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‘Competitive Altruism’ – Why attractive women are the most successful fundraisers

By Nadira Faber

Why do humans help others even when it is costly and nothing is to be expected in return? This question has not only developed into a classic in different empirical disciplines, but is also of high interest for fundraisers like charities who would like to know how to increase donations.

A study recently publish in Current Biology gives interesting real-life evidence for why people help that might sound like a paradox at first: ‘competitive altruism’.

The authors looked at 2,561 fundraising webpages from the 2014 London Marathon. First, they had the physical attractiveness of the individual fundraisers (i.e. amateurs running for charity causes) rated by over 1,000 independent judges, based on the photo the runners posted online. Then, they looked at the donations these fundraisers got, using the information publicly visible on their webpages, including the gender of each individual donors and how much they had given.

The authors found that previous donations to the respective fundraiser influenced how much a donor decided to give: a large previous donation (defined as double the mean donation on the webpage and at least £50) increased subsequent donations by £10 on average. More strikingly, there was evidence for what the authors call ‘competitive helping’: when the fundraiser was a woman who had been rated as attractive (in the top 25% of all women rated), male donors gave a lot more in response to a large donation given by another men: on average additional £28. In other words, the increase in donations following a large donation was four times greater in men who responded to a large donation made by another man to an attractive woman. Women, however, did not give more when donating to an attractive male fundraiser following a large donation by another woman.

It is not true – as often assumed – that either men or women are generally more cooperative than the other sex. However, they indeed seem to have different reasons to cooperate and to help. ‘Competitive helping’ could be one of them. The authors of the Current Biology paper argue that the effects they find are caused by a biological mechanism: ‘male donors compete, albeit possibly subconsciously, with other male donors for the attention of attractive females. By contrast, there is no such response among female donors.’

These findings are not only scientifically interesting, but also could help fundraisers to increase donations. The practical implications we can take away from this research are that 1) different approaches can be helpful when addressing male vs. female donors, 2) getting – and displaying – large donations can increase subsequent donations, and 3) an attractive fundraiser can help boosting donations.


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3 Comment on this post

    1. Many thanks for your interest, Justin. Altruism is studied in many different disciplines and there is a huge literature on that. If you are new to the topic, I think the Wikipedia page on altruism is a good start. At least for the psychology section (the only one I can really judge well), it covers a lot of the most important concepts. It also points you to further literaure, depending on what you are most interested in.

  1. This looks like another interesting example of apparent altruism that is genetically selfish.

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