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)


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


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.


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.


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


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


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!


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.


But if we were simply competing to propagate DNA, who would ever use birth control? I suggest that we're simply competing to obtain benefits: resources, pleasurable experiences, the increased status/self esteem that comes from being in a position to perform charitable acts...

I'd suspect that if the players in this game were observed by people in a position to provide rewards (of similar perceived value) other than sex to the charitable, the results would be similar.


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.

Desmond N

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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.



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


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