The issue of why people act selflessly has long puzzled evolutionary psychologists. If our behavior is truly driven by Richard Dawkins’s famous “selfish gene,” why do we waste time and resources helping strangers?
Previous research has found that “altruists are more attractive than non-altruists, all else being equal,” writes a research team led by Canadian psychologist Steven Arnocky. “The present study is the first to show that this may translate into real mating success.”
In the British Journal of Psychology, Arnocky and his colleagues from Ontario’s Nipissing University describe two studies. The first featured 192 unmarried women and 105 unmarried men between the ages of 16 and 33.
The participants, all Canadians, filled out a detailed questionnaire that included their sexual histories, current sexual activity, and altruistic activities. They indicated the accuracy of such statements as “I have helped push a stranger’s car out of the snow” and “I have donated blood.”
“Even after controlling for age and personality,” the researchers write, men who regularly acted in altruistic ways reported more lifetime sex partners and more casual hookups. In their view, this suggests that men, more than women, use altruistic behavior as a way “to attract partners for short-term copulations.”
Okay, but were the male participants’ self-reports an accurate gauge of their actual altruism? The similarly structured second study addressed that issue by informing participants — 335 female and 189 male college students—that they had been entered into a $100 drawing. In the event that they won, they were asked to indicate whether they planned to keep the money, or if they were going to donate some portion of it to a charity of their choosing.
“Participants who were willing to donate potential monetary winnings reported having more lifetime sex partners, more casual sex partners, and more sex partners over the past year,” the researchers report. “Men who were willing to donate also reported having more lifetime dating partners.”
So why is selflessness sexy? Arnocky and his colleagues argue that altruistic behavior is what biologists call a “costly signal” — an activity that requires some exertion, but also advertises one’s attractive qualities to potential mates. Who doesn’t want a partner who is kind and giving?
There is no evidence that people are conscious of this equation, nor that it’s the only dynamic that encourages altruistic behavior. But from an evolutionary standpoint, our “selfish genes” need a well-functioning society if they are to survive and thrive. It makes sense that a behavior that helps sustain this positive social environment would, over the course of natural selection, get rewarded.
So singles who are tired of Tinder may want to opt for a different strategy. Volunteering at the local food pantry won’t only make you feel good; it may be an excellent way to meet a mate.