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Do Nice Guys Finish Last? It Depends How Nice

New research examines the complicated role of altruism in mate choice.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Source: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Nice guys finish last, or so they say. But is this the case when it comes to dating? Or, is it better to err on the side of nice than aloof, superior, brusque, or any other anti-nice character trait?

New research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences examined this question in the context of heterosexual dating. The researchers found that it pays to be nice, but not too nice. Overly nice individuals were perceived as less desirable by potential suitors.

"Overall, we find strong support that those who behave moderately altruistically are rated as more attractive than those who behave highly altruistically," state the researchers, led by Manpal Singh Bhogal of the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom. "Furthermore, as predicted, this effect was found to be greater in women, reflecting previous research which finds altruism to be more important for female than male mate choice."

In other words, it seems to be more acceptable for women to be nice than men — a finding that may have its roots in gender stereotypes (women are expected to project nurturance while men are expected to project strength).

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers recruited 262 heterosexual adults to participate in a short experiment. In the experiment, people watched a short video in which a person is given $100 and is asked how much of the (free) money he or she would donate. Sometimes, the individual chooses to donate $80. Other times, the person donates $50. And, other times, the person does not donate any money.

Importantly, the researchers varied the gender of the individual in the video: male participants watched a female make a donation decision while female participants watched a male make a donation decision.

Participants then rated the attractiveness of the individual in the video on a scale of 1 (very unattractive) to 5 (very attractive).

Interestingly, the researchers found that participants rated moderately altruistic actors (those donating $50 of the $100 allotment) as most attractive — and this was especially true of females rating males. Non-altruistic actors (those donating $0) were rated as least attractive and highly altruistic actors (those donating $80) were rated as second most attractive.

So, the takeaway may be that it's best to err on the side of niceness, but not to the point that it becomes socially awkward or unexpected.

The researchers then tested whether the effects of altruism on mate choice depended on whether people were looking for a short-term or long-term relationship. Using an experimental design similar to the one described above, the researchers found that moderate altruism was rated as slightly more important in the context of seeking a long-term relationship, with the same gender effects emerging. Furthermore, the researchers reported that women were especially dismissive of highly altruistic males when looking for a short-term relationship.

The researchers contend that the ideal of fairness may be more important than niceness when evaluating potential suitors, especially among women. They write, "Women have been found to value traits such as fairness more in romantic relationships compared to men, and relationships where unfairness is present are more likely to dissolve than those which are fair. This could therefore explain our findings, and further strengthens the need to explore the role of altruistic costs in mate choice, with future research exploring a wide range of costs across marital contexts, such as costs in housework, child-rearing, and relational maintenance."


Bhogal, M. S., Farrelly, D., Galbraith, N., Manktelow, K., & Bradley, H. (2020). The role of altruistic costs in human mate choice. Personality and Individual Differences, 160, 109939.

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