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Do Bad Guys Always Win?

When are good guys more attractive?

Key points

  • Desirability ratings of attractive men increased when they were also described as altruistic.
  • Physically attractive and altruistic men become more desirable than the total value of these two traits independently.
  • Altruism made men who were less attractive more desirable for long-term relationships.
  • Men who were just altruistic were perceived as more desirable than those who were just attractive.

Bad guys are generally seen as the types of men who do what they want. They break the rules and behave with little regard for what anyone else thinks. Furthermore, in popular culture, bad boys are often portrayed as being more desirable to women. However, studies have found that men actually tend to show more concern for others when in the company of potential mates; in other words, they behave more altruistically. Furthermore, women sometimes show a preference for men who behave in this way, possibly because such behaviour indicates that a man will be a good partner or a good parent.

Lenscap on Shutterstock
Source: Lenscap on Shutterstock

Exactly how important a characteristic is male altruism for women when selecting a partner? Is it as important as physical attractiveness, for example? Furthermore, does altruism become more or less important depending on whether it is being considered for a long-term relationship, (a person with whom you would desire to be committed) or a short-term relationship (a person with whom you would desire to have a brief affair)?

A study by British researchers Daniel Farrelly, Paul Clemson, and Melissa Guthrie aimed to examine how women’s desire for men described as altruistic depended on whether they were being considered for a short-term or a long-term relationship. They also assessed the extent to which this desire was influenced by men’s physical attractiveness (Farrelly, Clemson & Guthrie, 2016).

The researchers presented their female participants with pairs of photographs of high and low physically attractive men, along with different scenarios describing situations where the men could behave altruistically or not.

Scenario A — Person S and Person T are both at a picnic beside a river that has a fast current, and they see a child being swept down the river, gasping for breath. A woman cries ‘‘Help! Save my child!’’

Scenario B — Person E and Person F are walking through a busy town and notice a homeless person sitting near a café.

After this, participants read how each of the two men behaved.

High Altruism

Person T hears the mother’s cries and decides to jump in the raging river to try to save the child.

Person E decides to go into the cafe to buy a sandwich and a cup of tea to give to the homeless person outside.

Low Altruism

Person S sees the speed of the current and chooses not to try to help the child.

Person F pretends to use his mobile phone and walks straight past the homeless person.

In summary, participants were presented with high physically attractive men and low physically attractive men acting altruistically or non-altruistically. They were also presented with photographs of high and low attractive men accompanied with neutral scenarios, where each man was described as behaving neither altruistically nor non-altruistically (e.g. both men go on a shopping trip).

All their female participants were asked to rate how desirable (undesirable to very desirable), each of the men in the scenarios would be for either a long-term relationship or a short-term relationship.


Overall, women found altruistic men to be more desirable than less altruistic men, thus illustrating the importance of altruism in partner choice. However, when they compared preference based on type of relationships required, women found altruistic men to be desirable for long-term relationships, whereas non-altruistic men were rated as more desirable for short-term relationships. It seems that rather than being unimportant in short-term relationships, altruism is actually undesirable. So, what does not being altruistic mean for short-term female mate choice? Could it even be that female choice in short-term relationships is related more to a preference for undesirable traits such as psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism?

Physical attractiveness

In terms of physical attractiveness, women’s preferences for men who were described as altruistic were influenced by how physically attractive they were. The desirability ratings of attractive men increased when they were also described as altruistic, suggesting that altruism adds to the effect of their other qualities. Furthermore, possessing both altruism and physical attractiveness had a larger effect on the desirability ratings of men than simply the sum of each factor separately.

Altruism or physical attractiveness?

For long-term relationships, women preferred low attractiveness men if they were described as altruistic as opposed to non-altruistic. Furthermore, for long-term relationships, men high in altruism, yet low in physical attractiveness were judged to be more desirable than men who were low in altruism, but high in physical attractiveness. Therefore, altruism is seen as more desirable than physical attractiveness for long-term relationships. The importance of altruism in female partner choice, even when compared to physical attractiveness, illustrates that altruism is a highly important characteristic and one which women are attracted to in long-term partners. The take-home message is that behaving altruistically may be a good strategy for men looking to attract a long-term partner. However, further research may be needed to look at how men of different levels of attractiveness employ altruistic behaviour when attempting to attract long-term partners.

One of the limitations of this study is that it employed only two scenarios, yet quite different ones, which also may have signaled characteristics other than altruism. For example, rescuing a child may also have indicated a degree of physical prowess, which would certainly be perceived as different from feeding a homeless person. However, the findings do illustrate the importance of altruism in partner choice, especially for long-term relationships.


Farrelly D. Clemson, P. & Guthrie M. (2016). ‘Are Women’s Mate Preferences for Altruism Also Influenced by Physical Attractiveness?’, Evolutionary Psychology January-March 1–6.