If you’re looking for support for your cause or charity get thee to a nightclub – or better still an online dating service. Why? Because people are more likely to be conspicuously generous when they’re nicely sexed up.
Experiments carried out by Geoffrey Miller at The University of New Mexico (and written about in this week’s Economist link may need a subscription) indicate that people who are looking for love are more benevolent than those who are not. Acts of generosity, the research argues, are also more likley to be visible and substantial amongst this group – conspicuous giving as a human equivalent of the peacocks tail.
Let me quote a decent chunk from the Economist article
At first sight, helping charities looks to be at the opposite end of the selfishness spectrum from conspicuous consumption. Yet they have something in common: both involve the profligate deployment of resources.
That is characteristic of the consequences of sexual selection. An individual shows he (or she) has resources to burn—whether those are biochemical reserves, time or, in the human instance, money—by using them to make costly signals. That demonstrates underlying fitness of the sort favoured by evolution. Viewed this way, both conspicuous consumption and what the researchers call “blatant benevolence” are costly signals. And since they are behaviours rather than structures, and thus controlled by the brain, they may be part of the mating mind.
There is, of course, a lot of evidence for the first part of this conjecture. Everybody knows that fast cars attract fast women. The second, though, may come as a surprise. So the team did an experiment to compare them.
They divided a bunch of volunteers into two groups. Those in one were put into what the researchers hoped would be a “romantic mindset” by being shown pictures of attractive members of the opposite sex. They were each asked to write a description of a perfect date with one of these people. The unlucky members of the other group were shown pictures of buildings and told to write about the weather.
The participants were then asked two things. The first was to imagine they had $5,000 in the bank. They could spend part or all of it on various luxury items such as a new car, a dinner party at a restaurant or a holiday in Europe. They were also asked what fraction of a hypothetical 60 hours of leisure time during the course of a month they would devote to volunteer work.
The results were just what the researchers hoped for. In the romantically primed group, the men went wild with the Monopoly money. Conversely, the women volunteered their lives away. Those women continued, however, to be skinflints, and the men remained callously indifferent to those less fortunate than themselves. Meanwhile, in the other group there was little inclination either to profligate spending or to good works. Based on this result, it looks as though the sexes do, indeed, have different strategies for showing off. Moreover, they do not waste their resources by behaving like that all the time. Only when it counts sexually are men profligate and women helpful.
That result was confirmed by the second experiment which, instead of looking at the amount of spending and volunteering, looked at how conspicuous it was. After all, there is little point in producing a costly signal if no one sees it.
As predicted, romantically primed men wanted to buy items that they could wear or drive, rather than things to be kept at home. Their motive, therefore, was not mere acquisitiveness. Similarly, romantically primed women volunteered for activities such as working in a shelter for the homeless, rather than spending an afternoon alone picking up rubbish in a park. For both sexes, however, those in an unromantic mood were indifferent to the public visibility of their choices.
Roger Dooley over at Neuromarketing warns us that this proposition fits into the duck and cover set of ideas:
this work is bound to be controversial simply because it implies a selfish biological basis for altruistic behavior. When you suggest that both the male executive who writes a hefty check for cancer research or the Junior League member who spends hundreds of hours on fundraising for a new hospital wing are both being driven by a biological imperative, you are bound to catch some flak.
Earlier this year my curiosity was aroused by another piece of research which suggested that the most socially adept are also likely to be more altruistic. Put these two together and perhaps the places to go looking for donations or support are online dating sites. Just make sure you use a method which allows people to show how generous they are.
One final, final thought – Is anyone cheeky enough to test this hypothesis with an experiment fundraising for the extravagantly bonkers new Creation Museum?