THE BLOG
07/30/2015 02:46 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2016

Rousey v. Correia and the Science of Female Combat

On August 1st, Ronda Rousey, the first female UFC champion, will defend her title against Bethe Correia. At the same time, the first female Marines to undergo infantry training have completed the course and are waiting for Marine Corps officials to decide whether they will actually be deployed in ground combat troops. Both situations ask us to assess women's physical and psychological capacities in an evolutionarily novel context: physical combat.

The Marines are already doing this by investigating whether and/or how gender affects the fighting effectiveness of a unit. To determine this, researchers have been collecting comparative data on the physical strength, endurance, speed and marksmanship of male and female Marines. Several women have shown that they can pass the rigorous infantry training course, but one sex difference is already apparent: injury rates are much higher for women than for men, especially stress fractures from carrying heavy loads. This does not bode well for would-be female soldiers, as combat is much harder on the body than a training course.

Female injury rates point to another, equally important issue: how the presence of female soldiers affects unit cohesion. If, as evidence suggests, some male Marines lack confidence in the abilities of their female comrades-in-arms, female participation in combat may increase the already high stress levels endured by male soldiers, and negatively impact unit morale. Other psychological unknowns are whether female psychology will be activated in the same way as male psychology in the heat of combat, and how male psychology will respond to the sight of female soldiers being wounded and killed in battle.

Attitudes towards women's combat-related sports may shed light on some of these questions. Research shows that both sexes would rather watch male than female athletic competitions. Evolutionary biology offers an explanation for this phenomenon: due to higher rates of interpersonal violence among males, men have been faced with the task of assessing the fighting abilities of potential allies and rivals. According to this view, athletic competitions arose because they provide a means of displaying and assessing the fighting formidability of individual males and male coalitions. This explanation accounts for women's spectating preferences as well. Throughout human evolutionary history, women have been subject to male predation, and their safety has been largely dependent on the effectiveness of the male coalitions with which they were aligned. As comedian Louis C.K. trenchantly observes, "there's no greater threat to women than men." Thus, the ability to assess male fighting abilities would have been of great benefit to our female ancestors. Tellingly, research shows that women are as good as men at assessing male fighting formidability from the face/body and voice.

However, recent events indicate that trends in sports spectatorship are changing. Over 22.8 million viewers tuned in for the 2015 Women's World Cup final, resulting in the highest market rating to date in the U.S. for a soccer game on a single network. Ronda Rousey is being spoken of as the biggest star in the UFC's current roster -- a claim that will soon be tested when UFC 190 PPV numbers are in. And Polish strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk is being favorably compared to one of the most popular UFC fighters of all time, Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell. There appears to be a growing interest in watching women's sports, which -- as evinced by a recent Saturday Night Live skit -- is matched by a demand for better coverage.

The admission of women to the UFC presents us with a fascinating natural experiment. Due to the well-documented greater tendency of males to engage in physical aggression, researchers have not thought to test for ability to assess the fighting formidability of women. Because the MMA fan base is overwhelmingly male, women's MMA offers an unprecedented opportunity to study male responses to females engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Of particular interest are the criteria used by odds makers, who earn their living by making comparative assessments of fighting competence. Also of interest is the commentary of sports critics, who are showing a ready ability to make such assessments. Another potential source of data are the fans themselves. As the UFC increasingly attracts and showcases high-caliber female fighters like Rousey and Jedrzejczyk, we may expect male viewership of women's MMA to increase (notwithstanding naysayers such as Andy Benoit). If this happens, millions of men will be regularly exposed to the sight of women engaged in physical combat. Although women's MMA is not directly comparable to warfare -- in which female soldiers would be pitted against male aggressors -- it nevertheless provides some measure of women's ability to endure the physical and psychological strains of combat. This, in turn, provides a means of testing male confidence in female fighting ability -- a test of no small import to the pending question of women's ability to perform on the battlefield.