A University College London study has found that being generous is actually more attractive to a potential partner than being economically well off.
It’s true that we admire willingness to help, over the ability to help, through being very wealthy.
Unlike money, it seems, people believe that a sense of fairness, as a personality trait, is a better choice to go for. This sounds like a far stable option.
The findings apply to men and women choosing partners but also friends and colleagues in social situations.
They come from an experiment involving 800 people who played an online game with a partner. Wealth was created by giving someone $2.50 or 50 cents, and allowing them to share half or 20 per cent of it.
Their partners, who saw what they had chosen in previous games, chose the ‘fair’ people over the ‘stingy’ ones, even when they had more money to share
Lead author Nichola Raihani said: ‘From an evolutionary point of view, this is the sensible thing to do. You don’t want to partner up with someone who is always giving you the short end of the stick, you want someone willing to go 50/50 as a longer-term strategy.’
Her paper states, by way of explanation: ‘In hunter–gatherer societies, for example, those who hunt successfully and are also willing to share the spoils with others form more profitable relationships than those who are successful but do not share.’
The US survey found that people typically prioritise willingness to help in a partner or friend when wealth is unstable. This was proven in the game by telling the ‘choosers’ their rich partners may become poor, or vice versa, but could also apply to a recession in real life.
Interestingly, people still chose a fair partner more often, even though the experiment was designed to give them bigger pay-offs from a ‘rich’ partner, whether they were stingy or generous.
However the study of US participants was based on ‘rich’ people given $2.50 and ‘poor’ people given 50 cents, which may affect the results. More research is needed to see if people would care so little about money when someone had more of it.
Perhaps disappointingly for less well-off suitors, those given the choice of a generous poor person and a generous rich person in the test also tended to pick the one with more money.
But the paper concludes: ‘In this study, the fact that choosers preferred poor-fair partners over rich-stingy ones (particularly when wealth was unstable) indicates that they believed that fairness was a relatively stable trait.’