Are Men Heeding the Call of the Wild with Peacocking?

Are Men Heeding the Call of the Wild with Peacocking?

09 Sep 2013

As a new study suggests men are far more likely to behave selflessly when there are women around to watch, we examine the phenomenon experts have dubbed peacocking...

We’ve all fallen a little for a good-deed doing man. Go on, when was the last time it happened to you? Last week, when that bloke made your heart melt helping the older lady with too many shopping bags at the mall? Yesterday, when that dapper looking gentleman stepped in and collapsed a mum’s Bugaboo in the car park when she had her hands full of baby? Or how about at lunch, when that handsome new hire from accounts handed over five dirhams to someone struggling for change at the front of the queue?

Feel free to insert your own example, it makes very little difference. For, if the experts are to be believed, you’ve had the wool pulled over your eyes. That oh-so-generous knight in shining armour? He’s nothing more than a peacock my friend.

Yep, that’s right. His behaviour is simply the human equivalent of the world’s showiest bird shaking its tail. Without a colourful fan of feathers to attract attention, the male of our species has to resort to showing off in other ways in order to attract a mate. And selflessness be damned – if experts in Europe are to be believed that’s exactly what he’s trying to do.

Peacocking is a term that’s been hanging around the fringes of psychological research there for a while with regards to the behaviour of the opposite sex. Online encyclopedia site About describes the term as “using a man’s clothing and adapting his behaviour in an over the top and flashy manner, for the purpose of attracting women”, while a BBC study applied the phrase to, deep breath, men’s prowess on the dance floor.
In that instance, Nick Neave, an evolutionary psychologist at Northumbria University, revealed women subconsciously judge how fit a man is by the fluidity of his dancing and warned that, while cultural opinion on what consitutes good moves varies, uncoordinated men of any nationality should improve their core body rhythm. Consider yourselves told gentlemen.

Now, a new study conducted by experts at the UK’s Sheffield Hallam and Oxford Universities and the VU University in Amsterdam, published in the British Psychological Society’s British Journal of Psychology, has moved the use of the word peacocking on a step. It comes after in depth research revealed men are on their best behaviour while there are women around. Reverse the roles however, and women’s behaviour remains unaltered. Go figure.

In this latest study, experts gave 65 men and 65 women a small sum of money and asked them to either invest it in a group account, where the money would be doubled and split equally among six random participants with no gain for the investor, or keep the cash in a private account. Their decision making process was watched by a man, a woman or nobody.

Almost across the board, men donated more cash when watched by a female, while women’s behaviour remained the same throughout the experiment regardless of who was watching them.

If that weren’t damning enough for the boys, the study also found that the amount of money they were willing to give away skyrocketed according to the attractiveness of their audience. Further examination revealed men were similarly inspired to commit more frequent acts of generosity or selflessness in front of beautiful women, particularly when pitched side by side in competition with other men. Oh boys...

Researcher Dr Wendy Iredale concluded, “The research shows that good deeds among men increase when presented with an opportunity to mate. Theoretically, this suggests that a good deed is the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail.”

This is not, she suggests, altogether silly either. Instead, researchers believe their findings could prove particularly useful to charities in current financially straightened times, with Dr Iredale adding that “Practically, this research shows how societies can encourage selfless acts.”

She has a point and, if we’re honest, it’s the boys who come out of this aspect of the study looking that little bit better. The results suggest that for women, charity begins at home. They may assist their friends, family and neighbours, but they’re less likely to be swayed by external forces, meaning that, sadly, they’re less likely to give generously.

Men on the other hand, are ideal candidates for those charity telethons and donation tin rattling good cause collectors, being far more likely to get their giving on when told it’s an impressive or attractive thing to do.
It makes sense really – if this weren’t the case, those annoying people who sell flowers in restaurants abroad wouldn’t do such a roaring trade among couples, particularly pairings where the idea of buying flowers is usually hovering somewhere around the bottom of his to-do list beside remembering to empty the bins without being asked.

So the big question is, why are we women so unmoved by the watchful eyes of others when it comes to being charitable? After all, if we’re honest, we’re the first to bow to peer pressure in many other aspects of life (I’ve an unworn tube top in my wardrobe that is testament to that) and we’re certainly no strangers to competition with our fellow females. Maybe, instead of swooning over that superhero in the supermarket helping reach things on the high shelf, it’s time for us all to give a little. After all, who knows. That man standing beside the charity collector could be single... 

Clare Smart is a counsellor at Dubai’s LifeWorks facility. She says while the results of the study are far from unexpected, women shouldn’t think they’re above a bit of peacocking themselves...
“Honestly, I’m not surprised by the findings that males are more likely to do ‘good deeds’ if they are seen to be doing so by an attractive female. There is no true altruistic action and, as human beings, impressing the opposite sex is one of our most obvious motivations.

In fact, I’m not entirely convinced that women wouldn’t also react in the same way in slightly different circumstances. I would expect that had the study focussed on, for example, single women without children, they may have been more likely to behave in a way designed to impress the males in the hope of attracting a mate.
Either way, this study confirms that, rather than selflessness, our motivations for good deeds likely include reward or recognition, whether in the form of financial gain or positive reinforcement from peers or people we consider to be in a position of authority. Other driving forces could include the positive emotional feeling we get when we do something good for others, or the idea of karma. But it’s unlikely we’re ever behaving entirely altruistically, no matter what we might believe!

What is interesting here is that the study highlighted the differences between the behaviours of men and women. Both might well be trying to attract a mate but, in this instance, it seems the men were particularly trying to demonstrate generosity and wealth, characteristics that demonstrate their ability to support and provide for a family. And I do think that’s something that males may be particularly motivated to do, not only when watched by women but also if observed by other males - a sort of ‘competitive peacocking’.

In nature terms, peacocking is a mating behaviour. And simply put, this behaviour continues because it is effective.  Putting your good side, your most positive attributes, on display to attract a suitable partner can be observed in all kinds of behaviours. From what we wear to how we smell, what we say to how we move, attracting a life partner can be a major motivator in so many different aspects of life.

That said, there are differences between men and women. In biological terms, there is an innate drive to meet a mate and, in this frame, it’s largely the males of the species that, like the peacock, are more colourful in order to do the attracting. However, whilst this is seen in nature, there are  many other factors that come into play with human interaction. In modern relationships there is much more equality between the sexes and we routinely see both sexes doing the ‘attracting’.

What this study does make clear though is that we still see those who are generous and charitable as suitable mates – and all romance aside, those findings could have clear benefits for society. As the report’s authors say, charities should take note, for it seems positive attention really could be used to encourage charitable behaviour. Market it in a way that shows the possible rewards, and play on the motivations of people to encourage them to donate, and those donations might well increase...”