Selflessness is sexy

Evolutionary speaking, selflessness appears to make little sense. If it really is survival of the fittest why waste resources ensuring others are the fittest. However, contrary to first impressions selflessness can actually have many selfish benefits. Your family shares copies of your genes, so helping them helps “you” by ensuring your genetics are propagated. Sharing with non-family members can be beneficial because it often places them in your debt and will help you when you need it.

As such, there is a good evolutionary reason for why we often help each other for apparently selfish reasons. In fact a recent anthropological study found familial sharing and reciprocity (along with tolerated theft) explained almost half of all food sharing amongst modern hunter-gatherers. Interestingly, they also found that other primates shared food for similar reasons (Jaeggi et al., 2013).

But what about the other 50% of food sharing? Research soon to be published by a team from across the UK may have found another selfish benefit of selflessness: it’s sexy.

The two cards created for one of the fake people participants were asked to rate.

The two cards created for one of the fake people participants were asked to rate for a short term relationships (hence the researchers clever use of slang).

The team created personality cards for made up people, describing their job and favourite sport (along with a stock image of a smiling person, to complete the deception. Scientists think of everything). Each fake person had two copies of their personality card created, one of which contained an extra sentence describing how selfless they were; the other had a “neutral” extra sentence. Like the fact they like Torchwood (which surely would make someone instantly unattractive).

They then got some students from the University of Oxford to examine these cards and rate the attractiveness of these fake people (although they didn’t know they were fake at the time). People given the card that described one person as altruistic would rate them higher than people given the card describing the same fake person, but which didn’t mention their altruism. Further, those described as more selfless were voted as more attractive than those who were only a bit altruistic.

Both men and women found the opposite sex more attractive for a long term relationship when they were more selfless. Men didn’t care so much about altruism when it came to ranking the fake people for short term relationships, but women did. However, the boost of attractiveness than much smaller than where the fake people were being considered for a long term relationships (Moore et al., 2013).

The idea that behaving altruistically makes you more attractive to the opposite sex is something that people have speculated about for a long time. Unfortunately strong evidence has not been forthcoming, and the idea has remained purely speculative for a while (Barclay, 2010). Sadly, this research doesn’t help clear things up either.

It’s main problem is that many evolutionary psychology studies have: it’s based on a very, very limited sample set. ~30 volunteers from each gender, all recruited from a single English university (Moore et al., 2013). To extrapolate from this and make grand pronouncements about all of humanity from this is unjustified.

However, other studies using a similar methodology have uncovered similar results. An American experiment from 2010 also found that both genders preferred selfless long term partners, but only women really cared about if for short term relationships. Although this study suffered from similar problems (being a limited sample of American students), it makings it increasingly likely that there is a real preference for altruism amongst humans.

Nonetheless, until this experiment is repeated a larger, more diverse sample size we can’t say if this is the case. ~100 undergraduate students from 2 Western universities don’t represent the diversity of humanity, despite the fact it’s all most evolutionary psychologists look at. However, if a larger experiment was run and it got similar results it would be the first real piece of evidence than selflessness is sexy.

Which would just be one more reason why altruism isn’t that altruistic.


Barclay, P. (2010). Altruism as a courtship display: Some effects of third‐party generosity on audience perceptions. British Journal of Psychology101(1), 123-135.

Jaeggi, A. V., & Gurven, M. (2013). Reciprocity explains food sharing in humans and other primates independent of kin selection and tolerated scrounging: a phylogenetic meta-analysis. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences280(1768).

Moore, D., Wigby, S., English, S., Wong, S., Székely, T., & Harrison, F. (2013). Selflessness is sexy: reported helping behaviour increases desirability of men and women as long-term sexual partners. BMC evolutionary biology,13(1), 182.

6 thoughts on “Selflessness is sexy

  1. “Which would just be one more reason why altruism isn’t that altruistic.”

    Hmm. It’s altruistic alright. The idea of altruism being absolutely pure is almost logically impossible. At the most basic level, altruism is either motivated or capricious. If it was capricious, random, unintentional, behaviour, we wouldn’t actually call it altruism, we would describe it as random behaviour that produced an accidental benefit. If it is actually motivated and intentional then, at the very minimum, it satisfies motivations so provides a positive affect (and likely a small physiological benefit) for the altruist. So, defining altruism as a lilly-white abstract purity means it will never be found in the real world of complexity and connection. Better to define self interest in a simple, more behavioural way: an altruistic act is one that provides a benefit for someone else without a direct reciprocal benefit.

    A very similar argument can be applied to self-interest. It is almost impossible to produce benefit for yourself without benefiting at least some others. Offspring, family members, friend are likely to share the benefit; you may pay more tax, contribute to general wealth, are able to pay more to others or improve the world in some way. Even if you manage to find something that achieves none of these things some libertarian nutjob somewhere will approve of your callous absolute self-interest and get a warm fuzzy feeling!

    • Free will, perhaps, maybe another similar example. If you think about it for a bit it becomes apparent that altruism isn’t truly 100% altruistic; but I wonder how many people have really dwelt on the matter. That’s something I’m trying to encourage, even if the comment may seem a bit innane to you

      • You’re never inane, Adam! Well, not on your blog anyway 🙂

        Yes, absolute free will is a similar issue. It doesn’t really exist, more of an illusion produced by the way our brains are put together. (Probably another illusion with a good biological purpose.) Which is not to say that some decisions are more automatic and reflexive, while others are more thoughtful and considered…

        • Oh love the caveat of “not on your blog.”

          Free will is certainly a complex issue, but I reckon the vast majority people haven’t dwelt on it for long enough for even a hint of the complexity emerge. Ask them if we have absolute free will, most I think would agree. Similarly, most would agree that altruism is selfless, when it isn’t.

  2. Just a little of a possibly different perspective on this subject.
    I have always had the impression that the psychological condition termed “neuroses” results from
    primarily a natural inborn fear of death. Think you have had a blog on the benefits of “fear” already.
    Not sure that i am technically 100% correct but also remember that my first year psychology manual
    stated that the basis of a healthy personality is “emotional security”. “Sharing” and a resulting “pro survival”
    healthy communal life must surely be much more of an advantage than just being “sexy”? Personally
    I understand this as being exactly the practical reason why the scriptures states that of all, faith, hope and love is the most important of all.

    A local anthropologist, Eugene Marais, made two possibly applicable observations round 1900. First he
    observed that a termite nest functions almost similar to living biological organisms, like our bodies. Elementarily
    seen, it has different sections in the nest with independent functions, all contributing to the survival of the nest as as whole. Males hunt and females collect roots. Balanced diet. Secondly he witnessed an incident where two young male baboons lodged themselves simultaneously onto a leopard that had cornered the troop in a cave. They knocked the leopard off the cliff, killing themselves. What is different to that than young guys being willing to fight a war ? Willing not only to share their food, but to share their lives by getting killed ?

    Suspect you are correct in thinking there is much more to the issue than just “sexy”. But i also think it is clear that truism is much more complex than we think. Don’t think two young male baboons are promoting their genes
    by wiping them out? By the way, i suspect you are not doing all the trouble of running this blog just to collect the attention of the ladies?

    • It sounds like you’re heading towards the concept of “group selection”, the idea that populations can be selected for or against, rather than individuals. This has been used to explain sharing, on the grounds that populations that share generally do better than those which do not and so are selected for.

      The big problem with group selection is that there’s just no evidence for it. Natural selection only acts on the individual. Termite colonies and suicidal baboons are a result of kin selection (family members have your genes, so helping them benefits you) rather than a selfless community being selected for.

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