Men, you may have noticed, like to show off.

Often this has unfortunate consequences—fights, traffic accidents, presidential campaigns, that sort of thing. But there's also good evidence that one way in which people advertise their physical, intellectual or material wealth is through being generous and helpful toward one another.

You might call it the potlatch model of cooperation. Its technical name is competitive altruism.

By displaying their altruism, show-offs buy status and reputation that pays off when those around them are choosing mates, allies or leaders. This helps to explain apparently wasteful and risky acts, such as meat-sharing by hunter-gatherers, and file-sharing among college undergraduates.

In a competitive social market, where people have a choice of partners, you can get an arms race where people strive to show that they've got more than other potential mates, allies or leaders. Experiments have found that if you put people in such a situation, where future rewards depend on luring others to your side, they become more generous. (Although people also become more mistrustful of generosity, because they sense that status is being bought rather than help given.)

Past studies have gauged altruism by measuring how much money people give away. But another important facet of human altruism is the willingness to endure danger and hardship on another's behalf—these, after all, are the heroes we celebrate in real life and in fiction.

Heroism is a difficult thing to induce in the lab. But, with the aid of Pitchburst, brought to you by WhirlWhims of Parsipanny, New Jersey, psychologists Frank McAndrew and Carin Perilloux have had a go.

Soaked for science

To quote the title of their paper just published in Evolutionary Psychology, the duo were aiming to see whether self-sacrificial competitive altruism was primarily a male activity.

The important word here is "competitive"—do men become more willing to take on physically onerous tasks to benefit their groups if you make men compete with one another to do so? And do they benefit?

To test this McAndrew and Perilloux divided 78 undergraduates into 13 groups containing two women and one man, and 13 containing two men and one woman. Each group then decided among themselves who would do what job in the following three tasks:

  • First they played NASA's "Lost on the Moon" game. This involves imagining that your spaceship has crashed 200 miles from safety, and you have to rank the 15 items you have salvaged in order of their usefulness. One player, the Astronaut, wrote up the decisions.
  • Next, another player, the Diver, had to immerse his or her arm in a tub of ice for 45 seconds.
  • Finally, the third player, the Pitcher, had to throw balls at the Pitchburst's target (or AccuBurst). If the target was hit, it burst a water balloon (sitting in a Splurshbasket), below which sat the Diver.

In short, the Diver, alone among the three, had to be willing to endure first pain and then a soaking.

After completing all three tasks, the participants reported how much they thought each team member had contributed to the tasks, their status, their leadership, and whether they wanted to work with them again. Finally, they had to decide as individuals how to divide $45 (per group) among themselves.

A fine line

Not surprisingly, Divers were perceived as having made the greatest sacrifice, and to be the most valuable group members. The role was not, however, accorded higher status or leadership qualities, and the results for likeability and desirability as a colleague were mixed.

There was also a financial payoff to being a Diver. They were awarded $17.72 on average, compared to $13.92 for Pitchers and $13.10 for Astronauts. (There were no differences in how men and women shared their cash.)

In those with two women and one men, jobs were spread at random. Men were no more likely to be Divers than women.

But in the groups with two men and one women, none of the women got to be the Diver. And the only such group that appointed a woman to throw the balls contained the pitcher on the college softball team.

Men were more likely to become Divers, in other words, if they were in a group with another man.

McAndrew and Perilloux note that this result is in line with the Challenge Hypothesis, the idea that men's behavior is changed by the threat of competition with another man. This is usually applied to mean that they become more aggressive, but this result suggests that the same goes for cooperation, as long as it's costly and conspicuous enough.

This study has its limitations, as the authors note. The results are in the direction you'd expect if competitive altruism were at work, but not dramatic. This might be because the situation was so artificial—as McAndrew and Perilloux note, no one was in real jeopardy, so perhaps no one was that impressed.

And while heroism is socially celebrated, showing off is not, so perhaps Astronauts and Pitchers looked askance at their Diver colleague as mch as they looked up to him or her.   

Nor, it seems, were women reluctant to sit under the Splurshbucket. The claim here isn't that women are less heroic, rather that the opportunity to compete has a greater effect on men's behavior.

For a full investigation of this, you might want to do more experiments maniplating the level of competition and the level of showing off. You could make some people take their soaking in private, for example, and see if this made them less willing to volunteer, and see if this affected men more than women. It'd also be interesting to try the experiment with all-male groups, to see whether the chance to impress a woman had a greater effect on behavior than the chance to win status among men.  

This study is also an inadvertent reminder that it can be a fine line between heroism and...silliness?...waste? The point of showing off is that it is costly and that it is visible, not necessarily that it does good. One advocate of the idea of competitive altruism, Mark van Vugt, has speculated that it may explain why people keep on giving to charitable causes even when the money is no longer needed.

Blatant benevolence, then, can be a force for good in society. But we can't expect showing off to solve all our problems—especially those that need long-term, unflashy solutions. Still, maybe it would help to install dunk tanks in places where invisible, everyday cooperation are needed—is it beyond our wit to cross a Pitchburst with a voting booth?

Update, 7 February:

In a strikingly similar paper just published in the British Journal of Psychology, the aforementioned Mark van Vugt (who, I see also blogs in these parts) reports that men, but not women, contribute more in the public goods game with an audience of the opposite sex, and that men give more the more attractive they find the woman watching. Also, that a female audience seems to make men compete to outdo one another in their charitableness and generosity.

About the Author

John Whitfield, Ph.D.

John Whitfield, Ph.D., is a London-based science writer with a particular interest in evolution.

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