Why are small males aggressive?
Aggression is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom, whenever the interests of individuals conflict. In contests between animals, the larger opponent is often victorious. However, counter intuitively, an individual that has little chance of winning (generally smaller individuals) sometimes initiates contests.
A number of hypotheses have been put forward to explain this behaviour, including the ‘desperado effect’ according to which, the likely losers initiate aggression due to lack of alternative options. An alternative explanation suggested recently is that likely losers attack due to an error in perception: they mistakenly perceive their chances of winning as being greater than they are. We show that explaining the apparently maladaptive aggression initiated by the likely loser can be explained on purely economic grounds, without requiring either the desperado effect or perception errors.
Using a game-theoretical model, we show that if smaller individuals can accurately assess their chance of winning, if this chance is less than, but close to, a half, and if resources are scarce (or the contested resource is of relatively low value), they are predicted to be as aggressive as their larger opponents. In addition, when resources are abundant, and small individuals have some chance of winning, they may be more aggressive than their larger opponents, as it may benefit larger individuals to avoid the costs of fighting and seek alternative uncontested resources.
A High Aggression Strategy for Smaller Males
Male-male conflict is common among animals, but questions remain as to when, how and by whom aggression should be initiated. Factors that affect agonistic strategies include residency, the value of the contested resource and the fighting ability of the two contestants.
We quantified initiation of aggression in a fish, the desert goby, Chlamydogobius eremius, by exposing nest-holding males to a male intruder. The perceived value of the resource (the nest) was manipulated by exposing half of the residents to sexually receptive females for two days before the trial. Resident male aggression, however, was unaffected by perceived mating opportunities. It was also unaffected by the absolute and relative size of the intruder.
Instead resident aggression was negatively related to resident male size. In particular, smaller residents attacked sooner and with greater intensity compared to larger residents. These results suggest that resident desert goby males used set, rather than conditional, strategies for initiating aggression. If intruders are more likely to flee than retaliate, small males may benefit from attacking intruders before these have had an opportunity to assess the resident and/or the resource.
Why are men more violent?
In almost every society men are the ones who are overwhelmingly involved in wars, in all kinds of intergroup aggressions and intragroup homicide; they mobilize themselves in armies of violent fans, in criminal gangs, in bands of thugs, etc. These observations are as old as the world and have allowed us to create a clear distinction between male and female sexes regarding their predisposition to violence. Wars are a biosocial product of men and a field for male’s manifestation [Goldstein, 2001]. The same thing is true of crime and cruelty, which are closely linked to masculinity.
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All of these anatomical, hormonal, behavioral and evolutionary factors demonstrate the biological, instinctual inclination of men to be more combative. Therefore, on an individual and social level, men are involved in acts of violence and crime. The social environment only cultivates and points out these predispositions towards fighting and aggression.
Are all short men little Napoleons? It’s often said smaller men tend to be chippy and aggressive. But what’s the scientific evidence?
- The name of one of greatest military leaders lent to the Napoleon Complex
- Syndrome where pint-sized men overcompensate for their lack of stature with self-importance, jealousy and aggression
- Stalin was said to suffer from it, as did Mussolini and Attila the Hun
- But critics say people often too quick to link personality defects to height
Napoleon Bonaparte’s legacy is immense. He reformed the Continental legal system, ensured that Europe, and most of the world, drives on the right and, until his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo 200 years ago this month, was one of the greatest military leaders in history.
The French dictator also lent his name to something less impressive — the Napoleon Complex, the syndrome where pint-sized men overcompensate for their lack of stature with blustering self-importance, jealousy and aggression.
Stalin was said to suffer from it, as did Mussolini and Attila the Hun. Some critics say it helps explain the behaviour of 5ft 5in former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Last month, singer Art Garfunkel reignited the debate over the Napoleon Complex by accusing his erstwhile partner Paul Simon — all 5ft 3in of him — of being a sufferer. ‘I think you’re on to something,’ Garfunkel reflected, looking back on years of in-fighting and estrangement. ‘I would say so, yes.’
So is there really such a thing as a short man syndrome? And can height really influence our pesonality?
The Napoleon Complex was identified in 1926 by the Austrian psychoanalyst Alfred Adler, who also came up with the notion of the inferiority complex, where sufferers demonstrate a lack of self-worth.
In its classic form, personified by Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army (who is regularly taunted as a ‘Napoleon’ by Warden Hodges), short men overcompensate for their lack of height by being extra-assertive and chippy.
The name, actually, is a bit of a misnomer. Although Napoleon is assumed to have been short, he was 5ft 6in, around average for a man in the late 18th century. The confusion arose from portraits of the dictator standing alongside unusually tall guards.
The complex has divided psychologists for more than a century. Some say it describes a real phenomenon; others believe there is no evidence it exists.
What is beyond doubt, is that short men have every reason to be fed-up with their lot. Study after study shows that tall people are wealthier, more successful at work, healthier and even enjoy better love lives than their smaller counterparts.
A 2004 study by psychologist Timothy Judge found that tall people earn more. He calculated back then that every inch of height added $789 (£505) to someone’s annual salary every year so that, on average, a worker who was 6ft earned $5,525 (£3,535) more than someone who was 5ft 5in.
When author Malcolm Gladwell polled the management of half the top U.S. companies, he found that 58 per cent of chief executives were at least 6ft tall, compared to just 14 per cent of the population.
Since 1916 — the era when our politicians have appeared on cinema screens and TV — the taller U.S. presidential candidate has won 17 times; the shorter candidate just six. Other studies have shown tall men are more likely to find a long-term partner and taller teenagers have more dates.
Short people are more likely to become crooks, they’re more likely to develop heart disease, they tend to be more unhappy and they don’t live as long. No wonder vertically challenged people feel they are getting short shrift.
No one really knows why tall people — and particularly tall men — do so well in life. It may be partly to do with evolution. Tall men are seen by women as being healthier, fitter and stronger, looking all round the better catch.
Tall people may be more confident, safe in the knowledge they will never be overlooked. That confidence may translate into better exam results, career prospects and love lives.
But what evidence is there that these inequalities are matched by seething resentment and anger among short men? One study suggesting the short man complex is real came from Professor Abraham Buunk, of Holland’s University of Groningen.
He interviewed 100 men and 100 women in relationships and found that men around 5ft 4in tall were more likely to suffer from jealousy than those measuring 6ft 6in.
For women, the results were different: tall and short women both showed more signs of jealousy than women of average stature.
But other experiments have not found compelling evidence for a Napoleon Complex.
Psychologist Dr Glenn Wilson says: ‘For every nasty little Napoleon or Hitler, there’s an equally nasty Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gaddafi who is tall. It’s easy to think of case examples but scientific evidence is very limited.’
In 2007, researchers at the University of Central Lancashire found that tall men — not short ones — were quicker to lose their rag when provoked.
In an unusual — and slightly silly — study, men of different heights duelled with wooden sticks. In each fight, they were battling a stooge who was told to provoke a response by deliberately rapping their opponent across the knuckles.
Dr Mike Eslea, who carried out the study, showed it was the taller men who were more quick to fly off the handle. And when researchers at Southampton University compared the personality types of 48 short and 66 average height people in their late teens in 2003, they found no link between personality and height.
Critics of the theory say people are often too quick to link personality defects to height. If a 5ft 10in man is bossy or angry, no one links it to their size.
Yet when a 5ft 4in man displays the same characteristics, they are accused of overcompensating.
And there are plenty of shorter men who are easy-going and passive. Gandhi was just 5ft 3in.
If the evidence for Napoleon syndrome in men is weak, it’s virtually non-existent in women. Some studies have shown shorter women feel less confident — which helps explain why so many women feel the need to wear high heels to boost their self-esteem.
Oxford University academic Professor Daniel Freeman tested how height affects personality in 2013. He invited 60 women to take a simulated underground train journey while wearing virtual reality glasses.
The Tube trip was as realistic as possible — with noisy rumbling and swaying motion — and the carriage was populated by computer-generated people. The volunteers took two journeys — one at normal height and another with their viewpoint altered to replicate how the journey would look if they were about a head shorter.
‘It was clear that being lower made people feel less confident in themselves,’ says Prof Freeman. ‘There was an increase in feelings of inferiority. And, with this added sense of vulnerability, the participants felt more mistrustful of the people around them. This happened in a virtual-reality simulation but we know people behave in VR as they do in real life.’
The Napoleon Complex has divided psychologists for more than a century. Some say it describes a real phenomenon; others believe there is no evidence it exists.
Yet revealing that a woman feels less confident when she’s shorter doesn’t mean that she also becomes more aggressive, pompous or chippy. Women are expected to be shorter in our society.
In 97 per cent of UK couples, the man is on average five or six inches taller.
Psychologist Dr David Lewis claims to have identified a ‘Tinker Bell Complex’, named after the feisty fairy in Peter Pan. Women who are petite are often infantilised — treated like children by men, or so the theory goes. As a result, they can develop a sense of rebellion and resentment that makes them more flamboyant and ambitious.
Candidates for the Tinker Bell Complex include Lady Gaga (5ft 1in), Barbara Windsor (4ft 10in) and Lulu (5ft 1in). Unlike the Napoleon Complex, it’s not seen as a negative trait but an asset that helps them succeed.
At the other end of the scale, tall women — like tall men — seem to do better at careers and earning money. But tall people don’t get it all their own way.
They may have the money and the relationships. But according to a University of Aberdeen study, they are also more likely to be bitten by midges.
Napoleon Bonaparte and Captain Mainwaring would be no doubt be delighted to hear it.