Monday, May 7, 2012

Is self-sacrificial competitive altruism primarily a male activity?

Ah, evolutionary psychology, a field that bears little in common with either of the individual words by which it is named. Yet, sometimes these folks raise interesting questions and do curious research. In this case they wanted to see if male college students would compete to be more "sacrificially altruistic" than female college students.

Positing this as a possible evolutionary trait, however, is kind of strange - young men are raised to do silly things in front of females (the two males were in a group with one female, likewise, the two females were in a group with a male). The two females were probably more than willing to let the lone male in their groups be the altruist.

Anyway, it's a curious little study that really demonstrates nothing other than that college-aged males are not averse to cold or water if it might impress a female.

Is self-sacrificial competitive altruism primarily a male activity?

Evolutionary Psychology 10(1): 50-65
Francis T. McAndrew, Department of Psychology, Knox College,
Carin Perilloux, Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin


This study explored the basis of self-sacrificial prosocial behavior in small groups. Seventy-eight undergraduates (39M, 39F) filled out a thirty-item personality scale and then participated in a “group problem-solving study” in which the monetary success of a three-person group depended upon one of its members volunteering to endure pain (a cold stressor test) and inconvenience (being soaked in a dunk tank). There were 13 groups consisting of two females and one male, and 13 groups consisting of two males and one female. Across groups, the behavior of the altruist was judged to be more costly, challenging, and important and he/she was liked better, rewarded with more money, and preferred as a future experimental partner. Groups containing two males showed more evidence of competition to become altruists than groups containing two females, and personality traits were more effective predictors of altruistic behavior in males than in females. We conclude that competition between males and “showing off” are key factors in triggering self-sacrificial altruistic behavior.

Full article

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Here are the two explanatory models proposed to explain the behavior they are looking at in this study - from the introduction.
According to reciprocal altruism (Trivers, 1971), individuals who sacrifice for the benefit of unrelated others are gambling that they will reap the benefits of returned favors, assuming that the beneficiaries of their sacrifice are not cheaters. Similarly, Costly Signaling Theory (CST) (Bliege Bird and Smith, 2005; Boone, 1998; Grafen, 1990; McAndrew, 2002; Roberts, 1998; Zahavi, 1977) suggests that conspicuous self-sacrificial altruism may be a way for individuals to advertise desirable personal qualities that increase the likelihood that they will be chosen as a mate or an ally and be positioned for access to future resources, possibly even from individuals who were not direct beneficiaries of the altruist’s original actions (Nowak and Sigmund, 2005). Laboratory experiments (e.g., Bereczkei, et. al., 2010; Hardy and Van Vugt, 2006; McAndrew, 2009a; Sylwester and Roberts, 2010; Willer, 2009) demonstrate that people who display concern for the group by engaging in costly altruistic activities do in fact achieve elevated social status, respect, and recognition as a result of their public generosity and cooperativeness.

Both reciprocal altruism and costly signaling imply that conspicuous self-sacrificial prosocial behavior can be a form of “competitive altruism” (Boone, 1998) through which individuals compete with each other to be seen as highly desirable sexual partners or as exchange partners who will be held in esteem by others and be well-positioned in terms of their status within the group. The available data are consistent with this way of thinking, as previous research utilizing experimental games demonstrates that financial generosity is most likely to take place when it is public and easily observable by others (Bereczkei, Birkas and Kerekes, 2010; Haley and Fessler, 2005; Van Vugt and Hardy, 2010).

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