FRIDAY, Feb. 12, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Looking for someone to celebrate next Valentine's Day with? New research suggests you'll gain extra points with prospective mates if you give of yourself to others in activities like volunteering.
When it comes to romance, "being generous can pay off," said study author Pat Barclay, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, who wrote the study while at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
The study found that both men and women were more attracted to an altruistic, giving person when seeking out a long-term relationship.
Barclay, who performed the research at Canada's McMaster University, asked 150 women and 155 men to view photos and profiles of people of the opposite sex. The participants were then asked to rank how attractive the people were and disclose how willing they'd be to have either a short- or long-term relationship with them.
In some cases, Barclay added information to the profiles that suggested a person might be generous and altruistic. A profile might say, for instance, that the person volunteered at a local food bank.
The study findings appear in the February issue of the British Journal of Psychology.
"We found that the addition of generosity to a person's profile will increase their attractiveness for relationships, in particular long-term relationships," Barclay said.
There was a gender divide when it came to more casual affairs, however. "For short-term dates, women were attracted to the generous guys, but men had no preference regarding generosity," Barclay said. "For a one-night stand, men actually preferred neutral, non-generous women over the generous. They had an aversion to generosity."
Why? Barclay speculated that it may have to do with men thinking they couldn't attract a more generous woman or assuming such a woman wouldn't sleep with them.
In general, he said, "generosity can signal something about the person to both males and females. But women have had to worry more about guys doing the mate-them-and-dash kind of routine. They'd be slightly more concerned with character than men."
It's hard to quantify exactly how much of a difference generosity/altruism made in mate selection, Barclay said, although it might bump a person from five points to 5.5 on a 10-point attractiveness scale. "It's not going to turn a five into an eight, but it can certainly make a difference in competition with other people who are about the same level."
Why does all this matter? In the bigger picture, the research could give scientists some insight into evolution of humans. The findings add "to what we know about sexual selection in human behavior: traits that have evolved in one specific sex for the purposes of luring the other. These results suggest that altruism may very well be one of those traits that has been either evolved for, or adapted to, serve the purposes of luring a good mate," said Stan Treger, a psychology graduate student at Illinois State University.
Now to the nitty-gritty: Should you volunteer at the soup kitchen in order to attract a mate? Maybe, but don't flaunt it, Barclay warned.
"If somebody is always saying, 'Look, I'm generous, I'm really generous,'" he said, "people will be a little skeptical about why you're constantly mentioning that."
There's more on altruism at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.