Self-protection as an adaptive female strategy

Behav Brain Sci. 2021 Nov 8:45:e128. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X21002417.


Many male traits are well explained by sexual selection theory as adaptations to mating competition and mate choice, whereas no unifying theory explains traits expressed more in females. Anne Campbell's "staying alive" theory proposed that human females produce stronger self-protective reactions than males to aggressive threats because self-protection tends to have higher fitness value for females than males. We examined whether Campbell's theory has more general applicability by considering whether human females respond with greater self-protectiveness than males to other threats beyond aggression. We searched the literature for physiological, behavioral, and emotional responses to major physical and social threats, and found consistent support for females' responding with greater self-protectiveness than males. Females mount stronger immune responses to many pathogens; experience a lower threshold to detect, and lesser tolerance of, pain; awaken more frequently at night; express greater concern about physically dangerous stimuli; exert more effort to avoid social conflicts; exhibit a personality style more focused on life's dangers; react to threats with greater fear, disgust, and sadness; and develop more threat-based clinical conditions than males. Our findings suggest that in relation to threat, human females have relatively heightened protective reactions compared to males. The pervasiveness of this result across multiple domains suggests that general mechanisms might exist underlying females' unique adaptations. An understanding of such processes would enhance knowledge of female health and well-being.

Keywords: emotions; immunity and illness; insomnia; longevity and survival; neuroticism; pain and injury; reproductive success; sex differences; social interactions; stress and threat.

MeSH terms

  • Aggression*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reproduction* / physiology