Altruism in humans is difficult to explain with traditional models of behavior, which have focused on competition between individuals for mates, scarce resources, etc. It’s undeniable, though, that being willing to help unrelated individuals is a common (though not universal) trait. In past Neuromarketing posts Taxes Aren’t Painful and The Joy of Giving vs. the Pain of Buying, I wrote about fMRI studies that showed how altruistic behavior activated the brain’s reward centers. Now, there’s new research that suggests altruistic behavior makes one attractive to the opposite sex:

Displays of altruism or selflessness towards others can be sexually attractive in a mate. This is one of the findings of a study carried out by biologists and a psychologist at The University of Nottingham. In three studies of more than 1,000 people, Dr Tim Phillips and his fellow researchers discovered that women place significantly greater importance on altruistic traits than anything else. Their findings have been published in the British Journal of Psychology. [From Science Daily – Being Altruistic May Make You Attractive.]

The effect was more pronounced in women evaluating men, but men also exhibited an interest in altruistic behavior.

Dr Phillips said: “For many years the standard explanation for altruistic behaviour towards non-relatives has been based on reciprocity and reputation — a version of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. I believe we need to look elsewhere to understand the roots of human altruism. The expansion of the human brain would have greatly increased the cost of raising children so it would have been important for our ancestors to choose mates both willing and able to be good, long-term parents. Displays of altruism could well have provided accurate clues to this and genes linked to altruism would have been favoured as a result.”

I wonder if an additional explanation might be a sort of “peacock tail” effect, i.e., an indicator that an individual who has the resources to help unrelated individuals has “resources to waste,” i.e., is resource-rich and hence an attractive mate.

Non-profit organizations should keep this research as well as past research in mind when they recruit volunteers and solicit donors. I think one good example of “showy” altruism is the competitive bidding at charity auctions; sometimes, items sell for far more than their actual worth when individuals (in my experience, usually guys) keep bidding to see who gives in first.

Helping others, apparently, both makes you feel good and makes you more attractive to the opposite sex – time to go volunteer, or at least dig out your checkbook!

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