Monkeys in shoes, with money | Day 245

Men can be competitive to the point of ridiculousness. It is not a hard-wired, universal trait, but more to do with the kind of society they are brought up in: if men rule the roost, males are more competitive; if, on the other hand, you have a matriarchal society, the roles can be reversed and women become the ones who take charge.

Of course, there are plenty of Western societies in which men are clearly getting ahead because of their aptitude and willingness to out-compete others. But sometimes this competitiveness can have interesting consequences.

Last year two psychology researchers from the United Kingdom carried out a study of online fundraisers, and the results have just been published in Current Biology. They wanted to test a hypothesis called “competitive helping.” It is based on the idea that one of the reasons why people want to be seen as generous is in order to signal their positive qualities to potential mates It is then predicted that in the presence of an attractive potential partner people might compete to be the most generous.

In order to test this idea in a real life setting, they analysed nearly 2,600 profile pages from the 2014 London Marathon website on which people can post a profile about themselves and stage a fundraising campaign. With pages of this kind, a visitor can usually see not only the photo and some information about the fundraiser, but also a list of previous donations – who donated, and how much.

The researchers noted that this creates a kind of “fundraising tournament” in which donors’ actions are subtly influenced by how much their peers before them have already given. What they wanted to test was whether the attractiveness of the fundraiser would influence the amount donated, and how that would change in a setting where the last visible donation on the page has been substantially larger than previous ones.

What they found isn’t particularly surprising – when men were donating to an attractive female, and the previous contribution on the page was large and by another man, they would try to match or exceed this previous donation. The researchers don’t think this behaviour is conscious, but it’s definitely present.

One shouldn’t hasten to turn this into an evolutionary story, though – because, as I mentioned earlier, male competitiveness is not universal, and so you would have a hard time explaining it was something that we’ve acquired from our ancestors, even though that’s the story the study authors are giving.

But when you know that the picture of a pretty, smiling girl will fetch more money from men than they would have given otherwise, you can’t help but think that perhaps, just maybe… there is some truth to this: “we’re just fucking monkeys in shoes.”

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