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You only need to be good if you want to be good

Updated: Aug 8, 2018

Caligula had his way with other men's wives, and killed people for fun

A friend asked me recently, ‘Why are there no good men anymore?’ I think she was talking about men in general rather than me specifically, and I don’t believe she expected a serious answer.

That her gran spoils her with tales from a mythical era, when knights took a break from killing dragons only to deliver flowers to maidens, rescue kittens from trees and serve in the soup kitchen, doesn’t mean it was ever so. Yet if the anecdotal evidence has a kernel of truth, and men are crummier than they used to be, there might be a reason.

Susan Kelly and Robin Dunbar, then based in Liverpool, created short descriptions of eight men. Some of the chaps were brave: they liked rock-climbing and free-fall parachuting. Some of the men were altruistic: they manned the lifeboats voluntarily, or did odd-jobs for elderly neighbours. Some of them sounded deathly dull. Henry worked in a supermarket, played golf and enjoyed surfing the internet.

They asked female volunteers to rate the men. How attractive did they seem for a short affair, or to live and start a family with?

Whether the women were looking for a one-night stand or something more permanent, bravery was enticing. Killing dragons is a plus point on a fellow’s Tinder profile.

Men know this, explicitly or implicitly. If their genes want to pass into the next generation, there’s a trade-off between getting killed in a motorcycle accident and finding someone to be with. It seems the risk is worth taking. Young men drive faster, consume more drugs, take hairier financial decisions and compete in more dangerous sports. Between the ages of fifteen and thirty-nine, men are more than seven times as likely to drown as women. (From there, the ratio drops slowly: in their seventies, men still die in the water at twice the rate of elderly ladies.)

Spending time helping others also increased potential mates’ attractiveness, but only when the women were seeking a life partner. When they were thinking of short-term thrills, altruism lost its allure; being kind and caring did nothing for them.

If you’re a man looking for a long-term relationship, if you want to settle down and produce heirs, then bunging some change in a collection tin might be a decent investment. But if you just want some fun between the sheets, save your money for the hotel bill.

If men’s behaviour has changed over the years, it might be because women’s has too. When our grandmas were dating, women didn’t have great jobs and lost them when they fell pregnant. Short-term flings were dangerous. It’s well known that the contraceptive pill causes breast cancer and mood swings. Another side-effect could be that men really aren’t as good as they used to be.

Chris Paley holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and is the author of Unthink, which has been published in six languages.

Barclay 2010 found women preferred altruistic men for long-term relationships and dates, but couldn’t discern any preference for altruistic men when women were looking for a one-night stand. (For those of you who read the paper, the phrase ‘non-significant preference’ means that we can’t find any preference at all: not that there is evidence for a small preference.)

Howland 1996 on drowning victims


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