Saturday, November 21, 2009

Time to invest heavily in a little generosity

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 17th November 2009:

THAT'S MEN: If you're trying to impress a mott, dig deep and throw a few bob about. Could be the best investment you ever made, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN 

PEACOCKS' TAILS, giving to charity and mating – they don't seem to have a lot in common, do they? But if that's what you think you'd be wrong and if you're a man you might be missing out on some useful information about snaring a woman's heart.

Giving money to charity is an altruistic act but if you do it publicly, it can serve the same purpose as the peacock's tail which is to attract a nice peahen.

It works like this. Charles Darwin wondered what was the point of peacocks having those beautiful tails. All they did, so far as he could see, was to attract predators and make it harder to run away.

But then he wondered if the purpose of the tail was to attract peahens and if this made up for the disadvantages. If so, then the peacock tail played its role in the perpetuation of the peafowl species.

Since then, people who research this sort of thing have established that peahens actually favour the males with the best tails. Why? The males with the best tails are the healthiest and strongest and more likely to pass on "good" genes.

Darwin also wondered about altruism. Being generous to your children is understandable – each child carries 50 per cent of your genes, so your generosity increases the chances that your genes will be passed on.

If you don't have children, then being generous to blood relatives such as nieces and nephews also makes evolutionary sense because every niece and nephew carries 25 per cent of your genes – be nice to them and they'll pass them on for you.

But why, Darwin wondered, would we be generous and kind and giving of ourselves to people we have nothing to do with and who are unlikely to play any role in passing on our genes? Why, to take a modern example, would we give money to save lives in Africa?

What if altruism for men is as the tail is to the peacock? What if being generous actually attracts women? Suddenly the whole thing makes sense.

And, according to a fascinating article by Wendy Iredale and Mark Van Vugt, from the University of Kent and VU University Amsterdam respectively, in the current issue of The Psychologist , that's exactly what's happening.

We like to show off our generosity. For instance, if a man is walking along the street with a woman when he is approached by a female beggar, he is likely to give her more money than he would if he was alone. Why is that?

The clue might lie in the fact that men in the earliest stages of a relationship with their companion are far more likely to put their hand in their pocket and give something to a beggar than men who are in long-term relationships. If displays of generosity attract females, then such displays are likely to be more ostentatious in the early stages of the relationship when the chase is still on.

And displays of generosity do, indeed, attract females. In one study, men who were described as donating blood regularly and as volunteering to help out in a local hospital were rated attractive by women.

Why would women be impressed by altruistic acts? Researchers suggest that generosity in a man implies that he is a good bet for investing in a relationship and in his offspring and is more likely to stick around to do so instead of going around sowing his seed hither and yonder.

For immediate short-term relationships, women are quite impressed by heroic acts. But for longer term relationships, it's kindness and generosity that floats their boat.

So if, like me, you're not the heroic type, go for kindness and generosity. That phrase, nice guys finish last, just isn't true when it comes to the mating game.

Christmas is coming up. The choirs will be out on the street trying to part you from your money. Forget your inclination to growl Bah! Humbug! and walk past. On the contrary, if you're trying to impress a mott, dig deep and throw them a few bob. Could be the best investment you ever made.

  • Padraig O'Morain is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, That's Men, the best of the That's Men column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas

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