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Study finds altruistic men are more desirable to women than good looks

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Published on 19 January 2016

Handsome men may not hold all the cards
Handsome men may not hold all the cards

Handsome men may not hold all the cards when it comes to attracting women, new research has found.

The new study shows that while women do find good-looking men desirable, if they have to choose, they’re more likely to choose the altruistic guy.

The results provide "further evidence of the importance of altruism in women's mate choice preferences," a research led by the University of Sunderland and University of Worcester discovered.

The research has been published in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology. It confirms that selflessness is "a highly important characteristic trait women look for in long-term partners".

The study featured 202 straight women recruited online, most of whom were in their early 20s. They looked at 12 sets of photographs, each of which showed the faces of two men, one handsome, the other much less so.

The images were accompanied by scenarios, eight of which described situations where altruism, or its absence, played a key role. One typical scenario gave the example of two people walking through a busy town, and noticing a homeless person sitting near a cafe. Person E decides to go into the cafe to buy a sandwich and a cup of tea to give to the homeless person outside. Person F pretends to use his mobile phone and walks straight past the homeless person.

The altruistic behaviour was attributed to the handsome man in some scenarios, and the not-so-handsome man in others. In others, neutral behaviour was attributed to both, allowing researchers to determine the importance of looks when the guys were described in similar terms.

After scanning the photos and reading the scenarios, the women rated (on a one-to-five scale) how attractive they found each man, for both a brief affair or a committed romantic relationship.

"Individuals who displayed high levels of altruism were rated significantly more desirable overall," the researchers write. While the self-absorbed guys were viewed as more attractive candidates for a one-night stand—suggesting a night with a "bad boy" retains its short-term appeal—altruistic guys were rated as "more desirable for long-term relationships".

Explaining the results of the research, Dr Helen Driscoll, senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, said:  “Altruism indicates that a man may be a good partner and father, and because women can have only a limited number of children in their lifetime, their reproductive success benefits from ensuring that the children they do have receive nurturance and resource investment, so they go on to reproduce successfully themselves.

“In the environment humans evolved in, finding a long-term partner who had the ability and willingness to invest in offspring was crucial to this. Therefore, women have evolved preferences for long-term mates who display traits which indicate the ability and willingness to invest in relationships and children.

“Whilst men who are both physically attractive and altruistic are most preferred, the study suggests that altruism is more important than physical attractiveness in a potential long-term partner.”

Dr Driscoll also adds that women do have a strong preference for physical attractiveness because it indicates good genes, which are passed on to offspring. However, due to competition for the best mates, it is not always possible to obtain a partner who is both altruistic and physically attractive.

"If forced to choose between a long-term partner who is a good father and a man with good genes, women usually prefer the former since investment in offspring was so fundamental to the survival and subsequent reproduction of offspring in the ancestral environment,” she said. “However, there is some evidence from other research that women in long-term relationships with partners who invest are often attracted to short-term partners who are physically attractive and therefore have the good genes that their partners may lack."

The research was carried out in conjunction with two undergraduate psychology students at the University of Sunderland.