A sport can be broadly defined as the subset of games. In sports, two or more individuals or teams participate based upon agreed rules and compete for winning (Deaner & Smith, 2013). According to Dearner, Blaish, and Lombardo(2015), the definition of sport therefore excludes activities that are purely physical, and noncompetitive (e.g., exercise), chance games (e.g., roulette), and activities that purely rely on mental skills (e.g., chess). Likewise modern day Olympic sports encompass various sport activities, ranging from archery and boxing, to rugby, and Golf, etc.

Well, in case you do not notice, almost all kinds of sports involve risks. Despite the possibility of facing serious injuries, many people still enjoy playing sports to have fun, to entertain audience, to make friends, to have hobbies, to spend time, etc. There is also an audience effect. So why are we so drawn toward sport games, be it participating ourselves or observing others participate? Are there any less obvious reasons?

Functional Hypotheses in Dearner, Blaish, and Lombardo(2015)

Due to females’ lower reproductive potential (Clutton-Brock & Parker, 1992) and higher parental investment (Trivers, 1972), females tend to be a choosier and selective sex than males in the human species. To compete sexual access to highly selective females, males have become more competitive and risk-taking. Throughout our evolutionary history, males who were more competitive risk-takers, compared to males who were not competitive at all, have secured the genetic legacy with highly selective females. Indeed evolved sex differences in risk taking and competition could be accountable for many of the observed human behaviors, including sport participation.

A comprehensive review by Deaner et al.(2015) pointed out that on average, male athletes were more likely than females to participate in sports for winning and competition reasons. On the other hand, the motives for female participation in sports are more likely to be goal-oriented (i.e. to be fitter, healthier, etc.) The multination study of sports done by Apostolou (2015) also found that men in all 37 countries were significantly more likely than women to choose competition (“to compete against others”) as a primary reason for participating in sports. Likewise Deaner (2006) showed that among professional U.S. male and female distance runners, the number of males were two to four times the number of females to run relatively fast, suggesting that sex differences in running reflect evolved predisposition for competition. Another study by Deaner (2006a) also investigated sex differences in running among non-professional U.S. populations. Deaner (2006a) examined the finishing time of the non professional runners at twenty 5000 m road races and twenty marathons held in the U.S. in 2003. Although no sex differences in performance of overall population was found, Deaner (2006a) found that at the fastest performance levels, the number of males were two to four times the number of females.

On average, male athletes and female athletes also differ in risk-taking behaviors in sports; men are more likely than women to report taking risks (Deaner, 2015). Such sex differences have been found for rock climbing (Llewellyn & Sanchez, 2008) and skiing (Ružic ́ & Tudor, 2011) and snow-boarding (Thomson and Carlson, 2015). In Thomson and Carlson (2015), risky sport behaviors in males and females were measured by analyzing helmet usage, self-report measures and personality traits among skiers and snowboarders. Helmet usage, along with higher sensation seeking, higher impulsivity, male sex and proficiency use were significant predictors in risk-taking behaviors. Based on these studies, it would be fair to say that males are risker sex than females.

Predisposed traits in competitiveness and risk-taking, however, provide partial evolutionary explanations for human sport participation because they do still not fully answer what kind of evolutionary advantages the sport participation would confer. To answer this question, we will have to look at the functional explanation for sport participations.Deaner et al. (2015) proposed four functional leading explanations for how sports could have arisen as manifestations of adaptations. Here is the link for detailed functional explanation for sport participation.

The first functional hypothesis posits that sport performance reliably signals mate quality of the participant. However, Deaner et al. (2015) argued that courtship quality display is less important for male participants because females mostly attend a sporting event to cheer family and friends rather than to evaluate males’ athletic performance. Secondly, evidence from historical and hunter gather societies showed that female mate choice during evolutionary history was mostly governed by kin and parents rather than the mate choice, governed by observing male athletic abilities (Deaner et al., 2015). The courtship display hypothesis may be more related in explaining female interests in participating sports and male interests in watching female athletes, especially those who participate in stylistic sports, such as gymnastics, figure skating, diving and synchronized swimming. The hypothesis is also consistent with the finding that in 24 of 37 countries; females were more likely to report that they participate in sports to improve their appearance (Apostolou, 2015).

The second functional hypothesis explains that sport competition in public is related to the gains of status. Analogous to mate choice leks, men gather in sporting areas to compete, to display the qualities and gain status. The games allow other nonparticipating males to evaluate the participants as potential competitors and allies. Studies in contemporary and historical societies revealed that athletic success was related to attaining high status for men (Deaner et al., 2015). The authors also argued that the spectator lek hypothesis was distinct from the first hypothesis in that females were not monitoring the details of male’s athletic performance, rather judged the male athlete based on the status he gained relative to the other male athletes. The second hypothesis accounts for the fact that many sports involve combat-related skills such as running, throwing and dodging projectiles, which are not easily explained by first functional hypothesis.

The third hypothesis, related to the sport fandoms, holds that interests in sports have arisen so that individuals could maintain alliance with sport participants. The hypothesis explains why individuals, especially males, desire team success, emotionally identifying themselves as if they were the actual participants of the team. The hypothesis also accounts for why female would show greater interests in men’s team sports than women’s team sports.

The fourth functional hypothesis holds that participation in sports helps develop strength and fighting skills through motor and physical trainings. The hypothesis is supported by the fact that in many societies, participants and observers stated that particular sports prepared corresponding adult activities such as warfare and hunting (Craig, 2002). Sport participation rates are also higher for children and adolescents than adults (Lunn, 2010). It appears that sport participation (e.g., wrestling, archery, running, etc.) equips adolescents with strength and physical skills, essential for hunting and warfare. One thing to keep in mind is that all four functional explanations by Deaner et al. (2015) on sport participation are also influenced by other proximate variables such as social forces (family and friends), hormonal levels (for e.g., testosterone), underlying genetic factors, etc. For instance, ACTN3 gene that encodes the α-actinin-3 protein, which is the basis of fast (type2) fibers responsible for generating rapid and high velocity activities such as sprinting (Daniel and North, 2007).

Next time you play or watch sports, think about all these reasons. Reflect upon them. Examine them. Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”


Apostolou, M. (2015). The athlete and the spectator inside the man: A cross-cultural investigation of the evolutionary origins of athletic behavior. Cross-Cultural Research: The Journal of Comparative Social Science, 49(2), 151-173. doi:10.1177/1069397114536516

Clutton-Brock, T. H., & Parker, G. A. (1992). Potential reproductive rates and the operation of sexual selection. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 67(4), 437-456.

Craig, S. (2002). Sports and games of the ancients. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Deaner, R. O. (2006). More males run relatively fast in U.S. road races: Further evidence of a sex difference in competitiveness. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 303-314. doi:10.1177/147470490600400126

Deaner, R. O. (2006a). More males run fast: A stable sex difference in competitiveness in U.S. distance runners. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27(1). 63-84.

Deaner, R. O., Balish, S. M., & Lombardo, M. P. (2015). Sex Differences in Sports Interest and Motivation: An Evolutionary Perspective. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, doi:10.1037/ebs0000049

Deaner, R. O., & Smith, B. A. (2013). Sex differences in sports across 50 societies. Cross-Cultural Research: The Journal Of Comparative Social Science, 47(3), 268-309.

Llewellyn, D. J., & Sanchez, X. (2008). Individual differences and risk taking in rock climbing. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 413–426. http://

Lunn, P. D. (2010). The sports and exercise life- course: A survival analysis of recall data from Ireland. Social Science & Medicine, 70(5), 711–719.

Ružic ́, L., & Tudor, A. (2011). Risk-taking behavior in skiing among helmet wearers and nonwearers. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 22, 291– 296.

Trivers, R. L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man, 1871-1971. Chicago: Aldine.

Thomson, C. J., & Carlson, S. R. (2015). Increased patterns of risky behaviours among helmet wearers in skiing and snowboarding. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 75179-183.




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