The Role Of Evolution In A Helping Hand

It’s something you see every day. Around the holiday season, you’ll certainly see more of it. Why are people nice to each other? Why do we hold the door open for the person behind us when we’re in a rush? Why do we donate money to charity when it takes away money from our pockets? Why do we even say “hello” to a fellow jogger while on the winding path that follows the lake, when we will likely never see them again?

On the surface, there are no functional benefits to being nice. You don’t get rewarded for being courteous to one another. Yes, we might “feel good,” knowing that we’ve done “something right,” but it doesn’t make us rich. It doesn’t give us that promotion at work (well, maybe if you open the door for the boss, you might). It doesn’t upgrade us to first class when we’re jetting across the Pacific. It doesn’t help us live longer. It doesn’t lead to more sex.

Or does it?

Economists have traditionally explained away mankind’s generosity to one another to something they call the “warm glow.” That is, you feel good inside when you help other people, when you donate money, when you give to the food bank.

There are also likely evolutionary forces at work. In my recent research published in Evolution and Human Behavior, I found that being generous can help mankind survive. On the face of it, this seems like poppycock. How does opening the door for someone help us live longer? But think about it. When we are nice to someone, it’s quite likely that someone will be nice to us in return. Maybe not literally, since the person for whom you open the door is likely a stranger, but how can a community or even a country survive if no one in it is nice to each other? If we’re all self-interested, our society, our way of living won’t survive long.

I conducted three experiments and found that altruism is one strategy that humans have developed when they are facing danger and threats. It makes sense. When humans band together, they have a better chance of surviving than a person alone. Being altruistic to others means someone is likely to be nice to you in return, forming a community, and there is “strength in numbers.”

In one study, I asked Australian college students to imagine a situation that would make them want to protect themselves from potential threats and dangers. Compared to students who did not imagine such a situation, the students answered more questionnaires for a student doing research for her honors thesis, voluntarily. In a second study, I found that college students were especially more likely to help someone else when they expected some sort of interaction with the recipient of their charity, suggesting that an expectation that they could all “band together” might explain why they would be nicer to begin with. In a final study, I found that students were only more altruistic when the recipient was a person and not an organization. This makes sense because another person can be nice to you in return, but an organization can not, even if it may be a perfectly charitable and an ethical organization.

My findings are only just a few findings that the survival challenges that our evolutionary ancestors may have faced can explain why human beings are charitable today. Similarly, others have found that men, in particular, are especially more likely to donate money when pretty women are around. This might seem like a very sexist finding, but that’s just the point.

Human beings (both men and women) have an innate motivation to increase their chances of mating by making themselves attractive to the opposite sex. Evolutionarily-speaking, women look for men who are physically-attractive, wealthy, and generous. Unfortunately, going to the gym cannot give men six-pack abs overnight. They might also not be able to increase their wealth to any significant degree overnight — unless they play the slots in Vegas and win big. But women also look for men who are generous, and so men have, over time, learned that donating money to charity — or simply holding the door for someone — is a good way to increase their chances of mating. When attractive women are around, men are especially more generous.

What does this all say about why human beings — both men and women — are charitable? Certainly, there are many reasons. Economists suggest the “warm glow” effect. Or, maybe human beings are simply born to be nice. But recent evidence suggests that evolutionary forces can play a role as well. It makes sense since humans have an innate need to survive and thrive, and so we find all the ways we can to do so.

But, one question still has eluded social scientists—including those who study evolutionary psychology. Economists say humans are friendly because we want to feel good about ourselves. Evolutionary psychologists say humans are generous because we want to live a long and prosperous life. But, then, can people be nice because they simply want to be nice, without any expectation in return? This is a question that only each and every one of us can answer for themselves. Think about it the next time you open the door for a stranger.

These findings are described in the article entitled Self-protection promotes altruism, recently published in the journal Evolution & Human BehaviorThis work was conducted by Eugene Chan from Monash University.

About The Author

Eugene Chan

Eugene Chan is a senior lecturer in the department of marketing at Monash University. His main emphasis is on understanding the antecedents of financial risk-taking. He also conducts research in understanding the psychology of political ideology and how it can be influenced by ephemeral and situational factors.

Speak Your Mind!

READ THIS NEXT

BREAKTHROUGH: First Ever Treatment Discovered For Huntington’s Disease

Huntington’s disease has long been a scourge of the medical community. Huntington’s is a neurodegenerative disease that has no known cure or even treatment. That may change soon, thanks to a new breakthrough that could lead to a drug treatment to prevent the onset of Huntington’s. This is a landmark event in the treatment of […]

Transformation Of CO2 To Multi-Carbon Products Using Electrocatalysis

The atmospheric level of CO2 is rising dramatically more than ever in the Earth’s history, with projections that it could reach nearly 600 ppm by 2100. The excessive anthropogenic (or industrial) emissions of CO2, mostly originating from fossil-based systems, lead to irreversible disruptive impacts on climate and environment, such as global warming, glacial ablation, ocean […]

Melting Glaciers Are Revealing Norway’s Hidden Ancient Bronze Age And Viking Past

The mountains of Norway were once traversed by a variety of hunters and foragers, approximately 6,000 years ago various people traveled through the mountain passes, leaving artifacts of their exploration behind. These artifacts became frozen in glaciers over the years, and now that the glaciers are melting the artifacts left behind over the centuries are […]

Gold And Organic Electrodes In Emerging Portable Electronics

“Portable electronics” indicate a class of tools usually available to most people for different uses, namely credit cards, mobile devices, hand-held LEDs or lasers, mini solar cells, etc. Moreover, new uses are almost ready to burst into the market such as, such as rolled electronic papers, smart windows and walls, luminescent dresses, etc. A real […]

Multi-Objective Optimization Of A Solar Driven Trigeneration System

Solar energy exploitation is one of the most promising ways to face major problems as the growing population, the climate change, the fossil fuel depletion and the high electricity price. The building sector is one of the most attractive areas for utilizing solar energy because of this sector is responsible for about the 35%-40% of […]

Hypotheses About The Timeline Of Impacts On The Lunar Surface

Determining the ages of planetary surfaces and events is no easy task. Surfaces are often layered in deposits from more recent activity. This fact is easily recognized on the Earth but also occurs on other planets, moons, and small bodies. Our own Moon is one such place. While planetary scientists have a solid hypothesis for […]

What Is A Sand Dollar?

The term sand dollar refers to several species of flattened burrowing sea urchins that belong to the order Clypeasteroida. Sand dollars, also sometimes called sea biscuits or sea cookies, are closely related to urchins, sea cucumbers, and starfish. They are found in temperate zones virtually all over the world, beneath the mud and sand in bodies of water. Sand […]