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 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 Psychology, 101(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 Sciences, 280(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.