29 May 2012 08:59 | By Hugh Wilson, contributor, MSN Him

Why men love a challenge

Men are always challenging themselves to do ridiculous things, from swimming the Atlantic to eating giant sandwiches. But, why? MSN Him explains.

Stuntman Gary Connery is seen in the sky wearing a specially developed wingsuit near Henley-on-Thames (© Eddie Keogh-Reuters)

Recently you may have seen the story of Gary Connery, who jumped out of a helicopter from 2,400ft without a parachute.

Or you may have seen reports of the creation of the world's meatiest sandwich, a 24-inch long whopper containing 41 cuts of meat that has been described as the ultimate challenge for meat-loving men.

And then there's the news of TV's Ben Fogle, who next year will attempt to become only the second man in history to swim the Atlantic. He hopes to swim the 3,000 miles in 100 days.

And there are lots, lots more, from caber-tossing contests in Scotland to wife-carrying competitions in Finland and America. They all beg one burning question. Why do men do these things?

Maybe the simple answer is that they do them for charity, or to raise awareness of an issue, or because they really - really - like meat, but it goes quite a bit deeper than that.

Here's why men can't resist a challenge.

Ben Fogle has announced his intention to swim across the Atlantic Ocean (© Stefan-Rousseau-PA-Wire-Press-Association-Images)

Ben Fogle has announced his intention to swim across the Atlantic Ocean

It's in our genes

To understand why men take on challenges like these (and a million others), you have to understand something about manhood.

According to sociologist Dr Roy Baumeister, author of Is There Anything Good About Men, men are not accorded instant respect in the way women are. There's nothing sexist in this, but part of being a man, Baumeister explains, is constantly having to prove your manhood.

"Insecurity is part of being a man, an essential part of the male role in society. Manhood is never secure: It must be claimed via public actions, risky things seen and validated by other people - and it can be lost."

But why the difference between men and women? You have to realise that monogamy has not always been the natural state of human sexual relations (it's not always the natural state of human sexual relations now). And if you're wondering what that has got to do with men gorging on giant butties or chucking logs around, read on and we'll explain.

Caber-tossing contest in Scotland (© Chris Bacon-PA Archive-Press Association Images)

Caber-tossing contests such as this one in Scotland may have their roots in men's need to procreate

Polygamy is not good for most men

Monogamy was foisted on society for the simple reason that it guaranteed most men a piece of the action. Remember, our purpose in life - to reproduce - is hardwired into every single gene. But before monogamy, lots of men didn't get to reproduce.

That's simply because women are hardwired to want security for themselves and their children. They want men with resources and power. Shacking up with the best warrior or the chief of the clan was the best way to ensure women got what they wanted.

But what if he already had a wife? Before monogamy became the social norm, women made an entirely sensible calculation. Best to have access to an alpha male's resources and share his attentions, they reasoned, than have the undivided attention of a man with barely two beans to rub together.

"When there is resource inequality among men - the case in every human society - most women benefit from polygyny (sharing one man): women can share a wealthy man. Under monogamy, they are stuck with marrying a poorer man," writes evolutionary psychologists Alan S Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa.

In the polygamous system - for long periods the most common arrangement on Earth - a few men get to sleep with a lot of women, and lots of men don't get to sleep with any women at all. Unless, that is, they do something to haul themselves up the sexual pecking order.

Wife-carrying contest in Northern Ireland (© Paul Faith-PA Archive-Press Association Images)

Wife-carrying contest in Northern Ireland

Challenges prove our manhood

So in our distant past, accepting and completing challenges gave us a step up in the mating game. Sometimes, daring challenges were written into manhood rites of passage, such as young warriors risking life and limb to bring home the corpse of a dangerous animal.

Sometimes, completing a challenge was a way for those who lacked inherited wealth to gain status and, with it, access to women.

Showing daring, strength, skill and courage not only increased your immediate access to resources (killing a bison would feed you for a week), it suggested that you had what it takes to provide resources in the future. As far as the women of the tribe were concerned, completing challenges turned a man from an also-ran into a good bet.

But why do men need challenges today?

But why do men still take on ridiculous physical challenges? After all, monogamy means that access to women is shared out far more equally. Instead of alpha males dominating large harems, most men have access to at least one female.

Part of the answer might be that it's simply an evolutionary trait that has stuck with us. We need challenges in our lives because our ancestors needed challenges in theirs. It became what men do.

And part of it might be that, though we all have access to women these days, only high-status men tend to have access to the most desirable women. In that respect there's still a lot to play for.

Comedian David Walliams swimming the river Thames (© John Phillips-UK Press-Press Association Images)

Comedian David Walliams risked his healtha swimming the river Thames for Sport Relief

It's also true that, in the past, men didn't enter hamburger-eating competitions, but they did fight wars or hunt animals for food. In previous eras, challenges were part and parcel of daily life. For most men today that's no longer the case.

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Are manly challenges stupid?

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    11 %
    Yes - it's just blatant showing-off
    26 votes
    6 %
    Yes - mental agility is more important than physical exertion
    14 votes
  3. 68 %
    No - all men should stretch their abilities - it's a good thing
    152 votes
    15 %
    No - if it's for charity then it's all good
    35 votes

Total Responses: 227
Not scientifically valid. Results are updated every minute.

So we invent challenges, from ultra running to tossing the caber. We continue to show our strength, stamina and daring to the world through events, competitions, charity endurance tests or whatever it might be.

And yes, we really might be trying to raise as much money for a good cause as possible, but subconsciously there's a little part of every male competitor thinking, "the girls are going to love me for this."

Is that also true for the man whose challenge is to eat his way through a giant sandwich? Well, it takes stamina and a strong jaw, but most of all it gets him noticed. If eating is the only stand-out skill you have, you might as well use it.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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