Is Male Kindness Actually a “Peacock Tail?”

A new paper from psychology researchers Mark Van Vugt and Wendy Iredale finds that acts of male kindness may not always be quite what they seem. From Science Daily:

Two experiments were undertaken. For the first, 65 men and 65 women, all of an average age of 21, anonymously played a cooperation game where they could donate money via a computer program to a group fund. Donations were selfless acts, as all other players would benefit from the fund, whilst the donor wouldn’t necessarily receive anything in return.

Players did not know who they were playing with. They were observed by either someone of the same sex or opposite sex — two physically attractive volunteers, one man and one woman. Men were found to do significantly more good deeds when observed by the opposite sex. Whilst the number of good deeds made by women didn’t change, regardless of who observed.

For the second experiment, groups of males were formed. Males were asked to make a number of public donations. These increased when observed by an attractive female, where they were found to actively compete with one another. When observed by another male, however, donations didn’t increase.

Iredale compares good deeds to peacock tails and sees room for intervention: “The research shows that good deeds among men increase when presented with an opportunity to copulate. Theoretically, this suggests that a good deed is the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail. Practically, this research shows how societies can encourage selfless acts.”

Ladies, we’re curious: since Tuesday was a day of love, did you perhaps notice more good deeds being done by the men in your life?  

(HT: Eric M. Jones)

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  1. Michael says:

    It took a study to prove this? I could tell you the same thing based on my own actions.

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  2. Chibinium says:

    First impression: women are more stable with their charity.

    HOWEVER, whether they are more consistently charitable or consistently stingy depends on how much charity the men undertake. If the men merely redistributed, that’s strategic charity and doesn’t get brownie points. If they doubled charity but otherwise kept equal, that’s peacockery of a noble color.

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  3. Kate says:

    uh, yeah…thus, the man who so generously offered to do all the “handyman” deeds when I was separated from my husband was not doing it solely because of his Christian Faith (believe me, he capitalized it–and on it!)? Nope, he was doing all he could do to woo me. Sadly for me, it worked.

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  4. Gary says:

    Average age of 21. And they generalize to the whole population? Yeah, this is conclusive proof of the hypothesis. /sarc

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  5. frankenduf says:

    when i was a kid, we used to beg for quarters to play the video games- so we would scope for what type of person to hit up, and we concluded that the most successful prospect was to approach a younger couple and ask the guy for change- we knew he wouldn’t wanna look cheap, even tho he was probably annoyed on the inside

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  6. nbcin says:

    So the effect of having female pheromones and aromas in the air affects men’s behavior but the effect of male pheromones and aromas in the air does not affect female behavior.
    After spending plenty of time sitting in psychology building labs, I can guarantee that you definitely notice the other person in the room. As a male grad student, it was sometimes very distracting.
    I would love to separate those airborne effects from the physical presence.
    My summary: College men are looser with their resources when around attractive college women than when around attractive college men.
    Just think of how beer companies could capitalize on this!

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  7. keith says:

    I love how we’re always surprised whenever a study shows that we’re animals competing to propagate our DNA. Like, we know it intellectually, but it feels like cheating or psychopathic or something to actually go around believing it and acting on it.

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    • James says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • pawnman says:

        You use birth control because the rational part of your brain is over-riding parts of the instinctual side. The fact that you are copulating at all shows that genetically, you are searching for a mate to propagate the species with, whether your rational self intervenes or not. This study shows how that behavior changes as a result of the hard-wired genetic imperatives, not so much the rational, thought-out decisions we make.

        The point is, your genetic makeup predisposes you towards some behaviors, which are then tempered by the logical, rational parts of your personality.

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      • James says:

        “The fact that you are copulating at all shows that genetically, you are searching for a mate to propagate the species with…”

        Which if nothing else ignores all gay sex, not to mention masturbation :-)

        But in fact I have sex (or seek to have it) because it’s a pleasurable experience, in the same way I listen to music, smell the flowers, go skiing or biking or even hiking without the intent of gathering food. Likewise, when I do have sex, I often do so in ways which don’t present the possibility of procreation, but which are equally pleasurable (if not more so) than those which do.

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      • pawnman says:


        Gay sex actually has been shown to increase the overall fitness of species by cutting down on unproductive competition for reproductive assets. It’s rare to find lesbian animals, but male-male pairings are not that uncommon. Masturbation is a semi-rational response to instinctual desires. Your instinct has implanted the desire for sexual release, your rational brain has created masturbation as a tool to meet those desires with a minimum of effort.

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    • Not Surprised says:

      And also, in this case, and likely lots of others, it’s the men propagating their DNA, not the women, as their actions did not change when viewed by men. It’s not so much “we’re” propagating as men are propagating….. a conclusion which probably isn’t much of a surprise to either sex.

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  8. Desmond N says:

    The homeless in New York seem to be of the same mind. I feel like when I’m on a date they go out of their way to ask for charity. Conversely, when I’m on my own they seem more passive.

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