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Altruism as a courtship display: Some effects of third-party generosity on audience perceptions


Correspondence should be addressed to Dr Pat Barclay, W302 Seeley G. Mudd Hall, Department of Neurobiology & Behaviour, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 14853, USA (e-mail:


Public generosity may be a means to convincingly advertise one's good character. This hypothesis suggests that altruistic individuals will be desirable as romantic partners. Few studies have tested this prediction, and these showed mixed results. Some studies have found that altruism is not particularly attractive; other studies showed that altruism is attractive by contrasting descriptions of ‘nice guys’ with ‘jerks’. The present study sought to resolve this debate by having participants read a series of experimentally manipulated vignettes of persons with corresponding photographs, such that altruistic vignettes were compared with control descriptions that differed only in the presence or absence of small hints of altruistic tendencies. Altruists were more desirable for long-term relationships than neutral individuals. Women also preferred altruists for single dates whereas men had no such preference. These results are discussed with regard to the idea that people (males in particular) signal their good character via generosity.