At one time or another, we’ve all heard bits of romantic advice like “nice guys finish last” or “treat em’ mean, keep em’ keen,”  which suggest that being too “nice” will leave you disadvantaged in the world of mating.   These old tropes continue to be played out in mainstream dating culture – remember the recent popularity of ‘negging’? Essentially this refers to offering a backhanded compliment such as “I like your eyes … are you wearing colored contacts?” in order to subtly lower the social value of the person you are trying to attract.  There is some evidence that personality traits associated with being a “jerk” such as low agreeableness and contentiousness, high extroversion and openness to experience, alongside narcissism, Machiavellianism (being manipulative), and psychopathy (callousness, lying, thrill-seeking) may indeed be linked to increased sexual behavior, particularly with respect to short-term mating. But does this capture what people actually want in a mating partner? Do nice guys truly finish last?

One area of research which seems to contrast this notion is the study of altruism as a sexual signal.  Altruism involves behaving in ways that benefit another individual at some cost to one’s own fitness. Recently, converging evidence has suggested that altruism may play an important role in mate selection, thus highlighting a potentially important avenue along which good deeds done toward unrelated individuals (exemplified today by acts like donating blood or helping to push a stranger’s car out of the snow)  may have evolved. 

This theory suggests that altruism may serve, in part, to convey one’s value as a mating partner, including one’s concern for others and likelihood of cooperating with future mates.  Research has shown that we prefer altruistic partners, all else being equal; especially for long-term mating (the evidence for altruism being preferred in short-term mates is mixed). Not surprisingly, then, the pull to demonstrate one’s altruism can be strong. Some research has shown that men will actively compete with one another (termed competitive altruism) by making charitable donations to women. Interestingly, these charitable donations increase when the target of one’s altruism is physically attractive.

From this research, it seems clear that people tend to report preferring altruistic partners. 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. Previous findings from hunter-gatherer populations have shown that men who hunt and share meat often enjoy greater reproductive access to women. But do these links hold up in other cultural and contextual arenas, such as in contemporary North American society? To find out, we conducted a set of two studies. In our first study, undergraduate men and women completed an altruism questionnaire (involving questions like “I have donated blood”), along with a sexual history survey. Participants also completed a personality inventory, given the possibility that those with certain personality characteristics (such as being extroverted) might happen to engage in both more altruism and more 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 (although this latter finding was not statistically-significant after controlling for personality variables). The statistical models (including covariates) explained between 13 and 26% of variance in the sexual behavior variables.  Moreover, altruism mattered more for men’s number of lifetime and casual sex partners than for women’s.

One limitation of this first study was the possibility that people might have reported their altruism or their sexual histories in an unrealistically-positive light. For instance, some research has shown men to over-report, and women to under-report their lifetime number of sex partners. To address this, in in a second study we used a more subtle behavioral measure of altruism. At the end of the survey, each participant was entered onto a draw for $100, and was given the choice to keep their winnings or to donate it to a charity. Participants again reported on their sexual histories, completed a personality measure, as well as a scale to capture socially-desirable responding and a measure of narcissism. Results showed that, even when controlling for these variables, those who donated reported having more lifetime sex partners, more casual sex partners, and more sex partners over the past year, with the models explaining between 7 and 28% of variance on the sexual behavior variables. Men who were willing to donate also reported having more lifetime dating partners. Conversely, personality traits (some of which comprise the “jerk” traits described earlier) did not relate meaningfully to sexual histories.

Future research might consider longitudinal studies of altruistic behavior among youth, with follow-up reporting of sexual histories as they progress through adolescence and young adulthood in order to better address the question of directionality (“does altruism at time A predict mating at time B”?). Our studies examined a limited array of mating and sexual history variables. Future research should investigate variables such as partner mate-value, perceived infidelity, relationship stability and satisfaction as metrics of long-term relationship functioning, as well as how people prioritize the altruism of prospective mates relative to other qualities like attractiveness or athleticism. Still, this research combines with previous findings on the desirability of altruism and the tendency for men to compete in the realm of generosity. Indeed, one of us has a female friend who would explicitly screen potential boyfriends based on whether they had donated blood: Others, it seems, may doing the same.