Generosity pays off in the long run
WHAT do you look for partner?
Surely that depends on what the partner is for – you’d probably want a business partner to be innovative, a choir buddy to be musical and a romantic partner to be attractive and funny.
But how do such qualities and skills compare with simply being decent, as in fair and generous?
Humans are unusually pro-social – we routinely cooperate with nonrelatives to an extent that far surpasses that of any other living creature.
Nevertheless, there is a significant downside to helping others – the risk of being suckered by a cheating individual, someone who takes the benefits of cooperation without contributing to the pot.
Understanding how humans form mutually productive relationships while, at the same time, avoiding social parasites, is the key to understanding the evolution of extreme sociality in humans.
Reputation – a signal about your previous behaviour that observers can use to infer how you might in a behave in the future – lies at the heart of the issue.
One major reason why individuals care about, and invest in, their reputation is because we evaluate and choose partners for social and romantic interactions on the basis of this information.
From an evolutionary point of view, we should use this clue to pick the best partners for whatever interaction we are doing.
But what does best actually mean?
The best partner could be one who is the most able to give you things, such as a business partner with great wealth, knowledge and contacts.
Or the best person may be someone slightly lower-achieving who is more open to share the qualities they have – in other words, the most generous.
In many cases, ability and willingness to give might be correlated: it is easy to be generous if you have plentiful resources.
But what if they don’t line up so neatly? Do we prefer the ‘highest quality’ partners even if they’re a bit stingy, or do we go for ‘lower quality’ but fairer individuals?
Some evidence from huntergatherer societies has shown that generosity is indeed more important than hunting skills in determining the popularity of hunters within their social networks.
The best hunters may catch more meat, but it is those who share what they catch who are preferred as hunting partners.
Our study supports these findings: the ability to give is valuable, but willingness to give is indispensable.
Could this hold true for romantic relationships?
It’s hard to do the exact same experiment with the most common things we look for in a partner – such as intelligence, humour and good looks – as these tend to be much more stable traits than wealth.
But, in the experiment, the majority of people picked poor-fair partners over rich-stingy even when wealth was unchangeable.
So there may be a similar pattern in dating where generosity or fairness could trump looks or intelligence.
Future work could explore the relative importance of these traits when it comes to dating.
Other qualities, such as wealth or social status, tend to be more changeable over time and, therefore, a better analogy when it comes to dating.
Status may, for example, change during transitions in life – you may have high status in high school, but not in university.
We would certainly predict that people will value fairness more than social status during such transition times, and will value social status more when those successes are stable across time and situations.
So the next time you find yourself in a social situation where you’re keen to make an impression, being fair and generous is a good place to start.
There’s every chance it could pay off. – The Independent