Helping Others Makes You Hot!


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!

  1. Adam Ferrier says

    Interestingly in our research one of the factors that make people ‘cool’ is ‘caring for others’. I think your peacock theory may be right. People know that it takes time and effort to go out of ones way to be kind and good to others. Therefore people who do must really have their shit together.

    There is loads of research to suggest volunteering makes you happier (Seligman) and now more attractive. The question then remains why dont people do it more often. Is it lack of awareness? or cognitive distortions that dont allow us to perceive how happy it will make us, or something else?

  2. Leanne says

    I agree with this completely. I would say that for me, it’s the desire to do good w/out concern for reward that motivates me own efforts, and yes, I definitely experience pleasure from that.

    In someone of the opposite sex, one of the things I find most appealing/attractive is the exact opposite of the “peacock effect”.

    When observing men, it’s the ones who try and “outdo” each other or who display their “wealth” that turn me off. Show me someone who is confident and yet humbly willing to walk alongside another-whatever way that looks like-and you’ve just described what triggers a positive response in me.

    Tying this into NFP’s and recruiting volunteers, I would caution that you look to recruit those that look toward your mission and not toward what association with your NFP may provide them.

    In my book, it’s all about the motives of the heart. I wonder what neuromarketing would call that?


  3. Bruno Ribeiro says

    Interesting study.

    As we know, people tend to more persuadable when the request is made by someone of the opposite sex.

    With that and the findings of this research in mind, charity organizations should carefully pick amongst their volunteers the most attractive ones to ask for donations. I aspect that in charity auctions the biddings should be higher according with the attractiveness of the person who conducts the auction.

  4. Leanne says

    Ah, but Bruno, that begs the question, “What defines ‘attractiveness’ in those possessing the altruistic character trait?”

    Sometimes “beauty” truly is only skin deep.

    When looking to develop relationships with donors, recruiting volunteers or serving a people/mission, give me a heart with fire in the belly over someone “attractive” any day.

  5. Bruno Ribeiro says

    Actually Leanne, I was referring to the physical attraction of the people who makes the request or tries to sell an item. I’m picking up the possible ‘peacock tail’ that Roger mentioned.

    If we assume, hypothetically, that a person might engage in a more charitable behaviour in order to impress others, namely opposite sex members, than we can also hypothesize that by picking up an attractive looking person to make the request or present the items in an auction, we can raise the level of compliance or the bidding amount.

  6. Leanne says

    Yes, Bruno, I knew that’s what you were talking about. My point was, that there is a case to be made for inner beauty, especially among the altruistic/philanthropic crowd.

    I would suggest that someone who is attractive on the outside may not always be the best person to communicate your vision or to work with your donors.

    There is something to be said for the “it” factor, especially in NFP’s. Passion for the cause is easy to spot and I would suggest it’s that kind of “peacock tail” that we should be looking for rather than exterior appearance, but then it looks like you and I may be on different pages with this.

    Thanks for clarifying your thoughts. 🙂

  7. Annie Kip says

    A genuine act of generosity comes from a place of confidence and power. It is hard to disguise an act of altruism done simply for the sake of the impression it might make on others. Our human brains pick up small nuances and “tells” which actually make the fake giver seem weak. The combination of real power and heartfelt kindness which comes from a solid, secure place inside an individual translates to charisma – which is irresistable!!!

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