That old trope “nice guys finish last” is bunk, says science. In fact, the opposite is true. Altruistic people, says new research, actually have more sexual partners than the kinds of negging idiots who always win on dating TV shows. The truth is more like a romantic comedy movie, where our good traits shine through and attract others.
Studies show that people will prefer an altruistic partner, suggesting that cooperative behavior can be a “display” that attracts mates. And from the other direction, we are more likely to be altruistic if we think we’ll get something out of it, sex-wise. In one study consisting of a series of games, participants were more likely to make donations if the person soliciting the donation was attractive.
So, the science says that we find selfless, helpful people attractive, and that we are more likely to behave altruistically in the presence of possible sexual partners. But that, say researchers Steven Arnocky and Pat Barclay, isn’t the whole story. “[I]t seems clear that people tend to report preferring altruistic partners,” they write. “However, preferences do not always translate into real-world mating decisions, and we wanted to know if altruists also happen to experience more mating success.”
Could it be that we actually prefer the bad boy or bad girl, even while we say we don’t? To find out, Arnocky and Barclay did two studies of their own. In one, undergrads were given several questionnaires to determine their level of altruism (if they have donated blood, say), and their sexual history. Also, a general personality “inventory” was taken to let the researchers control for characteristics that might affect sexual activity.
“We found that people who scored higher on altruism also reported they were more desirable to the opposite sex, had more sex partners, more casual sex partners, and had sex more often within relationships,” report the authors.
But Arnocky and Barclay weren’t happy with that study either, because it was possible that people had lied on the surveys to make themselves look better. “Some research,” they say, “has shown men to over-report and women to under-report their lifetime number of sex partners.”
Their second study, then, was more objective. After surveys to determine levels of narcissism and “socially desirable responding,” which could be used to gauge any exaggerations, participants were entered in a contest and, if they won, were asked if they would keep the $100 prize, or donate it. In this study, “those who donated reported having more lifetime sex partners, more casual sex partners, and more sex partners over the past year.”
So it seems that we really do find kind and considerate people hotter. Arnocky and Barclay suggest that future research could be directed at seeing how altruism fits into the general lineup of qualities that attract us to potential mates. Is altruism more important than looks or athleticism, for instance? Also, these studies only apply to young folks, at the time the surveys were taken. Longer-term studies would really show the effects of an altruistic life on our sexual prospects.