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It's Starting To Look Like There's A Lot Of "I" In Giving
I've long thought that there's a lot of self-interest in what we see as altruism, although I saw it as something giving a leg up to self-concept (and in turn, confidence) as well as being a social, uh, lubricant. Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind, a pretty fascinating book, has coauthored a study on altruism (with ASU's Vladas Griskevicius, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology). Although they are using on-paper hypotheticals (pictures of buildings and hotties) to spark test subjects' imaginations, their study suggests support for the notion that, as the Economist puts it, "Charity is just as 'selfish' as self-indulgence":

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.

These two studies support the idea, familiar from everyday life, that what women want in a partner is material support while men require self-sacrifice. Conspicuous consumption allows men to demonstrate the former. Blatant benevolence allows women to demonstrate the latter. There is, however, a confounding observation. The most blatant benevolence of all, that of billionaires giving away their fortunes and heroes giving away (or at least risking) their lives, is almost entirely a male phenomenon.

To examine this, the team did another experiment. They found that when requests for benevolence were financial, rather than time-consuming, romantically primed men were happy to chip in extravagantly. Giving money to charity is thus more akin to conspicuous consumption than it is to blatant benevolence. The primed men were also willing (or at least said they were willing) to act heroically as well as spend—but only if the action suggested was life-threatening. Women, romantically primed or not, weren't.

The "costly signaling" mentioned in the Economist piece is detailed in Zahavi and Zahavi's The Handicap Principle, another very interesting ev psych book I have. Here's more on The Handicap Principle from Wikipedia (sorry, it's late, and I'm on deadline again), which gives examples like the boy peacock's tail (the bigger it is, the more attractive it is to girl peahens, yet the more it adds to the likelihood that the peacock will be eaten by predators):

The central idea is that sexually selected traits function like conspicuous consumption signalling the ability to afford to squander a resource simply by squandering. Receivers know that the signal indicates quality because inferior quality signallers cannot afford to produce such wastefully extravagant signals.

My favorite example from the book is the gazelle stotting, which is also mentioned in the Wikipedia piece. It goes like this: Hyenas eat gazelles. When gazelles see hyenas arrive on the plain, the scrawny gazelles book. The biggest, strongest, fittest gazelles stay where they are and bounce up and down -- a behavior called "stotting" -- as if to say, "Yo, dawg...you are so not going to catch me that I'm going to hang around, have a cigarette and an espresso, and then maybe consider booking. And, according to research, just as signaling theory predicts, the hyenas chase the gazelles that do not stott.

Posted by aalkon at August 6, 2007 1:13 PM

Comments

"Receivers know that the signal indicates quality because inferior quality signallers cannot afford to produce such wastefully extravagant signals."

That explains the strategy behind bling rims.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher at August 6, 2007 9:04 AM

It does, actually.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 6, 2007 9:11 AM

Yeah, but often rims & car stuff do more to impress other guys that they do to impress girls (especially smart ones).

Posted by: justin case at August 6, 2007 9:39 AM

Are there any guys out there trying to impress smart girls?

Posted by: That Julia at August 6, 2007 9:54 AM

Are there any guys out there trying to impress smart girls?

Duh.

It's just what works on them that's different (be funny, be smart, be accomplished).

(Straight) Guys are always trying to impress girls.

Posted by: justin case at August 6, 2007 10:10 AM

" which gives examples like the boy peacock's tail (the bigger it is, the more attractive it is to girl peahens, yet the more it adds to the likelihood that the peacock will be eaten by predators)"

If the beautiful plumage of the boy peacocks makes them simultaneously such an attractive dish for predators, how come they've survived?

(Or are they just incredibly easy to breed?)

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 6, 2007 10:35 AM

If the beautiful plumage of the boy peacocks makes them simultaneously such an attractive dish for predators, how come they've survived?

That's the point - if they can survive with this plumage, they must be exceptionally fit, and thus have better genes to pass along.

Posted by: justin case at August 6, 2007 10:39 AM

Thanks, justin.

Can I ask a further question, then? Does anyone have a clue how the male peacock compensates, then, for his gorgeous but predator-inviting plumage?

I understand he (literally) gets the birds. But what are his other fitness factors?

(I'm thinking along the lines of spectacularly showy or gaudy bugs which frequently taste vile).

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 6, 2007 11:02 AM

Are there any guys out there trying to impress smart girls?

Ok, I will admit that I'm not really out to impress any girls anymore, as I am quite happy with the one in my life now. But when I was, quite honestly, yes. Handy really, as all I had going for me in those days, was my band, talking about what I was reading at any given time and my writing.

I have always found vapid, shallow women, incredibly boring, likewise, they probably would find me rather dull. My favorite pastime after sex, is to curl up in bed with a good book and sharing the more amusing/interesting passages we are reading with each other. This is not nearly as exciting if the person you're curled up with, is either not reading or reading Cosmo.

Posted by: DuWayne at August 6, 2007 11:08 AM

The Etcoff book said that the species most notable for plumage and display are those most prone to have parasites. The peacock spends his extra health on grooming that thing.

After reading this passage I thought of how Arsenio Hall, on his downmarket talk show, used to wear purple suits and green ties without shame or irony. There's a reason that rich old money is known for colorless fabric and conservative tailoring.

I (sort of ashamedly) discussed this with a friend, and he brought up the more sociable interpretation of parasites as hangers-on.... Bum friends and ne'er-do-well cousins.

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 11:30 AM

> But what are his other
> fitness factors?

Christ, Tressider, you are such a girl. But is he a good provider? Is he handy around the house? Does he come from money?

People, he's a peacock!

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 12:18 PM

"People, he's a peacock!"

I know he's a friggin' peacock, Crid.

My point is that while everyone knows the friggin' peacock has a gorgeous plumage - which is, presumably, quite a bore to grow & show & not frightfully handy when it comes to dashing around the forest escaping predators etc, I've never seen an explanation for how come this gorgeous plumage isn't a total liability.

As Justin wrote:

"That's the point - if they can survive with this plumage, they must be exceptionally fit, and thus have better genes to pass along."

So my question is simply: what, then, is the nature of this "exceptional" fitness?

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 6, 2007 12:42 PM

Chicks dig it.

No, literally. Chicks.

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 12:46 PM

I understand the chicks dig it/the peacock gets the birds etc, Crid.

I was just trying to figure out how a feature that is such an unusually splendid courtship advantage didn't become a disadvantage to survival - since it also, apparently, makes the peacock so attractive to predators.

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 6, 2007 1:03 PM

A tail is sometimes worth a risk. Ask Clinton.

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 1:06 PM

"A tail is sometimes worth a risk. Ask Clinton."

Fair enough, Crid.

But it's gotta be more than "sometimes" to confer evolutionary survival advantage, she said doggedly.

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 6, 2007 1:20 PM

Are there any guys out there trying to impress smart girls?


Duh.



Sorry, I didn't mean to set off your sarcasm circuits, Justin. It just looked to me like men go for the girls who are easier to impress. If they think smart girls require too much work, that's their right.

Posted by: That Julia at August 6, 2007 1:20 PM

> more than "sometimes" to
> confer evolutionary survival
> advantage

If that's how girly peacocks are judging you, then that's how the work is done... You stick up a tail feather and start collecting phone numbers.

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 1:33 PM

It just looked to me like men go for the girls who are easier to impress. If they think smart girls require too much work, that's their right.

Sure. Their loss, too. Dumb ones get boring really quick. But here's the real key, succinctly expressed by a friend of mine (we were discussing our good fortunes with our relationships):

"Once you go sane, you never go back"

A smart woman who makes sense. Now that's a catch!

Posted by: justin case at August 6, 2007 1:35 PM

"If that's how girly peacocks are judging you, then that's how the work is done... You stick up a tail feather and start collecting phone numbers."

Then I'd suggest the real story is what speedy little sluts the girly pea birds are (to get the gorgeous plumage guy in the bag, sexually, before the predator makes him the plat du jour on account of his showy display.)

Actually, come to think of it -there's something very fishy about the whole peacock thing, if you ask me.

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 6, 2007 1:42 PM

We do this crazy shit for women... And it's never enough....

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 2:14 PM

Oh please. You do it for yourself.

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 6, 2007 2:22 PM

Jody,

It has to do with selection and the passage of genes. Yes, the more beautiful plumage is a greater risk for the males by predators, but he also attracts more potential mates and the passage of his genes. Hence, the more specialized offspring and healthy future generations.

Evolutionary biologists call it the "Special Event' during our brain development. Our genes played the most important role in 'fast' development of our brains compared to other primates and it was driven through a strong drive for selection. With our ancestors, having bigger and more complex brains appears to have carried a particularly large advantage, much more so than for other mammals. (ie the ability to manipulate and control our environment) These traits allowed individuals with "better brains" to leave behind more descendants. As a result, genetic mutations that produced bigger and more complex brains spread in the population very quickly.

Healthy numbers will outweigh the risks in the game of life. But there are some huge drastic changes that will become byproducts of our enlarged brains and cognitive abilities unlike other species on the planet.

Posted by: Joe at August 6, 2007 2:49 PM

There was a time when noble feminism was built around more than petulant suspicion...

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 2:53 PM

"There was a time when noble feminism was built around more than petulant suspicion..."

Yeah, that's exactly what the Dodos used to say...

Joe,
Thanks for that.

I'm not sure I even vaguely grasp the whys of the "Special Event" yet(as it distinguishes us from, as you say, other primates). I'll keep reading.

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 6, 2007 3:43 PM

Jody,

It was the limitations of my rushed post. I hope this will further help your understanding:

The ‘Special Event’ study was based on 214 brain-related genes, that is, genes involved in controlling brain development and function. It examined how the DNA sequences of these genes changed over evolutionary time in four species: humans, macaque monkeys, rats, and mice. Humans and macaques shared a common ancestor 20-25 million years ago, whereas rats and mice are separated by 16-23 million years of evolution. All four species shared a common ancestor about 80 million years ago.

We have extraordinarily large and complex brains, even when compared with macaques and other non-human primates. The human brain is several times larger than that of the macaqu. Even after correcting for body size and it is far more complicated in terms of structure.

For each gene, the number of changes in the DNA sequence that altered the protein produced by the particular gene. Next was obtained the rate of evolution for that gene by scaling the number of DNA changes to the amount of evolutionary time taken to make those changes.

By this standard, brain related genes evolved much faster in humans and macaques than in mice and rats. In addition, the rate of evolution has been far greater in the lineage leading to humans than in the lineage leading to macaques. This accelerated rate of evolution is consistent with the presence of selective forces in the human lineage that strongly favored larger and more complex brains.

For more details, I suggest looking into the research of Dr. Bruce Lahn of the University of Chicago. I just do not want to get stuck in the specific details of the study and bore everyone else reading the various posts.

Posted by: Joe at August 6, 2007 4:26 PM

> what the Dodos used
> to say...

Exactly, Jody! Learn from the dodo's mistakes! Don't let that happen to you!

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 7:06 PM

Not so fast birdbrain!

Before you, Crid, can draw meaningful analogies between evolved-for-sex bird behavior and that of your own species and trousered gender, you have to remember: "...there are some huge drastic changes that will become byproducts of our enlarged brains and cognitive abilities unlike other species on the planet"...to quote Joe.

Hey, I'm just ruffling your feathers.

I have a "thing" about the Ev. Psych crowd overstating connections, sometimes.

And I have a lot more reading to do!

(Thank you, Joe.)

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at August 6, 2007 7:24 PM

I'm ok with peacocks! I think they're cute!

But they're noisy as hell... A friend used to live near several pens full of them, and the racket was insane.

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 7:58 PM

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