Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Zarbatany, Lynne

2nd Supervisor

Tremblay, Paul F.



Peer contexts catalyze risky behavior (e.g., alcohol abuse, reckless driving, etc.) in emerging adulthood (ages 18-25), yet potential risk-taking social functions are poorly understood. Two studies motivated by evolutionary theory examined whether risky behaviors address social needs for status and connection in male and female emerging adults.

An experiment in Study 1 examined participant (N = 286; Mage = 18.79; SDage = 0.79; 125 male; 161 female) perceptions of male and female peer targets after observing them take risks (high vs. low), successfully or unsuccessfully, on a modified Columbia Card Task. Risk-takers were perceived as more dominant and socially appealing, but less prosocial than risk-avoiders, and less intelligent when unsuccessful. The difference in social appeal between risk-takers and risk-avoiders was larger for male than female peer targets at low levels of success. Participants preferred including risk-takers over risk-avoiders in friend groups, but only preferred risk-takers over risk-avoiders for risk-related partnerships at high levels of success. Resource offers to peer targets were not affected by risky behavior in an Ultimatum Game.

In Study 2, a 3-wave longitudinal study tested whether risky behavior engagement rates fluctuated as a function of status, connection, and mate-seeking social need fulfillment. Data collected from two cohorts at 2- (2017) or 3-month intervals (2016) were analyzed separately using Linear Curve Models with Structured Residuals (2016: N = 324; MAge = 18.58; SDAge = 1.08; 93 male, 230 female; 2017: N = 262; MAge = 18.78 years old; SDAge = 0.92; 86 male, 175 female). Findings relating risky behavior to social motives and outcomes associated with status and mate-seeking received little support. In the 2017 cohort, acceptance motives predicted greater risk-taking propensity in male participants but lower risky behavior rates in female participants. Risk-taking predicted less loneliness in the 2016 cohort, though concurrent negative associations between these variables were found in both cohorts.

The overall findings show some support for evolutionary perspectives as risky behaviors communicated characteristics for status-enhancement and connection in both male and female emerging adults. However, evidence from Study 2 suggests risk-taking may primarily function to promote social acceptance in males.

Summary for Lay Audience

Dangerous behaviors, like drug use and excessive drinking, are more common among young adults aged 18 to 25 when they are with peers. However, what young adults stand to gain is poorly understood. Did these behaviors evolve as a social strategy that allows young men and women to connect with others, earn respect, and find love?

Two studies addressed these questions. In Study 1, participants answered questions about a male or female peer after watching the peer play a game of chance in a risky or cautious way, and either successfully or unsuccessfully. This experiment showed that risk-takers were seen as more dominant and socially appealing than cautious players, but also as less prosocial, and less intelligent when they were unsuccessful. The difference in social appeal between unsuccessful risk-takers and unsuccessful risk-avoiders was larger for male than female peers. Participants preferred to include risky over cautious peers in friend groups. Participants preferred successful risky over successful cautious peers for partnerships on risky tasks; preferences for unsuccessful risky and cautious peers were similar. The peer’s risky behavior did not affect participant offers to split 10 raffle tickets, evenly or unevenly, between them.

In Study 2, participants answered surveys on three occasions, spaced two or three months apart. Questions asked participants about their social motivations for status, acceptance, and sexual opportunities, as well as recent participation in dangerous behaviors, loneliness, and perceived status. This study aimed to understand whether changes in a young adult’s risky behaviors were related to changes in his or her social motivations and outcomes. The results showed that whereas young men were more willing to take risks when their acceptance motivations were high, young women’s dangerous behaviors decreased. Young adults who took more risks felt less lonely. Participants did not take risks for status or sexual opportunities.

The research showed that although risky behaviors can demonstrate qualities that help young adults meet social needs, taking risks may be something only young men do when seeking acceptance from peers. These studies improve our understanding of why young people take risks and how young men and women differ.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.