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. R says:

    Idea for a follow up study – what effect does this have on the female observers’ attraction to the males?

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  2. Michael says:

    Bleeding obvious I would have thought. In the end we are animals, even if of a higher sort. Problem is the conflict of conscience such facts of life unleashes in us when we try to deny our motives. Lesson- be straight with at least yourself.

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  3. JBP says:

    Why does it have to be “actually”? I am not arguing with the evolutionary underpinning, but that this can be interpreted as seeing an attractive women makes men happier and happier men give more money.

    Love isn’t merely an evolutionary drive—it is something more.

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    • pawnman says:

      Deep, true, lasting love, the kind that creates 50-year marriages, is more than an evolutionary drive. However, seeing a cute girl and calculating how to get her to take that first step on the road to copulation is definitely an evolutionary drive.

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      • JBP says:

        Ah, I see that I failed to communicate effectively. My point is not to argue with the fact that many aspects of love, including the sex drive and the desire to pair bond, are instinctive drives that developed due to evolution. I see that. My point is with the word “actually.” It betrays an ugly mindset. The use of this word turns something complex and meaningful into merely animal instincts.

        Yes, love starts as an instinct. But along the way, people make choices. Sometimes those choices are wonderful, beautiful, and sacrificial. Frequently, people even sacrifice against their evolutionary drives. For example, to love and protect your child is surely an instinctual drive—anybody who has felt a rush of pure love at seeing your child for the first time has experienced this. But most animals when faced with dying or abandoning their children, choose to abandon the child because, from and evolutionary standpoint, the animal can make more. Survival of the fittest dictates this outcome. And yet, I know of a father who died not merely to save his child—he knew he could not save his child—but to be able to comfort his child during his remaining hours.

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  4. Tim says:

    Reminds me of The Saw Doctors’ song “I useta lover” with the following lyrics:

    D’you remember her collecting for concern on Christmas eve
    She was on a forty eight hour fast just water and black tea
    I walked right up and made an ostentatious contribution
    And I winked at her to tell her I’d seduce her in the future

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  5. Jonathan says:

    “the data of two homosexual men were subsequently removed from the analysis”. Why?? This would have been a fascinating study in itself!

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  6. Hexe Froschbein says:

    This is a bit like the story of the baboon troupe that changed culture: http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.0020106

    Then again, how else would the high level of co-operation have come about in human evolution if not by females preferring males that are able and willing to help where they can whilst being safe to be with, which in turn raised the infant survival rate and the general safety of the entire tribe and allowed time to tinker and explore which otherwise would be taken up in supremacy battles?

    (also compare sea lions, who will viciously fight killing calves and cows that get in their way…!)

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  7. Marcus Dumby says:

    “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.”

    Instead of “observing”, what if the attractive male observer was instructed to ignore the female participants?

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