chapter 2 of the dissertation systematically re-evaluates the logic and methods used to investigate women's rape-avoidance behaviors. Here, I contend that a significant body of the investigation of this phenomenon relies heavily on self-report measures that are only applicable to women in university or college settings, failing to accurately capture important variation in women's behaviors according to age and relationship status. I suggest in this work that women's fear of rape should be the primary motivator of rape-avoidance behaviors; thus, fear of sexual assault should be a useful index in measuring rape defensive strategies. Employing this approach, I obtain results that significantly deviate from the findings of previous researchers.

Chapter 3 is an extension of the notion that fear of rape is an important index. Here I examine partnered women's fear of rape, simultaneously calling for higher levels of rigor in the study of partnered women's risk for emotional sequalae following sexual assault. A reified but under-investigated hypothesis contends that partnered women face a higher cost of sexual assault because the victim's mate may misperceive the assault as a cuckoldry threat. A thorough review of the existing evidence suggesting that partnered women face higher costs of rape indicates that existing findings are equivocal at best. I then present novel results indicating that the effects of relationship status on fear of sexual assault do not correspond with the notion that partnered women face higher costs due to rape than unpartnered women.

Turning from issues of dominance to issues of prestige, in Chapter 4 I present an ethnographic description of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) as a mutual-aid group and a quasi-egalitarian cooperative institution characterized by complex prestige dynamics. I argue that, within this egalitarian organization, there is a clear dependence on experience-based transmission of cultural norms through a process of apprenticeship and imitation that necessarily generates a prestige hierarchy. Whenever status becomes a commodity, there is a risk that individuals will leverage their status into positions of dominance and control over subordinates. The codified orthodoxy of this institution has specific proscriptions condemning such behaviors and, accordingly, proscribing the pursuit of status. Mirroring small-scale societies, individuals in NA strategically employ leveling mechanisms designed to limit the power and personally sanction self-aggrandizing behaviors. Thus, what emerges is a relatively stable organization, across regions and time, with more-experienced members teaching the norms of the institution to less-experienced members and gently leading at local levels while treading carefully as regards self-aggrandizement.

In sum, adopting an evolutionary perspective concerned with questions of ultimate function, this work examines the psychology and social dynamics of cooperation and conflict in a variety of domains. Simultaneously, this work stands as a cautionary tale against ethnocentrism and disciplinary in-group favoritism, warning of the dual dangers of sweeping important cultural contexts under the rug and settling for low standards of scientific rigor.

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