A team of researchers at the University of Nottingham led by biologist Tim Phillips came to that conclusion in a paper recently published in the British Journal of Psychology. They surveyed two groups of college students and 170 couples (median age 58), asking questions about what specific qualities they looked for in a mate.
In all three studies, women placed significantly greater importance than men on altruistic traits such as “donates blood regularly” or “volunteers to in a local hospital.” (Perhaps an alternative scenario such as “volunteers to participate in wet T-shirt contests” might have skewed the findings in the other direction.)
In the survey of couples, both men and women were asked how altruistic they consider themselves, and how important they consider altruism in a mate. Those who said altruistic behavior was very important in a mate were far more likely to be with someone who reported he or she exhibited such behavior regularly. To Phillips, that correlation suggests altruistic traits may be a favor both men and women take into account in choosing a mate.
Phillips’ larger goal is to discover an evolutionary reason for altruistic behavior, which has always been something of a puzzlement to scientists who think of life in Darwinian terms. If our basic impulse is the struggle to survive — and to pass on our genes to the next generation — why would we risk our lives for someone else?
“For many years the standard explanation for altruistic behavior towards non-relatives has been based on reciprocity and reputation — a version of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,’ Phillips said. “I believe we need to look elsewhere to understand the roots of human altruism.
“The expansion of the human brain would have greatly increased the cost of raising children, so it would have been important for our ancestors to choose mates both willing and able to be good, long-term parents. Displays of altruism could well have provided accurate clues to this, and genes linked to altruism would have been favored as a result.”