Researchers at the University of Missouri delve into rivalries and alliances by studying cricket and dominoes players in Dominica.

Although most humans no longer hunt and gather to survive, we still have plenty of traits left over from when we did, including innate emotional and chemical reactions to adversity, such as the “fight-or-flight” response.

These traits are most evident in our last bastion of evolutionary showmanship: athletic competition.

Whether playing or watching, sporting events tap into our inner animal instincts, and researchers are shedding new light on how the skills we acquired over millions of years play out in modern life.

How we react to modern-day conflicts depends on our relationship with the opposing side. Researchers say this effect may explain how alliances are formed, from the boardroom to the war room.

New research from the University of Missouri shows that certain kinds of coalitions have played an important role in the evolution of human social psychology, especially when it comes to competitiveness.

Studying men of various ages on the island of Dominica who played dominoes or cricket, researchers found that testosterone levels rose during competition and remained elevated after a victory, but diminished after a loss. That change occurred only when the men were competing against a group outside of their community, like an opposing team.

However, when competing against their friends, the men’s testosterone levels remained the same, whether they won or lost.

“One interesting thing about humans is that we are the only animal that competes in teams,” Mark Flinn, an anthropology professor at the University of Missouri, said in a press release. “Our hormonal reactions while competing are part of how we evolved as a cooperative species. What we found in our study is that although males’ testosterone levels increase when men are victorious against strangers or rivals, levels of the hormone tend to stay the same when competing against friends.”

And these changes in testosterone levels don’t just affect players on the field. Those in the stands or on the couch at home feel the same effects.

“For example, when MU plays the University of Kansas, males will probably have a huge increase of testosterone during the game and afterwards if their team is victorious,” Flinn said. “At the same time, we can create a coalition of fans while attending the game and bond together during the event.”