Altruistic Vs Handsome: Which Makes a Man More Attractive?

“Thanks for the gift, JX-7583, but what do you look like under that helmet?” Kristina Alexanderson/Flickr

Women are attracted to men who are altruistic and good looking. But these traits are possessed by few men, and neither can simultaneously top a woman’s list of “must haves”. So, if you had to choose, what would be more important to you?

Would you prefer a partner who is helpful or handsome?

To find out, Daniel Farrelly, a psychologist at the University of Worcester in the UK, tested the preferences of 200+ heterosexual women.

Farrelly showed the women pairs of photographs of men. Each pair consisted of a handsome man and a less-than-attractive man, labelled with a letter. While looking at the pair of men, the women were asked to imagine a scenario in which the two men played a part. For example, in one scenario:

Person S and Person T are both at a picnic beside a river that has a fast current and they see a child being swept down the river, gasping for breath. A woman cries ‘‘Help! Save my child!’’

One man in each pair was described as acting altruistically:

Person T hears the mother’s cries and decides to jump in the raging river to try to save the child.

The other man, not so much:

Person S sees the speed of the current and chooses not to try to help the child.

Here’s another scenario with the two men’s responses:

Two people are walking through a busy town and notice a homeless person sitting near a cafe. Person E decides to go into the cafe to buy a sandwich and a cup of tea to give to the homeless person outside. Person F pretends to use his mobile phone and walks straight past the homeless person.

Other scenarios were neutral, with no opportunity for selfless, altruistic reactions:

Person O and Person P both go out clothes shopping. Person O decides to buy a green jumper and Person P buys a pair of jeans.

Buying a jumper instead of a pair of jeans tells us nothing about which man is more altruistic. This was the control condition.

After reading the scenarios, the women’s task was to rate the attractiveness of each man for both a long-term relationship, such as marriage, and a short-term relationship, like a brief affair or one night stand.


As expected, altruistic men were rated more attractive than non-altruistic men, with average desirability scores ~3 compared to ~2.1. Physically attractive men, with average desirability scores of ~2.8, were more appealing than less handsome men, who scored only ~2.2. Altruism appears to be valued at a premium: non-altruistic men were less attractive than physically unappealing men, and altruistic men were more attractive than handsome men.

In simpler terms, a man’s physical appearance seems to be less important to a woman than his altruism.

Is comparing altruism and good looks like comparing apples and oranges? Is comparing science and fruit like comparing monkeys and gravity? Look, I don’t know. This is just a picture, OK? matthewreid/Flickr

In reality, of course, comparing altruism with physical attractiveness is like comparing apples with oranges. We don’t measure a man’s handsomeness and his generosity on the same scale. Perhaps altruism only appears to be more valuable than good looks because of the types of scenario Farrelly used. The same could be said for the photographs: if the difference in physical attractiveness between the paired men was insufficiently striking, we should not be surprised to find that women place greater weight on altruism when judging men’s desirability.

More interesting were Farrelly’s results when he tested the effect of relationship type on women’s preferences. He found that altruists were rated more attractive for a long-term relationship than a fling, which is not what I would have expected. Jumping into a raging torrent to rescue a drowning child strikes me as generosity bordering on heroism, and I would have thought that risk-taking heroes — fire-fighter-types — are more alluring for one night stands than for marriage.

But what do I know? I am neither a hero nor a woman.

Farrelly also found that selfish, non-altruistic men were more appealing as short-term than long-term partners. Perhaps women see these men as stereotypical bad boys, always out for number one (past research suggests that women prefer ‘cads’ to ‘dads’ when looking for a casual hookup).

Farrelly suggests that “future research needs to examine the effects
found here in men’s ratings of the desirability of altruistic
women as well. This is because there is a lack of such research
in this area, as most studies have concentrated on only women’s

Farrelly, D., Clemson, P., & Guthrie, M. (2016). Are women’s mate preferences for altruism influenced by physical attractiveness? Evolutionary Psychology, 14(1). Read paper

For an audio version of this story, see the 12 January 2015 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.